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Advanced Time-Lapse with Final Cut Pro X

The new Final Cut Pro X is certainly a different beast to the previous version. The handling of large files has been overhauled, and you can now take advantage of that to add a creative touch to your time-lapse projects. Here, we'll see how easy it can be to add some subtle movement to your finished piece, giving the look of a motion-controlled rig without actually moving your camera.

We'll stick largely to a familiar workflow here, using common tools you should be familiar with: Final Cut Pro X and QuickTime Player 7 Pro. (Owners of previous versions of FCP will have a QuickTime Pro license already, but if you don't, there are other ways to convert a sequence of images into a large ProRes movie, including using Apple's Motion 5.)

Step 1 - Creating a Time-Lapse QuickTime Movie

In QuickTime Player 7, Choose File > Open Image Sequence, then locate your first still image. 

Open an image in QuickTime Pro

Choose a frame rate when prompted. I'll be working in the PAL frame rate of 25 fps, but if you're in an NTSC territory, you might prefer to use 24 or 30fps.

Choose a frame rate

After a few moments, you should see a very large movie. It won't play back well as it's just referencing the original still images. Still, it's a good idea to save this movie now. We won't use it for playback, but saving now will help you to re-export more efficiently.

Choose File > Save.

At the bottom of the dialog, choose 'Save as a reference movie', then add 'REF' to the file name and save the file next to your still images. This movie will be fragile — if you move or delete the original images, it will become worthless. Still, it's not large and can save you some trouble later.

Step 2 - Exporting a ProRes QuickTime Movie

Now, we'll export a QuickTime movie that will be easier to edit. The exporting is the biggest change to the traditional process. Where you might once have simply cropped the movie now to a 1920 x 1080 frame, we'll export a larger movie in the original aspect ratio, keeping the original 3:2 DSLR image intact. (If you've used a point-and-shoot camera that produces 4:3 images, you can still follow along.)

Still in QuickTime, choose File > Export and from the Export drop-down menu at the bottom, choose ‘Movie to QuickTime Movie’. Now click on ‘Options’ and choose ‘Settings’ in the resulting dialog.

Video compression settings dialog

Choose ProRes 422 from the “Compression Type” drop-down menu, then press OK. Next click on ‘Size’.

Export size settings

Choose the custom dimension then, if you can, set a size that's half of your stills' resolution.

For my Canon EOS 550D, that means 2592x1728. Camera resolutions vary widely, but for best results, you should keep the same aspect ratio as your stills, and set the width to be greater than 2000 pixels. 

Press OK, then OK again, then add "PR" (for ProRes) to the file name and press the Save button.

Now you've exported your movie into an editable format.

Step 3 - Importing your movie into Final Cut Pro X

Launch Final Cut Pro X. Choose File > Import > Files… and locate your "PR" file. Choose the Event you'd like to store the movie in and press OK. Final Cut Pro X isn't fussy with ProRes sources, so you shouldn't have too much trouble with playback.

Create a new Project, choosing Custom for Video Properties, and create a 1920 x 1080 progressive sequence with the frame rate you chose before, using ProRes 422 as the codec.

In the new project choose the frame rate you chose previously

Select your clip in the Event Library, then press E to Append the clip to your timeline.

Step 4 - Cropping and Repositioning

Click on the clip in the timeline to select it. In the Viewer, press the Crop button to the lower left.

Transform, Crop & Distort buttons (lower left corner of Viewer window)

Now, you have a choice of three types of cropping: Trim, Crop, and Ken Burns. Trim isn't appropriate here, and you could use Crop if you only want to reframe without animating. However, Ken Burns allows you to introduce a simple pan, tilt or dolly move. Choose ‘Ken Burns’.

Move the green Start frame indicator to the top of the source frame, just inside the frame. Move its corners to fit the left and right edges of the frame. Move the red End frame indicator to the bottom of the source frame.

Ken Burns parameters in Final Cut Pro X

Press the Preview button (far right of the “Ken Burns” button).

This “tilt” movement is easy, quick to render, and produces a great result. As your source is larger than HD, you have more flexibility when it comes to transformations.

More dramatic moves are possible, but for better quality — and if you shot your stills at full resolution — you might want to export your original source file at 4K (4096 pixels across) or simply at the original size. (To do this, just open the "REF" movie we saved earlier, re-export, and re-import to FCP X.)

Working with very large files will be slower, but the same process applies. You should be able to zoom up to 200% — or pan a much smaller box across the frame — with no quality loss.

Step 5 - Transforming

While the Ken Burns effect lets you easily move a small amount from side to side, you can also use the transform controls to zoom, reframe and/or rotate. If the camera was slightly tilted when you created the time-lapse, you should fix it. In my movie, the camber of the freeway has meant that the horizon is tilted slightly. I needed to rotate the movie and zoom in slightly to compensate.

Press the Transform button, just to the left of the Crop button below and to the left of the viewer.

You’ll need to see a little more of the canvas to be able to rotate accurately. Zoom out by pressing Command - - (minus).

Transforming the clip

Drag up and down on the handle just to the right of the centre point to rotate the movie. Also drag further to the right for finer control. That’s fixed the rotation. Now, scale the image up to fill the frame.

Drag a corner handle away from the centre to make the frame bigger.

Note: The transform handles correspond to the original aspect ratio rather than the cropped aspect ratio, so the corner handles will actually be positioned inside the image.

When finished, press the Done button, and Shift-Z to return to “fit to window” mode.

There’s plenty more you can do with effects and with music, but the steps here will get you started creating time-lapse movies in Final Cut Pro X. Best of luck, and feel free to post your work in the comments below.

Sunshine Driving Timelapse from Iain Anderson on Vimeo.

Iain Anderson

Iain Anderson | Articles by this author

Iain Anderson is an editor, animator, designer, developer and Apple Certified Trainer based in Brisbane, Australia. He has taught privately and in tertiary institutions, and has freelanced for Microsoft and the Queensland Government. Comfortable with anything from Quartz Composer to Second Life and Final Cut Pro to Adobe Creative Suite, he has laid out books, booklets, brochures and business cards; retouched magazine covers and product packaging, shot and edited short films and animated for HD broadcast TV, film festivals and for the web.


Jan 22, 2012

Super tutorial. It was concise but covered all the necessary details for a nubie to follow, thanks!
Apr 28, 2012
Hi Iain, is there a reason to export at specifically half resolution rather than full or any other res?
Apr 28, 2012
ah, never mind! I should've kept reading further...
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