Forest Year

Hopefully you’ve gotten here after already watching the short time-lapse film a Forest Year.  If not, click on the time-lapse page above and watch it before reading an account of how it was made.

For about 2 years in 2006-2008, I lived just outside Bloomington, Indiana, at the edge of one of the more wooded regions in the midwest.  I chose this location because at the time I was creating several nature documentaries on the natural history of Indiana for PBS.  The house was on a finger of private land that stuck into the middle of a large nature preserve (several thousand acres).



I had two neighbors, both out of sight and several hundred yards away, and it felt like a kind of wilderness retreat (although there was a lightly traveled country road that passed by below the house). I’d often look out the window and see turkeys, deer, flying squirrels, vultures, possums, huge orb weaving spiders, and a dizzying array of songbirds and woodpeckers. I was able to film many of these subjects for the documentary series, including some that nested on or near the house. Below is an excerpt from one of the nature documentaries. The birds on the eaves under the front porch are Eastern Phoebes, and since they chose a spot directly in front of the main door, I used a side door during nesting time so as not to disturb them. A support beam blocked the nest from the front window, but often the birds on the nest would peek over it and into the house if they heard something inside. Interestingly, there were four pillars suitable for a nest on the front porch, but only on the same one was there a nest built, in each of the 3 nesting seasons I was there.  Were they the same birds each year? I like to think so.

So you get the idea, lots of trees and wildlife.

But I had started working in time lapse the year before, and at the forest house I continued on with landscape sequences that took a few hours, or day at the most.  The sun rising through trees, shadows working across vines and leaves, melting bits of snow.  But one afternoon, as fall approached, I wondered what might happen if I set a camera up and took pictures everyday from the same window.  I might be able to get changing seasons and blend them into a film.

A big issue was how to set up.  To work, a dedicated camera and tripod were needed (constantly setting up and moving things would introduce error into the framing).  I couldn’t use my main camera(s) as I needed them for other things.  So in the end, I used a spare Nikon coolpix 5400, which even in 2006 was obsolete.  The data port was broken, so it was tricky getting the memory card out to download images (there are noticeable little moves in the framing in the film itself because of introduced error – the monitor was the size of a postage stamp), but in the end the camera sat on the same unmoving tripod for 16 months.  I  automatically snapped pictures at intervals between every 10 seconds and every 10 minutes at key times of the year (snowfall, spring, fall colors), usually the camera was switched off.  Looking back, I wish I had used a better camera as the image quality leaves something to be desired.  But it worked, amazingly.

Over 40,000 images were taken, and I made little movies of 5-8 seconds for each of the key days/events/seasons, and blended them together into the finished film at 30 frames a second.  The audio was added to give another dimension.  I tried to put in wildlife songs and calls appropriate to the season.  For instance, the honking during what is late winter are Sandhill Cranes, which used a migratory flyway that passed directly overhead.  Many of the calls were recorded on sight, others were from elsewhere in Indiana.  Animals heard include migratory songbirds, spring peepers, tree frogs, cicadas (periodical and annual), turkeys, coyotes, elk, and wolves.  While there are no wild wolves or elk native to Indiana aymore,  but for hunting long ago they would still roam the surrounding hills.  Maybe they’ll be back some day.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the film.