Staff Favorites July 2014: featuring “Barcelona Go!” by Rob Whitworth

By Jason Sondhi

July is dead and gone. All we’re left with are memories — sweet, sweet memories. Oh, and all these great videos! They, unlike many of the characters in this strangely violent month of Staff Pick Favorites, will live forever and ever — or at least until the Internet shuts down.

It wasn’t all flaming arrows, jealous lovers, and botched robberies though. This month, we also celebrated a wonderfully humanistic look at a great Spanish city with the newest time-lapse film from Rob Whitworth. Rob is a wizard behind the laptop, and we corresponded with him to learn more about his indelible approach to things moving in fast motion.

Rob, you’ve become a very distinctive voice in time-lapse circles due, obviously, to your great footage, but also your inventive method of virtual zooms and transitions. Can you talk about where the inspiration for this technique comes from and a bit about how you developed your proficiency in After Effects?

Cities are amazing; there’s so much going on. I love standing on a roof top 200-300 meters up looking down on all the activity. It’s often too hard to choose what to shoot — I want to capture it all. One second, it’s the epic cityscape, and next second, I want to be at street level pushing through the crowds, dodging cars. Any transition / trick / grimy rooftop location that allows me to push this a little further… yes, please.

More broadly, it’s about the impossible. Time lapse is impossible; it shows us the world, as we can’t see it. I love that. The crazy camera moves and transitions are just an extension of this, moving the camera and threading together different scenes in new ways.

My background is in photography so Photoshop is a program I got to know very well. As I moved into video, it became clear to me that After Effects is the Photoshop of video, so I set about learning it. At first, a few tutorials came in handy, but most of it comes from trying stuff… and lots of cups of coffee. I tend to be one of those people who prefers to spend two hours working something out, as I’m too impatient to watch a five-minute tutorial. This is probably another reason I’ve learned to do stuff in less-standard ways.

How much of the final piece are you planning out ahead of time versus in post-production? Barcelona Go! feels perhaps more “scripted” than previous pieces of yours.

Storyboarding is everything. It took me a few videos to realize this, but gradually, video by video, the percentage of it that is planned prior to shooting has increased. By having it planned out ahead of time, you’re allowed to be more ambitious with the tricks. You can always deviate and try other things, but it’s important to have an underlying story. It becomes ever more crucial when working with other people and, in particular, clients, where things like access and model schedules need to be agreed upon in advance.

I think when I started shooting I was a lot less certain as to what would work. There was a point when I realized I was spending so much time trying to second-guess what I might need later that I was skimping on the main shoots, and shooting lots of safeties. I love the precision of arriving at a location and shooting exactly and only what you need.

I would say the Barcelona video is pretty much to the storyboard. A couple of the sequence orders were confirmed later, and I dropped one scene as it didn’t work as well as I hoped, but otherwise I’d say by and large they match.

The other area in which planning comes into its own is when deadlines get tight. I always shoot a ton of extra footage, but it’s so much quicker just working up the shots you planned as part of the storyboard.

Do you pay attention to trends in time lapse? I saw that beginning with your Shanghai piece you began to incorporate on-the-ground hyperlapses, and that the technique is quite important in Barcelona Go!. Where do you go for inspiration or to learn about new techniques?

There is this amazing website everyone should check out where so many inspirational videos are posted — it’s called… Vimeo. I must admit, I go through phases of watching a bunch of videos and then phases of focusing on my own work. Hyperlapse was definitely something that appeared in time lapses a few years back and instantly had me hooked. Suddenly, the means to move the camera from location to location seamlessly was possible. Thanks, Vimeo.

Your profile tells us that you are based out of Shanghai. How does an Englishman end up in China, and what is it about the area that you love?

Can’t say I always love Shanghai, but it is fricking amazing. Shanghai is what I imagine New York was in the 1920s or London in the 1860s — it really has a feeling of where everything is happening. To see Pudong (the Manhattan of Shanghai) is to be awe-stricken — “Man can build these things.” It feels great to be a part of it.

I draw a lot of inspiration from Asia more broadly; it’s so different from England / UK / Europe, where I grew up. There is a palpable sense of progress and emerging confidence. I think it’s infectious.

I moved to Asia well over three years ago now. I was previously based in Central Vietnam, where my girlfriend (now wife) was working for an NGO. When I arrived, I spent a bunch of time working on different ideas and techniques, culminating in my first viral video, “Traffic in Frenetic HCMC”.

“Barcelona Go!” was commissioned by the local tourism board and your Shanghai piece was as well, correct? How do you secure these jobs? Do you go out and pitch for them, do you have a rep? Or, do the opportunities come to you?

I launched my first video from a laptop in central Vietnam, it was picked up by a few website, got Staff Picked by Vimeo, and within three days, it had received 700k plays. Whilst it hasn’t been non-stop exciting commissions since then, one project has led to another. What always surprises me is how much stuff doesn’t happen, and often how long it takes things to go ahead. Very often, it’s the projects you’ve long since forgotten about that end up going ahead.

The Barcelona video was part of a really far-sighted project of the Catalan tourism board. They commissioned five filmmakers to make videos covering different areas of Catalonia. We were given total creative freedom and as well as some amazing location access. I think they’re happy with the results. Myself and Pau’s videos (his is called Girona) received staff picks (thanks) and collectively they have generated a bunch of interest and media attention.

I’m in a privileged position at the moment where fantastic projects such as these come from people who are excited by my existing work and have an idea for a project within their organization.

What can fans expect next from you?
Fans… funny, I think my mum has already seen most of my latest stuff however me and JT Singh (who I worked with on the Shanghai video) will be releasing a video set in Pyongyang, North Korea on Thursday. This one will be on his Vimeo channel. I’m also going to be working on an epic project in Dubai. I can’t say much at the moment however I’m pretty sure it’s going to be on a scale only Dubai knows.

: Staff Favorites July 2014: featuring “Barcelona Go!” by Rob Whitworth