On a steep slope, above a retaining wall with scrawled warnings (“Stay off, Stay out, Private Property”), Colin Rich begins to unpack black bags full of cameras and gear.
The warnings confirm that this is where he wants to be. The secluded Echo Park hillside offers a sweeping view of downtown Los Angeles.
Over the next three hours, he will take a sequence of nearly 1,000 images, studying the scene and adjusting his camera as the sun falls and the city lights emerge.
Rich, a cinematographer and time-lapse filmmaker, has spent many nights in the last year photographing the city from out-of-the-way locations such as this. He’s talked his way to the top of a downtown high-rise, evaded security guards, sneaked behind the Hollywood sign and climbed dangerously close to rush-hour traffic — all in an effort to capture the visual rhythms of L.A., the city’s energy and flow.
“It’s really, really, difficult to shoot an original shot here,” said Rich, 29, a native Angeleno. “If you want good shots, you always have to keep pushing.”
By editing and speeding up his images, Rich reveals patterns imperceptible to the naked eye: the intricate signatures of planes circling high above Los Angeles International Airport, light splashing against the faces of buildings, clouds tumbling in the sky, cars flowing through the freeways like platelets in a pulsing vein.
Around the world, time-lapse photographers are using high-powered cameras and high-speed video streaming on the Web to create and share works that offer a strikingly fresh perspective on urban life.
YouTube, Vimeo and other websites are filled with time-lapse videos of cities across the globe: the bustling harbor of Hong Kong, the frantic pace of Manhattan, the rapid construction of high-rise towers in Abu Dhabi.
It’s part of a larger technological leap that is helping people visualize cities in ways that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, before Google photo maps and advanced satellite images showing the tiniest details of streetscapes became widely accessible.
Time-lapse photography shows how a city functions over time, how people get around it and how its appearance can change hour by hour.
“A city is so complex — you’ve got people and buildings and movement and color,” said Eric Jaffe, an urban affairs writer based in New York. “The mission of a lot of these artists is to take that complexity and make it a living organism.”
For Rich, there’s no simple way to define the character of L.A. His method is about finding new vantage points and new combinations of movement and light.
“You have to go places people don’t normally go,” he said.
Rich’s quest began one night in late 2010 at one of the most photographed places in the city: Griffith Observatory.
He went there to shoot the patterns of airplanes hovering over the Los Angeles Basin. But his gaze settled on the grid of lights below. He fixated on Western Avenue, a streak of light shooting south “like a giant vein through the city,” he recalled.
The view brought to mind how difficult it is to grasp the complexity of Los Angeles, he said.
“We all just zip through L.A. That’s just the way the city is,” he said. “You can’t be observant going 65 on the freeway.... You can’t see how things really work.”
Rich, a New York University film school graduate, has done video production work for television shows and websites for nearly a decade. He began making time-lapse videos mostly as a hobby.
That night at the observatory, he decided to apply the technique to something ambitious. He wanted to tell the story of his city, his home.
He started to search for locations where he could capture the ebb and flow of Los Angeles, its people, cars and energy. On Facebook, he asked friends: “What’s the best view of L.A.?”
When he identified a good vantage point, Rich would scout the area during the day. A time-lapse photographer has to deal with a host of variables and complications: light, vehicle traffic, curious pedestrians, shifting weather conditions.
“A lot of what we do is legwork,” said William Ahmanson, a childhood friend who is now Rich’s business partner and assistant. “We move around so much trying to find different spots.”
Security restrictions imposed after 9/11 make it difficult to photograph near downtown buildings and LAX.
Rich learned how to buy time when security guards confronted him. He once set up a tripod on top of his car so guards at a bank couldn’t obstruct his view while they debated whether he had a legal right to shoot there.
He said he has tried repeatedly to photograph the elaborate fountains outside the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power building, only to be chased away by security personnel.
Technical challenges abound: choosing the right shutter speed, exposure levels or combination of filters. Sometimes, small mistakes reveal themselves only when Rich reviews images on his computer afterward. The only solution is to go back out and try again.
The long hours, cold nights and isolation can be trying, he said. As he worked on his time-lapse portrait of Los Angeles, he sometimes covered his equipment with a blanket so as not to attract unwanted attention. One night, while he was shooting near Cal State L.A., a car full of young men began circling, eyeing his gear. He canceled the shoot and took off.
Rich got another scare in early 2011 when he and Ahmanson hiked up to the Hollywood sign. Rich had his heart set on a “reverse angle” shot that would show the city through the gaps in the sign’s tall white letters.
The park had closed. They carried extra gear — two sets of tripods, backpacks full of lenses and motion-control equipment — because Rich wasn’t sure exactly what he’d need.
When a security vehicle approached, Rich and Ahmanson jumped over a fence and hid in the grass. They waited nervously until the vehicle drove off.
“Man, I didn’t sign up for this,” Ahmanson muttered.
About an hour into the shoot, Rich realized that infrared security cameras mounted on the sign were recording their presence.
Panicked, Ahmanson wanted to pack up and leave. Rich wouldn’t budge. “The whole idea for me was to get original stuff,” he said. “I just felt like we had to follow through.”
During the next few weeks, Rich traversed the city, shooting in Santa Monica, South L.A. and Mandeville Canyon. But he knew the film would not be complete without a view from a downtown skyscraper.
Rich and Ahmanson called building managers to see if a shoot could be arranged. Some balked. Others demanded as much as $2,000 an hour, Ahmanson recalled, far more than they could afford.
Finally, they found an opening. Through an acquaintance, Rich was introduced to the manager of the 52-story Paul Hastings Tower at 5th and Flower streets.
The week before the shoot, Rich went to the building’s rooftop: an acre of space in the sky with a helicopter pad and lightning rods and a view that took his breath away.
“It was like heaven for a shooter,” he said.
Over the next two nights, he slowly circled the skyscraper’s outer edge, working on a catwalk designed for window-washers.
He was able to show L.A.'s tallest buildings at eye level, and capture the view of the massive, glowing basin from its hub.
It took Rich three more months to complete the film, titled “LA Light.” In all, he took 60,000 photos for the project over a six-month period. Roughly one-tenth of those appear in the final version, which runs 2 minutes and 58 seconds.
He uploaded the film to his Vimeo page in August to share it with his family, friends and other time-lapse photographers.
The film exploded online and has been viewed more than 1 million times.
Rich considers the film a work of self-expression and, despite several offers from television producers, insists the footage is not for sale.
But its success helped him land new work for the production company he started with Ahmanson last year. He’s been shooting time-lapse images for commercials as well as for “R.I.P.D.,” a film starring Jeff Bridges that is scheduled for release next year.
Rich said the most common reaction to “LA Light” from viewers in Southern California was amazement — they’d never seen their city that way before.
“It’s just such a different perspective from being stuck in a car, waiting an hour to go down the road,” said Matthew Givot, a local photographer. “You realize the city has this incredible order and system.”
On the hill in Echo Park in mid-December, Rich examines the horizon carefully, tracing the path the sun will follow.
He’s here to work on his next film, which will explore the city’s daily transition from dusk to dark.
He’s using a device called a cine-slider to precisely control the motion of his camera. The first shots of the sequence will focus on the retaining wall below. The camera will then move slowly up the slider to reveal the downtown skyline.
At about 4:15 p.m., Rich sets his camera in motion.
It clicks away — one shot every 10 seconds — as the sun sets behind Baldwin Hills.
The sky turns deep pink and purple, then fades to darkness. A shimmering wall of traffic forms at the intersection of the 101 and 110 freeways.
Buildings that are stoic and solemn during the day start to flicker with light.