Time Laps photography: Interview with a new filmmaker Sean Stiegemeier

Sean Stiegemeier, an L.A.-based filmmaker, made a fascinating short film in 2010 about the Eyjafjallajökull – that volcano in Iceland, which brought Europe and the world virtually to a standstill. Sean managed to fly to Iceland. Back in the U.S., he finished another shoot with RED, had a short chat with his AC and in a few hours it’s time for some 5AM golf. Now he’s taken his time for the thenewfilmmaker.com. Here’s our interview with this busy film maker.

thenewfilmmaker: You are a US./L.A. based filmmaker. What’s the story behind travelling to Iceland and making this short film about Eyjafjallajökull? Was it an odyssey to get there?
Sean Stiegemeier I have been to iceland twice before out of curiousity and loved it. So when I saw the volcano activity I was dying to get over there and at leasy try to get some pictures. The light and countryside is so amazing and odd. I love it. Getting there was a quest for sure….about 5 days of travel with cancelled flights and delays. But I expected that much so it wasn’t too painful.
thenewfilmmaker: Sounds like an adventure. Did you also take a boat ?
Sean Stiegemeier Haha, I was looking into boats as an option at first but it was not needed
thenewfilmmaker: Volcanic eruption – Did you try to get closer to the Vulcan? The video only shows the Vulcan from the distance.
Sean Stiegemeier Yes I did try for sure. Helicopters were not allowed to fly at all when I was there. So that wasn’t an option. I had a super jeep driver take me through some rivers over into the restricted zone but we could not stay long enough to get any shots. The police saw us from across the river and were coming after us so we had to leave.
thenewfilmmaker: What is the story around this plane in your film?
Sean Stiegemeier I saw it in a music document by Sigur Ros before and found it on this trip. Last time I was there a couple years ago I couldn’t find it, but this time it was easy. It is on a black sandy beach and had a nice view of the ash mixing in with the clouds and also had a fun visual for the video because of all the aviation issues. We heard a guy is taking it apart for metal and making a house out of it.
thenewfilmmaker: Why did you decide to film only landscapes and objects, but no people and their reactions, related to the volcanic eruption?
Sean Stiegemeier Nobody in Iceland thought it was that big of a deal. There was not much going on. Even the farm covered in ash was a small area by the time I was there so it wasn’t very interesting. Plus the video I made is all comprised of still images. It has a video function on the camera but I do not find the quality very good, so I try to not use it very often. But I guess canon shouldn’t know I say such things….Haha.
thenewfilmmaker: Did the film Heima (documentary about the tour around Iceland in the summer of 2006 of the band Sigur Rós), cinematography by Alan Calzatti inspire you?
Sean Stiegemeier Yea that band is amazing, one of my favourites.
thenewfilmmaker: In several of your videos, you combined the music from the band Sigur Rós or their lead singer Jonsi with your videos. Why did you choose exactly this music?
Sean Stiegemeier I only had one other video with their music and it was just a camera test. This music was chosen, because it had a great sound to it. The music gives me this steaming train visual that I felt suited the volcano very well. I also just put it to music I was listening to over there. I didn’t really put too much thought into it because the video not as much as I set out to do. The weather restricted my time to view the volcano so I only had a fraction of the time I was hoping for. And what the volcano was doing on the specific days I was able to film was not as grand as many of the other days people have been able to photograph.
thenewfilmmaker: You studied at the American Film Institute, which is a Centre for Advanced Film and Television Studies featuring graduate programs in cinematography, directing, editing and other film related subjects. How was your time there and can you recommend the AFI?
Sean Stiegemeier AFI was great. It studies narrative film making very well and I developed my art and craft as a DP a large amount. My thesis film also got me the ASC heritage award which was a huge honour. I was able to meet a talk with many people that I look up to.
thenewfilmmaker: How to enter this film school?
Sean Stiegemeier Just have to apply with essays material etc. then there is an interview process.
thenewfilmmaker: What advice would you give a young film maker, who would like to apply for this or in general a film school?
Sean Stiegemeier Read a lot of books.

Time-lapse photography

thenewfilmmaker: Can you give a short introduction to time-lapse photography?
Sean Stiegemeier It is essentially just a bunch of pictures taken over a period of time. In this volcano video some of the shots would be taken over a 30 minute to 1.5 hour period. But I have done some shots in the past for over 8hrs. There are also videos out there of year-long time-lapses.
thenewfilmmaker: What is your technical equipment?
Sean Stiegemeier For this shoot is was Canon 5d mkII, Canon L series 2.8 zoom lenses, Motorized dolly from this man: http://twitter.com/milapse
thenewfilmmaker: How about high speed photography? (The opposite of time-lapse photography)
Sean Stiegemeier it is a bunch of pictures taken at a very short time (10000 frames per second) is what some HD cameras are capable of doing.
thenewfilmmaker: Did you use this technique?
Sean Stiegemeier Not for this video. But I did once for a running commercial, and it looks like I will for a job in a couple weeks. It’s a lot of fun. One good example of this kind of photography is the intro segment to the movie Antichrist.
thenewfilmmaker: Back to time-lapse photography. Your video: Stomacher – Untitled/Dark Divider. You wrote: I had never really done any time-lapse before this, so it was fun to learn. – So it was learning by doing. What experiences did you make? What are the do’s and don’t’s?
Sean Stiegemeier Well I had tested the time-lapses before that, but that was the first real video with using it as a technique. I learned a lot about the timing and pacing of the shots based on the weather, what the shot is doing, how much I need, etc. As well as the gear, the technical post side of the shots is where it gets tricky and I learned the most. A lot of the shots are HDR photography which takes a good amount of render time. Each shot would take about 4 or 5 hours to render at times, sometimes longer.
thenewfilmmaker: Any hints for the post production?
Sean Stiegemeier Trial and error, read websites about HDR, don’t take it too far, especially in the colour correction.
thenewfilmmaker: So you will be teaching a time-lapse workshop in Iceland in August? (6 days – August 3rd to August 8th) Any free places still?
Sean Stiegemeier It looks like it. I don’t know how full it is, or if anyone has signed up. Haha…Hopefully it will happen! I potentially will be starting a project on www.kickstarter.com next week to go back and make a short film. So hopefully I will spend some more time there this summer.
thenewfilmmaker: Your video about volcanic eruption: done a video -the right place at the right time. Is this maybe a way for young film makers to boost their career?
Sean Stiegemeier Haha, well it has been helping mine some, but hopefully the jobs will keep coming!
thenewfilmmaker: Who is your favourite cinematographer and what for do you love this cinematographer?
Sean Stiegemeier Tough question…there are many greats that have evolved cinematography to make it what it is today, but my favourite modern DP right now has been Roger Deakins. Everything from lighting, camera movement, etc. are choices he makes in order to enhance a story. Always makes amazing choices…
thenewfilmmaker: What is your dream, related to film making?
Sean Stiegemeier Become Roger Deakins, Haha..
thenewfilmmaker: 😉
Sean Stiegemeier Which means shooting feature films. Essentially is the main goal.

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