When we were coming up with ideas for what to put together for a short film for the Night Sky Edition, we ran into a couple of issues: First, we’re in Chicago, which is a very large, well-lit city, something that isn’t generally conducive to capturing the infinite vastness of space (on a cloudless night, even a ways out in the country, you’re lucky to see even half a dozen stars). Second, how do you try and capture said impressive vastness? While we thought it all through, we made two determinations: clearly, we needed to go somewhere dark, and maybe we didn’t necessarily need to be constrained by the “short” in short film.
The idea was fairly simple, though complex in the making: for those of us in big metropolitan, light-polluted areas like Chicago who can’t see the night sky very clearly, we wanted to travel to this section of rural Nevada and bring the stars back with us, capturing a full night sky and playing it back in real time.
The story of how this all came to be, is below.
After searching through maps and great resources like the International Dark-Sky Association, we decided to head to Great Basin National Park. Roughly five hours northeast of Las Vegas, right on the Utah border, it’s home to the darkest skies in the Lower 48 and about as isolated as it gets. With absolutely no cell phone service for dozens of miles in any directions, and only Baker, NV (Pop. 64) in the shadow of the 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak, Reita, our host at the Get Away Cabin, told us that the area is so remote that on a moonless night, “It’s so bright and clear that it feels like you can practically walk out on the Milky Way.” Perfect.
As if that weren’t enough, with YouTube now capable of handling 4k material, we thought it also might be a good challenge to have the option to play these hours of footage back in resolutions several times higher than HD. Granted, many machines can’t play that high of a resolution back smoothly (or at all), and 99.9% of the population don’t have monitors capable of playing back 4k material, but still: why not?
The Anti-Time Lapse
Even though we have a RED camera that is capable of shooting up to resolutions of 5k, no matter how clear and dark the skies are, you need long exposures to capture them properly, something you just aren’t very capable of doing with video. Instead, we decided to do real-time long exposures, meaning that if we were exposing for 20 seconds, playback in the edit would also be 20 seconds. In a sense, the process is exactly like time lapse photography, but it’s also the “anti-time lapse”, in that we were weren’t going to speed up or slow down, just use transitions between frames to help with continuity.
We shot in Nevada for two full evenings, June 2nd to June 4th, timing it to when the moon would be less invasive and historically a stretch with little cloud-cover. We shot with four cameras, one locked-down to capture the full evening from one position, two for capturing different angles for traditional time lapse purposes, and another documenting the setup. Our first night out, we stayed somewhat near Baker, setting up about a mile out, near the town’s water tower, facing south. The first night we used as a bit of a test, as it’s a difficult situation, setting up cameras before the sun goes down, when there aren’t any stars in view, blindly trying to determine where to point the camera and where to set the focus, and then being locked into that position for the whole evening, unable to correct mid-course.
The second night, we headed to roughly 10,000 feet, to the Mather Overlook inside of the Great Basin National Park. We came to the second night having a much better idea of how to shoot, and the clarity of the sky at that elevation was an increase from “amazing” to “stupidly breathtaking.” It was enough to help take your mind off the fact that the park is rotten with mountain lion (or so we scared ourselves into thinking).
In total, we shot 6,492 photos across those two evenings, and collectively slept about 4 hours from Sunday to Tuesday.
Once back to Chicago, and after not nearly enough sleep, we assembled the main edit (using the Mather Overlook photos from the second night), condensing the whole evening down to peak star time (roughly 10:30pm – 5:00am). Over the course of a very busy couple of days, we set up the 4k composition in After Effects (4096 x 2304), cleaned up any exposure issues between sections, and made each frame roughly 24 second long, with a transition between frames at an average of 4 seconds. When the skies were still lit by the sun and therefore needed shorter exposures, that made for some rougher cloud movement, but once night fell completely, the movement of the stars is generally flawless.
After all of those efforts, then the real work started: the render. After Effects’ compositions tap out at 3 hours, so we created three separate compositions and linked and re-stitched those in Premiere, allowing us to get to our 6.5 hour, full 4k finished product. Rendering simultaneously on two machines, just to be safe, one computer made it to the 5 hour mark after 36 hours of rendering and then promptly just stopped (spirit crushing, to say the least). The other machine would usually hiccup after rendering for 5 or 6 hours. Fortunately, even when the machines would die, we were careful to keep the pieces they knocked out. In the end, the full main 4k render of all of those pieces took approximately 50 hours. The render of the final file once everything was stitched back together took an additional 14 hours. We were left with a surprisingly workable 28 gig file.
The upload to YouTube took roughly 15 hours and their first round of internal encoding (at 360p) took about that same amount of time as well. And then… nothing. The 360p version eventually bumped up to 480p, but still nowhere near the original resolution or even standard HD for that matter. From our early tests (uploading an hour at 4k), we knew it was a going to take a while to re-process, but as we rounded the bend toward day five with zero movement, we weren’t feeling entirely optimistic. We’d broken YouTube.
We decided to go to Plan B. We re-rendered two versions of the clip, another 4k version using a possibly more-friendly YouTube codec, and another in HD for Vimeo. Another dozen hours of rendering.
The HD version on Vimeo uploaded and processed just great. The second pass at 4k on YouTube uploaded nicely and kicked out another 480p version, but then nothing appeared again beyond 480p for a number of days. We had conversations with the team at Google and YouTube and they were very helpful in looking into it (understandably, they aren’t getting many uploads of hours and hours of 4k video, and we’re happy to be the first to have tested their capacity), but it didn’t seem like it was going to happen. In the end, maybe we were being just too ambitious. But then…
Seconds after we were set to post this, running with the HD-only version, we were double checking the links and amazingly, there it all was on YouTube, all 6 hours in beautiful, full-res 4k. Amazing.
Whatever format you happen to wind up watching, we hope you’ll enjoy a whole night’s sky beamed to you directly from Great Basin National Park, or just a handful of minutes, while you look for your favorite constellations.