Photography In Motion

The mesmerizing images of time-lapse artist Michael Shainblum

03/31/2014—Lush fog banks, dark desert skies, kaleidoscopic cityscapes—this is the creative workspace for renowned San Diego-based photographer and filmmaker Michael Shainblum, known and lauded for his captivating, hyper-real, can’t-look-away time-lapse projects.

At age 23, Shainblum is a recognized master at capturing, and speeding up, the flux of all things, whether in nature or in the heart and tangle of our American cities. In many ways, he’s the quintessential millennial artist, seamlessly fusing art and technology into a single force, and above all striving, and succeeding, to live a full life on his own terms.

Take a spin through his Vimeo space and you’ll come across Into the Atmosphere, a majestic time-lapse film that required Shainblum to spend a year traveling to California’s more obscure locales in search of the extraordinary.

The finished product is about three and a half minutes long and uses 12,400 images to showcase such varied terrain and celestial splendors as deserts and mountains, coastlines, roiling thunderheads, the Milky Way, and other night-sky permutations.

It’s works like this one that have earned Shainblum legions of social media fans, the appreciative eyes of photo collectors, and the attention of natural-imagery powerhouses such as National Geographic.

With a no-nonsense delivery about his artistic vision, the young photographer explains that time-lapse work is much more than a matter of setting up a tripod and walking away. For astro-imagery projects, he hikes to many of the sites with enough gear to negotiate any and all potential conditions, no matter how extreme.

Among his usual gear: a DSLR camera, a mechanical dolly system, and apps to track moon phases and weather conditions. Everything else comes down to organization and patience. Once at the site, Shainblum sets up his camera and turns a watchful eye to the sky, looking for Earth’s upper atmosphere to unveil its surreal chromatic swirl on moonless nights.

Well before Shainblum knew about astrophotography or even had a camera, a struggle with learning disabilities led him to immerse himself in creative outlets. “When I couldn’t figure out a math problem or read a book, I would draw, sketch, paint, and explore anything that could be classified as art,” he says. What he eventually honed—a keen eye for color, tone and composition—translated well to a career in digital and visual media.

“I figured out time-lapse early in my career, when camera technology became available to artistically capture the Milky Way,” he explains. “I was always exploring new concepts in filmmaking and photography and always pushing myself to create.”

As for what fueled the vision, Shainblum is quick to answer: music. All kinds. Any genre can evoke inspiration. “Most of the time the outcome of the product comes out as I envision it,” he says. “If it doesn’t, I don’t use it. When I found the song I used for Mirror City, everything fell into place. I knew how everything was going to work. It’s almost like pre-production, seeing if a particular song works.”

Mirror City is another popular time-lapse project that captures the urban, surface-level environment, and it feels more like an homage to the American city than a negative statement on industrialization and technology.

Accessing rooftops of hotels and apartment buildings in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Diego, San Francisco, and Chicago (“It was a little bit secretive, but most of it was done with permission,” he says), Shainblum shot video from all angles: above, below, at street level.

He then manipulated the images with a kaleidoscopic mirror effect—and it’s hard to look away from the finished product. Each clip is mirrored at least twice; some are mirrored up to 30 times. Images of blurred taillights circulate like a bloodstream; neon signs morph to bejeweled images and human-made archetypes are left to decipher.

“I wanted to create a video that was completely out of the norm,” he explains. “I wanted to take time-lapse photography into a more abstract direction.”

While Shainblum’s creations satisfy the impatient stargazer, his abstract urbanscapes leave us wondering what’s next. “I’m interested in aerial photography and slow-motion filmmaking,” he says. “I like the idea of taking a water droplet and slowing it down to every detail. It’s actually the opposite of time-lapse—an unexpected contrast.”