The Monkey House

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Making movies of road trips is easy, cheap, and fun. Read on to see how.

First, you do need a bit of hardware:

My experience is with the Canon G series of cameras, but other cameras will work as well. Even cameras that have no mounting flange on the bottom - you just need rubber bands and a little creativity. Since any respectable road trip will take longer than the camera will run from batteries, you'll want to power the camera through the inverter. Some cameras (such as the G series) normally operate this way. Some might require you to cobble together a 6V AC adapter so the camera thinks it is running from 4 AAs, or whatever your specific camera requires. Also, you will need an interface cable, almost certainly USB, and software to tell the camera to take photos every few seconds. Canon (non-EOS) cameras are supported by free capture software from Canon. Other manufacturers may release similar software. Otherwise, third-party remote capture software can be had for under about $50.

You need a computer with a USB port to plug the camera into. Having a screen on it is really useful, and most cars will only output about 100W continuously through their cigarette lighter ports, which basically means you'll need a laptop. Mac or Windows works; linux might work too, but I have not investigated the requisite software options. The Mac software seems to behave noticeably differently than the Windows software, particularly in the area of exposure. The Mac software doesn't seem to meter each shot individually, but rather sticks with the metering on the first shot you take. Depending on your subject, this may be a plus or a minus.

In fact, you may be able to do away with the computer entirely. There is a project releasing hacked firmware, called CHDK, which enables functions that Canon has disabled or simply not provided in certain Powershot models. Of particular interest here is an intervalometer function which can be set to record photos at pre-determined intervals, for far longer than the 99-shot limit on my old G5. With the availability of cheap and rather large SDHC cards, it is now feasible to store thousands of (less than full resolution) frames for a long movie on a single card. CHDK supports many older Powershot models, but the project remains quite active and support for newer models is steadily being added.

Cheap car inverters all ridiculously overstate their capabilities. Fortunately, even the dodgiest "300W" inverter should be able to run at about 50W continuously, which will run a laptop and camera, unless it's a desktop-replacement style laptop.

Mounting hardware for the camera can run anywhere from the broom-handle-and-quick-release-plate system to a real tripod or a suction-cup mount. Quality will improve somewhat with better mounting systems, but the video is quite watchable even from a flimsy mounting system that lets the camera bounce around.

Keep in mind that you're making a movie. DVD resolution is about 720x480; HDTV goes up to 1920x1200. Don't take 4+ megapixel photos: you'll just end up scaling them back down! 640x480 is quite reasonable for a movie that you'll post online. 1280x1024 is probably overkill. Remember that the camera will be vibrating along with the car's chassis, so if you're reading this in a few years when you can decode 1080p60 on a low-end laptop, keep in mind that you won't see much more detail in very large photos anyway.

2010 update Higher resolution movies are starting to make more sense now. However, keep in mind the bit rate of the final video. Road trip movies need significantly more bits per frame than your average Hollywood movie because so much more changes from frame to frame. If you want your movie to stil look good when someone pauses it and looks at individual frames, keep that in mind.

When you have a few thousand photos, import them into something like the Slide-Show Movie Maker.

About importing files
If you use Objects | Add Pictures (F3), you will quickly run into the limitations of the Windows multiple-file-select dialog box, which uses a 32KB buffer to hold the names of all the files. Instead, put your photos in a folder by themselves and use Objects | Add Picture Directory (F4). This will allow you to import all your photos at once. If for some reason you have to use the F3 option, import your photos in batches of about 1500 files (depending on average filename length). If you try to import too many at once, you will get an error and will have to try a smaller batch.

The program takes a bit of getting used to, but it's free and it does a good job. With a bit of experimenting, you'll find settings you like. You need to balance several competing goals when choosing a framerate. You need the framerate fast enough that it doesn't look like a slideshow, and fast enough that the final movie is of reasonable length. This probably means no longer than 10 minutes. You also need a slow enough framerate that the viewer's brain has a chance to comprehend what is happening, and the terrain doesn't pass by in a complete blur. As a starting point, taking one photo every 5 seconds and playing it back at 30fps means every minute of the final movie will have 2.5 hours of photos in it. Unless you have extremely monotonous source material (more so than a trip down the interstate), 30fps is about as fast as you'll want to go before the movie starts to become unwatchable.

I have made several time-lapse videos of road trips, one on the way to Origins in 2005, and one on the way to Gen Con 2005. The experience taught me a lot, and 2006's trip should have the best video yet!

Version 0.6    |    Content date: 29 May 2010    |    Page last generated: 2013-11-03 15:26 CST