Filming Lava with Tyler Hulett

Time-lapse allows us mere mortals to watch the progress of the world around us—from the evolutions of nature to the ebbs and flows of a city’s traffic patterns—from a different perspective. Not to mention that this technique gives us a rare occasion to play with the element of time beyond its usual restrictions. In other words, it's pretty nifty!

So who are these filmmakers fiddling with the sands of the hourglass? Story & Heart member Tyler Hulett, a PhD student and filmmaker, has been using time-lapse photography to document the natural wonders of his home state of Oregon for 3 years (check out his awesome videos at his site, Discover Oregon). And now, he licenses his amazing footage right here on Story & Heart. 

Lava on Kilauea

Lava on Kilauea

Recently, Tyler ventured beyond his usual Oregon-based subject matter: on a trip to Hawaii, he captured a time-lapse of a lava flow with fellow filmmaker Lance Page. And yes, lava looks even more awesome when it looks like it’s moving super fast. Want to see more? Check out Tyler's time-lapse of the lava flow, and license clips from this story on Story & Heart.

But the feat wasn’t easy...navigating the dangers of filming hot lava was a huge challenge. Curious about how Tyler captured this phenomenon, and how he got his start with time-lapse. Let’s talk time-lapse and lava with Tyler Hulett.

Time-lapse 101

A time-lapse is actually a combination of still frames played together, even though it may seem like it was first filmed as a video due to its movement.

Cameras capture images at a frequency lower than that used to watch the series of images. Thus, when you watch the progression at a normal speed, you witness the illusion of time moving faster than it occurs.

Time-lapse helps provide new perspectives on motion, particularly of natural phenomena like the moving sun or clouds, that you wouldn’t normally be able to perceive with your regular old eyes and brain.

Meet Tyler Hulett, a PhD student turned time-lapse expert

Time-lapse may seem daunting, but it’s actually a field that’s easy for enthusiasts to dive into. Just ask Tyler Hulett, who after only 3 years of time-lapse experience is shooting jaw-dropping footage of the natural wonders of Oregon.

How’d Tyler get his start?

A love of nature blossomed early for Tyler: a native Oregonian, he grew up near the scenic McKenzie River in Eugene fishing, hunting, and exploring backcountry trails with his dad, a fish and game warden.

After leaving home to study biochemistry in college at the University of Notre Dame, Tyler returned to the Oregon Health & Science University to pursue a PhD in immuno-oncology (in laypeople’s terms, fighting cancer with the immune system). Though he came back to Oregon to explore more of its natural wonders, Tyler found that he wasn’t getting outside—or exploring his creative side—as much as he liked.

Mt. Hood at night in Oregon

Mt. Hood at night in Oregon

Mt. Hood, Oregon

Mt. Hood, Oregon

Balancing a hobby with everyday life

Three years ago, Tyler decided to pursue a long-time interest in photography, and chose time-lapse because of its relatively lower introductory costs.

“The barrier to entry for world class time-lapse is much lower than for world class filmmaking,” says Tyler. “What you can do with a Canon 6D, a solid tripod, and a Rokinon 14mm lens is as good or better than anything the BBC can do for time-lapse sequences.” And that set-up costs around $2000—a bargain in the filmmaking world. Tyler uses his Canon along with a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera to film time-lapses.

The result of his passion project evolved into Discover Oregon. The platform hosts Tyler’s long-form nature sequences that run about 20 minutes, available for VOD purchase.

The hobby has given him an excuse to travel, and he partners with his girlfriend, photographer Tamara Logsdon, to venture to new spots on the weekends.

“I thought I came home to be outside more, and I found that I really didn't start doing it until I had the excuse of shooting time-lapses,” he says. He’s driven to capture nature so that people can experience these environments remotely even if they don’t have direct access to them.

How Tyler got his start

But let’s back up. How did Tyler gain his time-lapse knowledge?

Tyler filming lava

Tyler filming lava

He’s a big fan of continued education, and sees a crossover from his PhD studies to his self-taught filmmaking skills.

“When you’re getting a PhD, you figure out that you can teach yourself how to do anything, essentially,” he says. “For almost everything I do in the lab, there isn’t an instruction manual to follow. When I decided to teach myself how to do time-lapse a few years ago, I just found a ton of online forums. There are places you can go to learn how to do this.”

To continue the cycle of sharing knowledge, Tyler will be teaching a course on time-lapse in our  Academy of Storytellers (sign up here to be notified when it launches).

See Tyler’s work in action: filming lava in Hawaii

Tyler also reaches out to fellow time-lapse makers for collaborations, and makes the most of travel trips to capture new footage.

After a recent science conference in Maui, Hawaii, he reached out to Lance Page, a time-lapse filmmaker and friend. A Hawaiian native, Lance has experience filming the Kīlauea volcano.

Tyler asked to accompany Lance to a recently flowing lava field on the big island of Hawaii to capture some footage of the flow. The outing was an adventure: after a 5 mile hike, the friends camped in the cold and damp on top of solidified lava rock outside of the national park—not too comfy, to say the least.

They camped uphill of the flow to avoid contact, and had to adjust their camera position to make sure that the camera and sound recorder didn’t overheat. That meant staying close to gear and keeping a close eye on everything to constantly adjust their positions. Gear wise, Tyler primarily used a Canon 6D, a Sony a7S II for some shots, an Alpine Labs Radian, a Sony PCM-D100 sound recorder, and a heavy duty SLIK PRO 700DX tripod for his set-up.

I came home with lava slivers all over my hands, on my gear, and on my lenses. It’s a whole other challenge that you don’t expect to have to deal with.
— Tyler Hulett

He took care to step and set up his tripod on pre-existing, cooled lava rock that was black and hosting new plant life (as opposed to the fresher, grey lava) to avoid danger. Even so, he faced some unique challenges.

“The fresh lava is called Pele's hair,” says Tyler. “It's really smooth and crunchy, like hard snow, and made of little glass needles. I came home with lava slivers all over my hands, on my gear, and on my lenses. It's a whole other challenge that you don't expect to have to deal with.”  

He wore heavy duty pants and boots to protect himself, even in the island heat.

A great perk of that heat, though, was the light the lava flow emitted.

“It was more similar to shooting cars in the city than shooting stars in the Oregon woods,” says Tyler. “Lava has a lot of natural light, so you only need to expose about a second per frame. With 2 second intervals, you can get a beautiful 20 second shot in just over 15 minutes at night.”

Ultimately, says Tyler, the experience was powerful. “Being next to a lava river at 1 in the morning in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is a very surreal experience, and it's not an experience a lot of people get to have. I feel very fortunate.”

The end goal

So why venture out to capture nature, even when it’s uncomfortable? Tyler is driven to share his experiences with other people to make them feel like they’re right there with him.

“What I really focus on is creating a story through the imagery of what it’s like to be there,” says Tyler. “I try to show these places in a way that you don't really experience with a 2 or 3 minute video,” he says, “And in a way that’s different than a documentary with someone talking over the footage. I want to share what a place sounds like, looks like, and how it changes over days and seasons.”

Need some lava footage for your next project? 

License clips from Tyler Hulett's adventure in Hawaii here.

"Experience the raw power of a glowing river of molten rock as magma from below the Puʻu ʻŌʻō vent of Hawaii's Kilauea volcano is released as lava in a flow toward the ocean. Beautiful lava flow time-lapse transports you to another world."

Tips for stellar time-lapses?

Tyler recommends that if you plan to photograph in nature, go with a seasoned guide or friend who knows the area. Make sure you aren’t going onto private property. And for certain types of public land like national parks, keep in mind that there may be permitting restrictions for photographers and filmmakers.

If you’ll be outside for extended periods of time, outfit yourself accordingly: from warm layers to bringing plenty of food and water, be prepared and do your research! It’s helpful to outfit your camera as well...if you’ll be leaving it out overnight for a star shot, make sure you have a sturdy tripod and a rain cover.

If you’re just starting out, Tyler advises that you consider your budget and avoid assuming that you can immediately turn your hobby into a business.”Figure out how much money you're spending, and whether or not you're going to get a positive return,” he says. After 3 years of filming, Tyler notes that thanks to licensing on Story & Heart and an expanded audience, this will be his first year of financial return. In other words, consider licensing your footage on the side to sponsor your time-lapse hobby and gear. 

Above all, keep learning and experimenting! Tyler himself only started making time-lapses a few years ago, and got better by investing time in the practice. “Time-lapse is just a thing that I thought it would be cool to learn how to do, and then I actually learned how to do it,” he says.

Check out Tyler's work on Discover Oregon, and his stories up at Story & Heart—you can license them, too!

Learn how to make stellar time-lapses, the easy way.

Sign up here to stay updated on Tyler’s upcoming Academy course to learn how to make stellar time-lapses of your own.

You’ll learn about camera settings, accessories, and lens types that are best for time-lapses, and you’ll dive into location scouting, setting up, and capturing time-lapse footage for both day and nighttime scenes. We’ll also go into how to organize and edit your files for a seamless end film.

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