I was ten the first time I ever saw an imax movie. At the beginning it did one of those timelapse cityscapes, where the cars become blurs, flying through the city’s streets like blood cells through veins and arteries. It was meant to “wow” the audience and get us settled into our seats for the main feature, but I was so “wowed” that I have no recollection of what the movie we watched was about. I wanted the timelapse to continue. I wanted to watch a whole movie of it... I love timelapse.
Since then I’ve fallen in love with audio, too, and I have sometimes wondered how you could create a similar effect in sonic medium. Now I wonder no more, because producer Tony Schwartz has proven that it can be done, in “Nancy Grows Up.” This piece represents, according to Schwartz “Thirteen years condensed into two minutes and thirteen seconds,” and I think Schwartz is being modest when he says that he’s “using the timelapse technique” in the piece - timelapse is a simple mechanical process that involves shooting film at a slow frame-rate, then playing it back at regular speed so it appears fast. Schwartz’ technique, as you’ll see, is much more creative than this.
Schwartz achieves an effect that’s a lot like timelapse, but the technique he uses to get there involves a higher level of sophistication and manipulation. Schwartz recorded his niece once a year for 13 years, then condensed those annual recordings into a 2 ½ minute piece. He uses editing to create a seamless flow between clips, so that it sounds like she’s abruptly growing an entire year in the space between two phrases.
If you know about timelapse photography, you’ll know that it involves shooting individual frames at regular intervals (say, once every minute, hour, or day) and displaying them at motion-picture speed (usually 24 or 30 frames per second). That way it makes it look like things are moving much more quickly than they did in real-time.
Schwartz also recorded at regular intervals, with a full year between recordings, then stuck the recordings together without a space between them. With motion pictures, the image stays on the screen for just a tiny fraction of the second, in order to create the illusion of motion. You can’t do that with audio, unless you want the words to become indecipherable. So Schwartz used sentences and phrases as his “frames,” then cut those frames together in a way that breezed past a year’s worth of developments at a time.
Sometimes it takes years for a story to unfold. Or more. Take on a long-long-long-term side-project, because the world needs storytellers who can slow themselves down enough to let certain kinds of stories take their time. These stories paint a sped-up picture of reality; and the audiences of these stories will experience a new, fresh perspective of time itself.
Nancy Grows Up
by Tony Schwartz in 1970
3 min 30 sec (including Schwartz’s charming 1-minute introduction)
I first heard this story via The Kitchen Sisters, then later on Radiolab.