About two years ago, after he posted his first short film on Vimeo, Tom Lowe received the kind of email every DIY filmmaker dreams about. “At the end of the video,” he recalls, “I put a little note on it saying ‘I’m getting ready to make my first feature. Are there any producers out there who would like to help back it?’ Within a week, some guy from New Zealand named Nigel Stanford said ‘Are you serious about this?’ I said yes. He said ‘Okay I’ll send you $100,000 and give you a year to shoot it.'”
The random act of financial kindness might seem like a remarkable stroke of luck were it not for the fact that the time-lapse clip in question, Mountain Light, happens to be stunning. Camping out in Yosemite and the nearby Ancient Bristle Cone Pine Forest, Lowe programmed a Canon camera to snap still photographs of stark landscapes, sunsets, and sparkling constellations. Edited together in sequence at 24 frames per second, the shots yield a stunning motion portrait of the wild west. “10,000 years ago, our ancestors spent their lives basically looking at that same view,” says Lowe, who was named Astronomy Photographer of the Year in 2010 and who has collaborated with director Terrence Malick. “I want my shots to appeal to people on a spiritual level.” Last month, Lowe posted another video to Vimeo–a trailer for his latest film, TimeScapes, a 45-minute, 4K film which promises to raise Lowe’s profile and the bar for time-lapse and nature photography.
Lowe launched the TimeScapes project in February 2009. Armed with the Canon and a Red Epic digital camera provided by benefactor Stanford, Lowe, assisted by a rotating crew of zealous interns recruited through his Soundscapes.org forum, shot footage at Salvation Mountain, Horsetail Fall, Death Valley, Big Sur, and other picturesque locations. “I spent a year and a half of my life basically driving around the Southwest looking for the most beautiful and inspiring places I could find.”
The dream gig was a long time coming. Driving from Southern California desert town La Quintata to Las Vegas for a TimeScapes post-production session, Lowe described a meandering career path that began with a four-year tour of duty in the first Gulf War straight out of high school, followed by a gig writing speeches for California senatorial candidate Michael Harrington. That didn’t last long. “I became disenchanted with politics,” Lowe says.
Shifting his focus to corporate speech writing, Lowe became fascinated with movies and wrote a script that nearly got produced in 1998. One problem. He didn’t like playing the Hollywood game. “They kept wanting me to rewrite things for these other directors but I didn’t want to do that,” Lowe says. “I figured, I should just direct it myself.”
In 2006, Lowe saw Malick’s Pocahontas-themed period piece The New World. Inspired by the film’s lush cinematography and fluid narrative, he says, “I decided I don’t care what it takes, I’ve got to do this. I’m going to become a film director.”
Lowe sank $50,000 of his own money into a self-scripted indie film that quickly turned into a “disaster.” Lowe can laugh about it now. “About five days into the shoot, my cast rebelled because I wasn’t paying anyone enough to be at these remote locations up near Yosemite.”
When the actors jumped ship, Lowe inadvertently discovered his calling. He recalls, “We had the cameras rented for a full week and nothing to do with them so I grabbed three or four guys from the crew and said, ‘Lets just shoot stuff for a few days.’ We raced down San Felipe by the dunes with a camera mounted on the truck, then went to Joshua Tree to shoot sunsets. That’s when I fell in love with the filming of nature.”
Further inspired by Ron Fricke’s1992 time-lapse movie Baraka and the works of Godfrey Reggio, a former monk who pioneered time-lapse narrative with his Qatsi trilogy, Lowe got busy with Mountain Light. “My dream had been to become a feature film maker like Stanley Kubrick or Terence Malick, but once I learned that you could use a still camera for time lapse, I realized, ‘Jeez, I could have taken the $50,000 that I just blew on four days of shooting and make half of a Baraka-style film.'”
The self-taught filmmaker credits new advances in technology with his ability to capture natural phenomenon with so much slo-mo clarity. “When the Canon 5 D Mark II came out in 2008 it was a game changer,” he says citing the digital camera’s 3200 ISO image sensor. “With a $2,000 camera and no lab processing or chemical film costs, you could suddenly do things that chemical cameras had never done before. The only reason I’ve been able to make my films is because the technology started to come into its own. “
Lowe, who took a two-month break from TimeScapes to shoot time-lapse sequences for Malick’s Tree of Life movie and an upcoming Reggio film, hopes to finish editing by April. Then, he’ll pitch TimeScapes to IMAX theaters. He figures audiences will enjoy see the big night sky on a big screen. “Most people are tucked into their bed at night and never see some of this stuff that goes on out in the deserts and mountains at night, with the Milky Way, shooting stars, all these different things. Time-lapse films allow people to step back away from the world a bit, to go past themselves and get a more existential view of everything that goes on around them.”