Interview: Joe Nafis, Shanghai Tower Timelapse Creator

By Bridget O'Donnell, March 11, 2016

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Last week, incredible timelapse footage capturing construction of the Shanghai Tower hit the web. If you haven't seen the video yet, you're missing out:

The timelapse was produced by Shanghai-based video professional Joe Nafis, who began taking photos for the video as early as 2009. Nafis, who has been in Shanghai for nearly seven years, was the animator behind Bored Bloke Studios' delightfully funny video "How to Be a Successful Laowai in Shanghai" and produced another timelapse video of Shanghai from the vantage point of his 23rd floor apartment that became an instant hit. 

We caught up with Nafis to find out more about the Shanghai Tower video, which, at seven years and over 350,000 photos, took a sheer mind-boggling amount of work to put together.

What did it take putting this video together?
Well, it took seven years for the building to be constructed, so there's that. I estimate over 1,000 hours of work went into making the video from exploring locations, shooting and post-processing. For the shots that made the cut, there were over 350,000 photos taken originally which I obviously had to cut down.

The first 3 shots were taken in 2009. The timelapse of the tower going up from one location started in 2011 after I had found a location where I could see it clearly, so the main timelapse began in 2011.

Interview: Joe Nafis, Shanghai Tower Timelapse Creator

Interview: Joe Nafis, Shanghai Tower Timelapse Creator

Interview: Joe Nafis, Shanghai Tower Timelapse Creator

Over the years you spent filming this, did you have any issues with shooting?
As my location is quite far from the tower, I had to remove tons of photos where I simply could not see it due to weather. The main problem we had with the drones was getting higher than the tower to see the top. That proved to be quite difficult.

For me, the main issue with finding a proper ending to the video was filming the tower with all the lights on. Because it is not open yet, finding good weather combined with all the tower lights on was tricky.

Interview: Joe Nafis, Shanghai Tower Timelapse Creator

Interview: Joe Nafis, Shanghai Tower Timelapse Creator

Who else was involved in this project?
Livinov Lalama is a friend, he's been in China 7+ years [and is a] tech fan, drone enthusiast [and] general ladies' man. I "contracted" him to shoot some of the videos where I directed. Stan Huang is a Canadian in Shanghai, drone and timelapse photography enthusiast. His amazing photos and footage can be found here. Nikola Stefanovich is a very talented colorist who has worked on many large scale projects and was kind enough to offer his services for this video. His work can be found on his website and Vimeo page.

Why did you start this project and what got you interested in timelapses in the first place? 
I love timelapses, so when I saw the second tallest building in the world being constructed here in Shanghai, I had to act. I knew at the time that there wasn't anyone commissioned to do it, so I took it upon myself to start shooting.

I saw the movie Baraka by Ron Fricke and was entranced by the idea of the timelapse. Perceiving time and motion you can't see with the naked eye really inspired my imagination and I wanted to explore that concept more. I started playing with timelapse during my time in Vietnam with a hacked Canon A540 to create the miniature effect popularized by Keith Loutit. From there it has expanded to hyperlapse, the "Flow motion" technique pioneered by Rob Whitworth, and will expand from there.

You've done a few other Shanghai videos ("From the 23rd" and "How to be a Successful Laowai") that went pretty big before. Can you talk a little bit more about those? 
"From the 23rd" was meant to be a simple video for my family and friends back home to show the constant changes I see in Shanghai that you can't see from visiting for only a few days. It was a "view from my window" type of project that I created from the mass of footage that I shot from my apartment that would probably otherwise never be seen. Fortunately it turned out to be a hit! 

"How to be a Successful Laowai" was the brain child of disruptive designer George Lobo to make fun of ourselves and other laowais that come to China seeking to live the way they do back home. It was a fun project and kind of a guide to the city for new arrivals of how not to (or not to) behave. 

Those two videos along with this one were all passion projects. 

Do you have other cool projects planned like this for the future?
I have some ideas, but it's gonna be hard to beat shooting the tallest building in China!

See more of Nafis' work on his Vimeo profile or his website.

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