Urban Nature

Q&A: Pixar Animator Simon Christen on His Remarkable Time-Lapse of Bay Area Fog

October 9, 2014

Somewhere between animation and photography, Swiss-born Simon Christen has found his happy place: time-lapse photography. His “day job” is as an animator for Pixar Studios in Emeryville. But in his “spare time” he has found widespread recognition through his series of online time-lapse videos, including Adrift, which portrays the mesmerizing beauty of fog flowing over San Francisco Bay. An instant Internet success, Adrift has been viewed by more than 750,000 people and was shown at several local film festivals this year.

Time-lapse photographer Simon Christen
Time-lapse photographer and Pixar animator Simon Christen

BN: What do you do?  Is being a time lapse-photographer your full-time job?

SC: No, it’s more of a hobby.  It came out of being a photographer.  I work as an animator at Pixar.  I started working on Ratatouille, then Up, and most recently Toy Story 3. Time lapse is a kind of happy marriage between animation and photography.

BN:  Are you from the Bay Area? 

SC:  No, I was born in Bern, Switzerland and grew up there.  I came to the Bay Area in 2002 to study animation at the Academy of Art in San Francisco.  I graduated with a Bachelors of Fine Arts in animation in 2006.

BN: How do you like your new home?

SC: The Bay Area is very different from Bern, which has no nightlife, even though it’s the capital.  Bern is a fairly old town, amidst the mountains.  The Bay Area has ocean with beautiful coastlines.  What I love about it is that it doesn’t take much to get out of the city.  There are the East Bay Regional Parks like Tilden in the Berkeley Hills, and only a bit further, Lake Tahoe and the Sierras.  I really like being here.  It’s the perfect spot because you have urban life and nature close by.

BN: Describe your first venture into time-lapse.

SC: Well, I’ve always been an outdoor person, and my wife and I like going for hikes. And I had kind of slipped into time-lapse photography when a good friend of mine gave me an intervalometer, which is a device that can be set to take photos at designated intervals. One time I was hiking up in the Berkeley hills and the fog was sweeping over the East Bay.  Soon enough we were covered in fog, so I stopped taking pictures.  It wasn’t really until I was at the computer back home that I realized the fog came in waves.  I was absolutely mesmerized.  And I began going out hunting for fog shots.  On one excursion I discovered  – almost by accident – a special kind of  low fog going through the Golden Gate.  That’s where Adrift was born.  It took me It took me two and a half years to gather enough footage.

BN: So what do you think about the success of several of your videos??

SC: Time-lapse photography has really always been a hobby.  I never looked at it as something I want to be successful in or not — it’s just something I like doing.  If I put myself in a pressure situation, then it wouldn’t be enjoyable.  I put the videos on line, and The Unseen Sea really took off.  But that wasn’t the goal.

For Adrift it was a little different.  I don’t want to release another video and seem like a one-trick pony.  This had to be something good, enjoyable and better than the first video.  I’m really happy with how it was received.  I got some really nice comments from people.  But it’s just shooting water droplets in the air.  And light.  But is has an effect on people’s emotions. And that affects me.

BN: What are your greatest challenges in making your videos?

SC: I think it’s probably picking the right date, when to go, when to get the best footage.  I monitored a bunch of publicly available web cams to determine whether it was worth it to drive an hour to the Marin Headlands from my home in the East Bay.  Sometimes I would get there and the fog would be gone . It took a little while to get more confident at predicting whether it was worth it.

For something that moves or changes over time, time-lapse photography is the best medium.  Fog moves, but so slowly that you can’t usually see it, even on video.  Time-lapse photography reveals movement and beauty that is otherwise hidden.  Fog is such a dynamic liquid.

And I’m not really a morning person.  During the summer, I had to set my alarm clock at 4:00 a.m..  But, since it was always a hobby, if it didn’t turn out, and I’m an outdoor person, I would still think, this is a great hike.

BN: What is your favorite outdoor destination in the Bay Area?

SC: That’s why we all live here, right?  Personally, I think the Berkeley Hills are fantastic.  They are a secret known to the East Bay residents.  My favorite trail is down in the canyon of Redwood Regional Park near the creek.  It filters out the industrial noise.  It feels like Muir Woods, but without the crowds.  When I lived in San Francisco I had no idea these parks existed.

For photography, I love the Marin Headlands.  It’s kind of a touristic destination, but depending on where you go, above, below or slightly to the side of the bridge, there’s beautiful light. And then there’s Mt. Tam- it’s especially good for moonrises because the moon rises above Oakland or Emeryville and travels towards you across the Bay.  You can see all the different ridges of the Marin Headlands.  I haven’t really had time to explore the South Bay yet, but I don’t think there’s any direction you can go and end up in a bad place.

>> Watch Simon Christen’s time-lapse videos by visiting his online gallery at SimonChristen.com.

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