Time-lapse photography is a technique whereby the frequency at which film frames are captured (the frame rate) is much more spread out than the frequency used to view the sequence. When played at normal speed, time appears to be moving faster and thus lapsing. For example, an image of a scene may be captured at 1 frame per second, but then played back at 30 frames per second; the result is an apparent 30 times speed increase. In a similar manner, the film can also be played at a much lower rate than at which it was captured, slowing down an otherwise fast action, as in slow motion or high-speed photography.
Processes that would normally appear subtle and slow to the human eye, e.g. the motion of the sun and stars in the sky or the growth of a plant, become very pronounced. Time-lapse is the extreme version of the cinematography technique of undercranking. Stop motion animation is a comparable technique; a subject that does not actually move, such as a puppet, can repeatedly be moved manually by a small distance and photographed. Then the photographs can be played back as a film at a speed that shows the subject appearing to move.
The frame rate of time-lapse movie photography can be varied to virtually any degree, from a rate approaching a normal frame rate (between 24 and 30 frames per second) to only one frame a day, a week, or longer, depending on the subject.
The term "time-lapse" can also apply to how long the shutter of the camera is open during the exposure of each frame of film (or video), and has also been applied to the use of long-shutter openings used in still photography in some older photography circles. In movies, both kinds of time-lapse can be used together, depending on the sophistication of the camera system being used. A night shot of stars moving as the Earth rotates requires both forms. Long exposure of each frame is necessary to enable the dim light of the stars to register on the film. Lapses in time between frames provide the rapid movement when the film is viewed at normal speed.
As the frame rate of time-lapse approaches normal frame rates, these "mild" forms of time-lapse are sometimes referred to simply as fast motion or (in the video) fast forward. This type of borderline time-lapse resembles a VCR in a fast forward ("scan") mode. A man riding a bicycle will display legs pumping furiously while he flashes through city streets at the speed of a racing car. Longer exposure rates for each frame can also produce blurs in the man's leg movements, heightening the illusion of speed.
Two examples of both techniques are the running sequence in Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989), in which a character outraces a speeding bullet, and Los Angeles animator Mike Jittlov's 1980s short and feature-length films, both titled The Wizard of Speed and Time. When used in motion pictures and on television, fast motion can serve one of several purposes. One popular usage is for comic effect. A slapstick comic scene might be played in fast motion with accompanying music. (This form of special effect was often used in silent film comedies in the early days of the cinema; see also liquid electricity).
Another use of fast motion is to speed up slow segments of a TV program that would otherwise take up too much of the time allotted a TV show. This allows, for example, a slow scene in a house redecorating show of furniture being moved around (or replaced with other furniture) to be compressed in a smaller allotment of time while still allowing the viewer to see what took place.
The opposite of fast motion is slow motion. Cinematographers refer to fast motion as undercranking since it was originally achieved by cranking a hand-cranked camera slower than normal. Overcranking produces slow-motion effects.