Behind the scenes at my Bagan Project.
There is a lot to tell about this entire Bagan project of 6 movies and several photo series. In every aspect it is the biggest, most time consuming, most unique ánd most least safe project I’ve ever worked on. The project grew bigger and bigger until eventually I visited the country 3 times for over 11 weeks, 20 months apart. Timelapse is a time consuming process by itself, but I took a few steps further.
Just to be clear about it. I don’t advise anyone to undertake any similar projects at Bagan. Without the right permits you can land in jail and at night there’s a high risk to come across deadly snakes (as I did) in this country with most snake-related deaths in the world. Other than that, it’s perfectly safe!
Please Support locals
Before I dive into the project and tell you all about that, I need to start with what is the most important part of this story.
To me this Bagan project eventually became about something more than me doing the first ever timelapse movie of Bagan. The more time I spent there, the more people I met, the more conversations I had, the more friends I made, the more I learned about Myanmar and its people and the more I started to care about them and think of ways of how I could help.
This project then became a means to help these people by promoting travel to Myanmar and to support its people. Their situation is way more unfortunate than you know < I compressed 5000 words into that one sentence. Please understand the gravity of it.
What I learned eventually from the local people is that they desperately need tourism to grow in their country. To them, this is the best way to move forward and to earn a better income. In this country, they don’t get support from the government like we’re all used to. They stand alone and depend more on us than any other country I’ve ever visited.
Let me show you the incredible ancient wonder of Bagan, one of worlds’ most incredible man-made locations. Let me tempt you to visit this beautiful city in this fascinating country. It’s controversial yes, I know, and although your media tries to scare you into not visiting this place, I can tell you the media blows things out of proportion to bestow FEAR upon us. They make more money that way. Listen to Franklin Roosevelt: ‘The only thing to fear is fear itself’.
Support locals: In this country where so much is owned and run by the government and rich people, it’s more than important that you consciously spend your money at smaller local-run businesses to support the locals as much as you can. To not do so, means you are working against these people, you are supporting the rich who take over everything here and make it impossible for locals to even run a business or buy property. You’ll be supporting a system that – UNDERSTATEMENT OF THE YEAR: – ‘mistreats’ its own people. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to be part of that, can you?
The situation is such that even I don’t have the freedom to speak my mind right now. I’m biting my tongue continuously during everything I write about this project. There is so much I want to say about all of it. But if I would do so, it would mean I most likely cannot ever return to this country. Right now, I’m actually already afraid they might read this, because they investigate people online who request a visa and if they find out you’re talking bad about the country, well, the best thing that can happen is that you’ll never get a visa again.
And I do want to return, so I just lost another piece of my tongue.
Bagan Project: Numbers
1 city with 2200 temples, 1 man, 1 drone, 3 cameras, 3 trips, 11 weeks, 370 timelapses: 150.000 photos, 2000 hours work, 20 months in the making, resulting in a drone movie and timelapse pentalogy (5 movies)
Bagan Project: The Plan
The plan was simple. Go to Bagan during Milky Way season, spend 2 weeks, shoot, leave Myanmar, edit somewhere, post movie(s).
Bagan Project: Executing the Plan
Executing the plan went different. What’s new? Things never go as you expect, do they?
Two weeks became 6 weeks. 1 Trip became 3 trips, 6 weeks became 11 weeks, 1 movie became 6 movies. Movies became a means to help the locals.
Behind the scenes in Bagan: Challenges
Any kind of project always comes with its challenges. Part of that is explained in the ‘My Story’ section, but there was a lot more to deal with:
Temple rooftop access closed
This was by far the biggest disappointment of all. Since my trip was only planned a few days before, I didn’t have time to do research and had no idea they were doing this. When I arrived there were 15 locations where you could reach the top. All other temples were closed with gates and big locks.
I was lucky that 15 were still open, but unlucky that 99% were already closed. This meant that all those wonderful views overlooking countless temples were now impossible to reach. There were a few decent views left, but nothing compared to before. Now, I had to shoot almost everything from the ground. It’s a whole different story and a lot harder to find good views and you’re never going to frame that many temples..
Temples under construction
The effects of the recent earthquake a few years ago were still visible. Most of the big ones were still under construction and many smaller ones as well. Some were/are still waiting for funds. This meant that the biggest, best, most beautiful temples of all, looked like shit! Their tops were completely covered in ugly orange, red, green. I didn’t want to shoot them like that…
Balloons only fly from October to March, I didn’t know that. So that meant I hád to return in October. No movie of Bagan is complete without the balloons!
I knew this was going to be hard, but it was often impossible to work in these conditions. Many nights I witnessed how the Milky Way never even showed. I extended my stay until 6 weeks, so I had another 2-week opportunity at the end to capture the night sky.
Sunrise & sunset
Because of the monsoon there were too many clouds for good sunrises and sunsets. The first month I shot 25 sunrises, without getting a single good one. On average there were only 2 good sunsets a week. What a waste of time and effort that was.
I expected some good storms, because Myanmar has one of the wildest monsoons on the planet with lots of storms and lightning. Then locals told me years usually pass without a single storm in this dry zone area..
This is a desert, so it gets bloody hot here. It was tough to work in, especially when shooting my hyperlapses in that heat holding your camera up the whole time… But after that, riding on the e-bike in the wind was great.
Not allowed at night / snakes
This was a bit of a thing, but more about that in ‘The Story’ section a bit further down.
Obviously the government introduced (mandatory) e-bikes to keep visitors away from the temples at night. Luckily my guesthouse eventually let me do my thing and I would charge the e-bike myself when I’d return. It was a problem that these bikes only ride about 40km a day. I drove a lot sometimes and twice my battery gave up on me before it showed empty. It’s a real hassle before the people from your rental shop or guesthouse have managed to find you.
I won’t start about all the people that purposely ruined my shots by standing in front of my camera while I told hem I was shooting, the people that moved my camera while it was RECORDING, because it was in their way (2200 temples, and my camera is in the way???) or would grab my tripod because they wanted a selfie with me and my camera…
Bagan Project: The Story / Shooting
From the start: In July 2018 I returned to Bagan, after my first visit in 2012. Doing a timelapse movie of Bagan had been high on my bucketlist for years. I timed my visit during the 2 months when the Milky Way’s position was best. Unfortunately the Milky Way season coincides with the monsoon season, which is part of one of the wildest weather systems on the planet. Bad combination.. Now I LOVE lightning storms. I knew going to capture the Milky Way between those clouds was going to be hard, but at least I might get lucky with some storms!
So I arrived in Yangon, by plane, and take the bus to Bagan the next day. After I check-in at my nice guesthouse Shwe Na Di I go to reception to tell the guy I’m going to be out all night, returning after sunrise. Just so he doesn’t worry about me. He looks at me, then says ‘You must be back 9pm’. So I laugh and say ‘No, I just told you I’m going to be out all night’. ‘Ok, 10pm maximum’, he says. I ask him why he says that and he explains no one is allowed to be out at the temples at night, because there are many thieves and snakes ánd they have to recharge the electric motorbike all night. Oh…
I go to my room and do some research. Holy shit, turns out Myanmar is the deadliest country in the world when it comes to snakes, roughly 7500 people a year die of snake bites. 150 species of snakes, 41 of which are poisonous. Although mainly farmers on the land get bitten, they are spotted at Bagan and there have been incidents. Damn.
Despite what the guy at reception said, I do what I came here for, so went out that first night to capture the Milky Way. At 1pm there’s a thick layer of clouds and no movement, so I decide to go back and see what happens. At 1:30 I get back, everywhere everyone’s asleep, but at my guesthouse all staff is in the front, all lights on. Turns out they counted and missed an e-bike, so they were worried that something had happened to their guest. To avoid this, is why I talked to the guy at reception. They kindly requested I’d be back in time from now on.
Next morning I went to the police. I’m on a mission and I’m not leaving without my Milky Way shots. So I figure the best thing I can do is get permission from the police. No one can stop me then! I end up talking to an English speaking officer and explain what I want to do. I have a backup plan. If he makes a problem about the snakes, I will hire a local guy to keep me safe. But as I finish my story he says I have to go to the Cultural Ministry. Took a while, but ended up speaking to right woman.
As I start explaining, straight away she smiles ‘You need permit, 100.000 kyat (USD60). Per day.’ WTF. My daily budget is USD30, I explain. I’m not BBC or whatever that does this commercially. Didn’t matter. The way she’s smiling, I just think this is a way to earn some extra cash. She explains that people are actually only allowed to take snapshots with small cameras and that a permit for professional Gear used is actually required, just not enforced. Except on me, right now, I guess. ‘But, if I buy this permit, is it OK for me go out at night to shoot?’ ‘Yes, no problem!’ ‘OK, thank you very much, bye.’
I drive back to my guesthouse, go to the guy at reception, tell him that I went to the police for permission, got sent to the Cultural Ministry and that the lady said it’s OK for me to shoot at night. He just looked at me and didn’t know what to say I guess. And that was it, from thereon I went wherever whenever I wanted. I was free! No, not at all actually. I didn’t know how other people would feel about it or act upon it, so I stayed put each night. There were also guards sitting next to the road at night. Luckily I could then still get up some temples, so I made the most of that, trying to get different compositions at each temple throughout the night, if the clouds allowed it.
During the first week I had a friend with me at some small temple. I had my cameras on top of the temple and we sat downstairs on the ground to avoid light-polluting the scene with our phones. Every few minutes we’d shine our lights to make sure there weren’t any snakes. Then as my friend checks again there’s a bright yellow snake of roughly 70cm crawling under our legs. Nice. So yeah, I never sat the ground ever again. I’ve spend entire nights of 10 hours sitting on my motorbike. Watching clouds..
I talked with many people to find out what my chances were of capturing a lightning storm. But this dry zone barely ever gets any lightning storms. It just doesn’t happen. So disappointing! Each day I’d check my weather and radar apps to see what was happening. And indeed, storms seem unable to truly hit Bagan. They just fall apart into nothing or get directed sideways. At night I could often see lightning storms very far away, but nothing good enough to capture.
Then one night I got so lucky! Right after sunset I noticed a flash in a cloud moving my way, I raced to find a spot to setup on some temple with a decent view. As I walk up I notice there’s another lightning storm on the other side! Even better! I got a bunch of shots before it started to rain. Had dinner and when it dried up I set up at another spot on a temple, noticing a third storm coming from behind the second! Unreal! I felt like kid getting a PlayStation, or something.
I got another few quick shots before it started to rain again and I went downstairs to take shelter. Locals had told me snakes become more active when it rains, so I had my flashlight on as I walked around. At some point I decided to watch the view from another exit. I didn’t have my light on and hadn’t walked that part yet, but figured it would be OK.
I then suddenly step on something. Something that really feels like a snake, through my slippers. As I step on it, I hear SSSSSSSSSSSsssss. I broke a world record right there for fastest run ever with least heartbeats. Long story short, I couldn’t drive in that rain, so I had to return. I entered from the farthest side, slowly making my way towards where it happened. Guess what. It was the inner tire of a small bicycle. Air came out SSSSSissing as I stepped on it. So that’s how it feels like to be truly scared, damn.
The last week I was there, the area was crawling with hundreds of military people as some government officials were visiting Bagan for a few days. It’s hard to describe the entire change of atmosphere that brought. Made me a lot more cautious. Other than those few situations, I had the best time ever. At night, I had the whole place to myself! Sitting on top a temple while I still could, being one of the last ever probably, watching the Milky Way at night, lightning storms far away, heavy metal music playing softly :), these are the moments I’ll never forget. They’re priceless.
During the day I’d always eat at the same 2 restaurants, where it was like visiting friends and I’d often spend the quiet hours talking with one of them. When driving around or shooting somewhere I’d often see guys I’d met before and we’d have a short or sometimes very long chat. This whole experience really made Bagan a very special place.
I got to know Bagan inside out, I’ve honestly seen over 95% of all temples and been on at least 95% of all roads and little paths. No locations was secret to me anymore 😉 I knew each good spot left, I’d even show the locals the best and ‘secret’ spots. I loved messing around with them that way, because each day of bunch of them come to me claiming to know the best spot. Sometimes I challenged them and would show them some secret places. Free of charge.
The project grew into something bigger than I had originally planned. Once I realized that I could and should use this project to help my friends there and the people of the country, I had a different motivation. If it weren’t for that, this project wouldn’t have become what it is now: 5 timelapse and 1 drone movie and a load of photos, shot during 3 visits of 11 weeks.
I spent crazy hours on this project. When I could shoot the Milky Way I’d usually leave my room at 3pm, have dinner, be at my sunset location at 4pm, shoot sunset, shoot a 4-5h Milky Way timelapse, shoot a second 4-5 Milky Way timelapse, shoot sunrise, go to my guesthouse around 7am, have breakfast, edit what I’d have shot (to render) and I’d be lucky to sleep from 11am to 3pm. Many nights though I couldn’t get anything done as there was complete overcast.
When I was not shooting the Milky Way, I’d usually be up from 4am to shoot sunrise all the way to sunset, return for dinner, edit in my room and sleep from 11pm. But during these time I’d often return to my room mid-day for a shower and nap. Naps rule.
Bagan Project: Planning shots
I had a system which really helped me to shoot all locations. Especially the first few weeks I’d drive around to find all possible locations to shoot and decide what times of day would be best shoot them at. Using my Maps.me app I would save a marker at each location, using different colors to organize them (orange for sunsets etc) and include necessary notes. When shooting timelapse, it’s usually all about the clouds or the position of the Milky Way. This way I was easily able to decide where to shoot, depending on which part of the sky was nice as a backdrop.
I’d use my PhotoPills app for further planning of the Milky Way’s position and know when the sun and moon would be somewhere. This app (or anyting simiar) is key for shooting the Milky Way.
Balloons usually fly from northeast to southwest, but of course the wind may be different and they might fly south to north. I missed a few shots because of that, but then just checked the launch area at Nyaung-U each morning to make sure. But then still their course and height depends on the wind, so it unless you’re using a wide angle lens it’s a bit hard to get those those more zoomed-in shots. But why it’s so nice to have 2 cameras to geth both shots.
Bagan Project: Editing
This was my biggest project so far and I don’t think I ever wanna do anything bigger. Well over 2000 hours went into this project. I shot over 370 timelapses, worth over 5tb of RAW data, to edit on a 13” 2015 Macbook Pro.
Each day when I’d come back to my room before going to sleep I’d copy all rendered footage to 2 harddrives and all new files to my laptop. I’d do a first edit to keep my laptop rendering all timelapses non-stop. By doing this each day and reviewing the results the next day, I’d know what worked out or not for whatever reason. But also I could see if everything was alright with my camera and if my sensor was still clean. Sometimes there might be new dust you hadn’t noticed or perhaps a certain setting on my camera wouldn’t be right.
I also do this because of the big mistake I once made. I spent 2 months at Bali shooting for my new best ever project, with barely checking the footage on my laptop. Looked great on my phone and I just wanted to shoot shoot shoot! At home on the big screen I saw how there were so many things wrong with my footage, from lens errors to quality issues.
I’m big on backups, but in this case that extra round of copying 100-200gb of RAW data to 1 or 2 other harddrives slowed me down so much, I skipped it. But at those moments I wanted to get my edit done ASAP and go to sleep. Copying the files could take an hour I didn’t have. To continue work would slow down everything so much it took me an hour longer. I regretted it twice when I made some timelapses vanish.. My first backup would be after the first render when I copied it to 2 drives.
Using Lightroom and LRTimelapse I edit my timelapses. On average each timelapse requires 2-3 edits, after the first edit you just often notice things that can be improved. Those extra edits were done at a later time when I had left Myanmar. Further denoise and deflicker was done in After Effect, read below.
After the edit is finished I export all my timelapses as JPG files in max quality. Exporting as PNG or TIF would be better to remain optimum quality, but it slows down the entire workflow so much, it’s impossible to work with unless you have a powerful desktop.
This was my least favorite part of the entire project. There are a billion birds at Bagan, who love flying around (of course, but), especially at sunrise and sunset. The result was that I had tens of thousands of black specks ruining my footage. Many frames had over a hundred birds in them. I had over a 100.000 images to go through one by one and remove each bird by hand. Took me weeks, 80+ hour workweeks, that is. So you can imagine I went crazy looking for black specks, I saw them everywhere, and then they were gone!
The people and dogs and motorbikes that appeared in my frame were nothing compared to the birds. Remember that Hitchcock horror movie ‘The Birds’. It was like that, almost.
I remove all objects in my JPG files, because I often clone objects by using the previous image. Cloning in RAW may be possible at times for birds or small objects, but not in this case. I used ‘clean’ images so I could mask & brush entire regions clean with a few strokes. But putting the image on a ‘lighten’ transparency mode, it only removes birds by using the other layer and doesn’t affect your image in any other way.
Denoise and last deflicker
Nighttime shots have noise since you’re shooting with high ISO. I used RE: Vision Denoise in After Effects to remove noise and some last flicker. This was another slow process that took weeks again, but worked some real magic and fixed some scenes that I otherwise couldn’t not have used.
Composing the movies
Now that I had all the footage, I first needed the right music for it. After having worked with other musicians for years, I decided to join Musicbed for its large collection and variety of styles. Made picking a song a lot harder as well, with so much to choose from. Finding the right collection of songs for my 6 movies was a challenge by itself. It’s much better to save a song before you start the whole project, makes things much easier actually.
After Effects was used for composing all movies. Composing was the best part, the quickest as well! It’s so rewarding to see that visual story come together after having worked on it and visualized it for so long. Some motion was added here and there by zooming in-out the footage.
I usually start with building a low resolution version of the movie, using low quality HD clips. This gives me a quick workflow and I’m able to put together the movie pretty quickly. Once I have my ‘design’ ready, I start building it in high resolution, using the JPG sequences for my footage. This way I have the optimum size of my footage and it allows me to zoom into certain sections without loosing sharpness.
Why use JPG sequences instead of movie files?
It’s not the quickest workflow, but I get the sharpest result. This way I have the original file size and max (but compressed) quality (PNG/TIF is better). Exporting a JPG sequence to a movie file in the original resolution gives all sorts of problems while editing. I can’t even see such a clip, it’s just black. I’d have to render a 4K version, but since my movie is 4K, it leaves me no option to scale the files without loosing quality. Downscaling my JPG actually improves sharpness!
But another problem is that I don’t keep a 16:9 ratio. I keep my 3:2 or 4:3 original image ratio, because this gives me a lot more room for creating motion in After Effects. I have more ‘image’ to work with and can for example move the clip from the top section to the bottom section, making it appear as if I’m using a slider or shooting it with a drone.
Rendering all these high quality 4K movie files takes a huge amount of time and harddrive space, which I don’t have. Yes I have a slower workflow now, but I just saved time and I’m at the end of my edit anyway. For most people though, you’re better off working with 16:9 movie files, works easiest. Have a low res folder and a high res folder, so you can edit using the low res and at the very end of it replace the files. It works easiest.
Last but not least, unless object removal is an option in your RAW files, you’ll want to do this in JPG files (or PNG/TIF). It allows you to copy from other images.
The Final Bagan Project
The plan started with 1 timelapse movie. Then I brought my drone and captured a drone movie. Then I thought it would be cool to do a new TimeScape movie. And then I captured the storm and wanted to built a movie around that. Then I thought it would really cool to try to do a Reflection movie of Bagan. And then I just had so much footage left I made another movie, Shadowland. Things got out of hand..
Shadow of a Dynasty
Shadow of a Dynasty the main movie, showing Bagan at its most epic, utilizing techniques as (motion controlled) timelapse, hyperlapse and dronelapse.
>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>hier film vermelden??????
Rogue Storm is built around the rare night with 3 lightning storms passing over Bagan. It shows Bagan during the monsoon season and how this dry zone looks with stormy clouds that actually have barely any rain.
>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>hier film vermelden??????
Shadowland is a 8,5 minute journey through Bagan from sunrise to night, exploring the visual effects of different colors in 4 different segments.
>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>hier film vermelden??????
TimeBlend is a ‘creative timelapse movie’ using a blending technique to capture the element of time. I like to call it ‘drawing with light by blending time’.
>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>hier film vermelden??????
Dimension Reflection explores the realms of reflections in a kind of kaleidoscope way by using 2, 4, 8 and 16 reflections.
>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>hier film vermelden??????
Bagan by Drone
Bagan by Drone captures Bagan at sunrise as the balloons float over the city and continues to capture some of Bagans’ most incredible locations.
>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>hier film vermelden??????
Gear used & software used
Nikon D750 & D850, Nikkor 20/1.8, 16-35/4, 28-300/3.5-5.6.
Syrp Genie Mini Pan-Tilt, Sony RX100iv compact camera, Mavic Pro drone
RX100iv vs D850 comparison
I like to stress here that I actually use a COMPACT camera next to my D850 to get these shots, even of the MILKY WAY. Of course the D850 gives me better and more consistent quality. But hey, look at the movies and photos, can you spot the difference? Please, do it.
I could have done this entire project with a few compact cameras if I wanted to. Don’t think it’s all about the Gear used and you can’t do this because you don’t have the big, great & expensive D850 like I have. (Know how to) Use whatever you have. That is what it is about.
RX100iv vs D7100 vs D800 comparison
Talking about this, I have another good comparison for you. I captured a unique scene; a 4+ hour storm with the Milky Way in the background. It’s the most impossible shot I can think of. Imagine the difference in exposure between a bright lightning flash and the super dark Milky Way. Imagine the dynamic range that would require to get it exposed properly. This exact shot was high on my bucketlist and I’d think about. Even if I’d ever have the luck to be in the right angle to shoot a almost cloudless storm with the Milky Way behind it, I didn’t think it was possible exposure-wise. And it isn’t, I had the luck it stayed 200km away, so the flash was more faint.
As it happened that night, I was at www.naypalad.com resort shooting a timelapse movie during 3 nights and had borrowed 2 extra cameras. Equipped with 2 fullframe Nikon D800’s, 1 Nikon cropsensor D7100 or something and my RX100iv compact camera. Now look at this movie that I shot of that storm and tell me which is shot with which camera, please.
Photoshop for editing photos
Bridge for image viewing / organizing
Photo Mechanic for quick image viewing / file renaming
Lightroom + LRTimelapse for editing timelapses
Starstax for image blending (star-trails)
After Effects for noise reduction and composing final movies
Making new friends and doing something back for the locals
The best part of my entire project was getting to know the locals and making new friends. I’ve made some of the best local friends of any place I’ve ever been to. They have been genuinely kind and helpful, proving themselves friends on various occasions. Through them I learned so much about their way of life, the situation of life in Myanmar and the things people have to deal with. I think anyone can guess life isn’t very glorious here, but it’s worse, trust me.
When I left Myanmar I missed my friends and felt like doing something back for the kind people of this place. To cut a long story short, I returned a year later, having raised €6000 with help of friends. I spent a month at Bagan trying to figure out how to best spend that money and eventually was able to do some great things with it. Read all about it at my blogpost. …………………………………………………………………………