Measuring up to the challenge

Fitting the seed bed into the camera’s focal range

Our son came to me with a challenge: how about a time lapse sequence of seeds sprouting, Dad, in the shape of the title of our special video? As the seeds grow, they could emerge magically from the soft peat and behold, the letters might appear, revealed from their dark incubating place.

So the challenge was on. Sure, we can do that, as long as the seeds perform well.

I checked out germination times, and the available time lapse sequences on YouTube suggested that a minimum of 72 hours, possibly stretching to 96 or 4 days, would be required for the quick sprouters. The best candidate was cress seed, so I ordered in a pack of 500g.

When the seeds arrived, I created a nice flat bed of sprouting mix and arranged the camera on its tripod above it. I cut out a large stencil of the title, and scattered cress seeds into the gaps, before I set the time lapse sequence. Then I waited. After several hours, it seemed the bed was getting very dry, so I spritzed it in between snaps. After I’d kept it suitably damp, the seeds sprouted in the designated time, in a kind of ragged title, and I sent the film off to our son for assessment.

There’s random light changes, Dad, and that makes the film so jerky it’s not usable. Also, there’s these moments of reflective glistening, what did you do? But anyway, the letters aren’t really legible, it’s just a big block, can’t make out the words. [big sigh from challenged dad]. Back to the drawing board.

I was able to cobble together a pair of constant LED floodlights to cover the scene, after configuring the entire room in darkness so nightfall and sunrise would not introduce light changes. I figured out that I could keep the potting compost damp by means of a felt wick underlayer watered from off-screen. I thought if I could reduce the numbers of seeds, the letters might be more legible, and our daughter with a steady hand helped me place the tiny seeds no more than three abreast across the letters. I realised that the compost was not fine enough, so that germinating sprouts were going wonk, so I thought to create a top layer of finely sieved material to cover them. Each of these components required rather more effort than I’d ever expected when I agreed to take on the challenge, but by this time the bit was well between my teeth.

We set the sequence off again; time was getting critical, and the finished video with title material was needed in about five days. This particular film would have to do it, or the effort would all be for naught.

As the seeds germinated, poking their first primary leaves out through the surface, it began to look reasonable, as I clocked when I re-set the time lapse at the end of every 8 hour stint. But as time went on, it seemed that whole letters were merely being pushed up, en masse, by the sprouts, which could not easily emerge through the dry surface carapace. I despaired, but kept the camera rolling.

I sent the final collection of thousands of shots, one/minute over 72 hours of filming (I’d realised that the first 24 hours in the ground were only a waiting period when nothing happened to be filmed), or 60/hour and therefore some 6,000 stills, along to our son. There was some unexpected keyholing, as the camera had been set up slightly tilted, but perhaps the sequence would work.

‘Whew!’ I had some joy when he called me back later that morning. ‘It might work, Dad, the sprouts eventually make it out through the surface shell, but you’d never believe what happens to the mat of topsoil over each letter. I’ll put it all together and you can see it when it’s done.’

I waited and waited, and then it came in. Oh, that was a little epiphany, that.

I sometimes go back to the video and smile.

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