Sometimes online videos go viral, and British photographer Rob Whitworth’s Traffic in Frenetic HCMC is one such work. A short time-lapse visual documenting the chaos of Ho Chi Minh City’s traffic, Whitworth has added a new, visually stunning dimension to an oft talked about, increasingly passé topic. James Allen caught up with the Hoi An-based photographer to find out how the project came to life and how he’s coping with overnight fame. Photos provided by Rob Whitworth Photography
Within a week of uploading the time-lapse clip onto Vimeo the video went viral, spreading across numerous social media sites, blogs and news websites around the world, including the likes of CBS News, Time and The Washington Post. Did you expect the reaction it’s received?
The response has blown me away. No matter how much you believe in a project it’s only really tangible when you get direct feedback, and there’s a tendency to think your latest work is your best. I’m also grateful for the small group of family and friends who reviewed the video for me — they’re never afraid to tell me what they think.
What inspired you to undertake such a project and what did you hope to achieve by making it?
I draw creativity from stuff that fascinates me and Ho Chi Minh City intrigued me from the moment I arrived — I wanted to understand it, find my way around it, and capture it in some way. Some of the main things that struck me were the massive scale of building and infrastructure construction, as well as the traffic and the general sense of excitement. There’s a palpable feeling of things growing and improving.
How were you able to achieve such a range of camera angles? What equipment did you use?
I’ve always considered myself to be a wide-angle photographer, I saw the phrase ‘turning the ordinary into the unusual’ written somewhere and I like that. In Ho Chi Minh City there is so much going that wide-angle lenses become essential. At the same time a few of the shots were done using telephoto lenses to pick out some of the interesting details.
I got good use out of the Nikon D7000 with Nikon 12-24, 10-24, 50 1.4 and 70-200 2.8 lenses, and most importantly a tripod and some good books. Bill Bryson’s At Home — A Short History of Private Life, was a particularly good companion. One of the shots was completed from the top floor of a motorcycle pimping shop while breathing in paint fumes.
Did you experience any difficulties during the shooting process?
The most notable difficulty was having all of my equipment stolen at the end of a particularly successful though now-never-to-be-seen sunset shoot across from the ferry port in District 4. If anyone got a particularly good deal on some Nikon camera equipment in early September this might give them an idea as to why!
Luckily for me, health and safety hasn’t caught on in Ho Chi Minh City to the extent it has in London, where you’re suspected as a terrorist before you’ve even got your camera out, let alone a tripod for hours at a time. So it made it possible to get shots without going through months of paperwork or having paramedics and fire crew on standby.
The time-lapse is the culmination of 10,000 raw images and multiple shoots, how long did it take and can you describe what the editing process was like?
Time-lapses are quite a time consuming business in a number of ways. When shooting, once the camera is set up and running there’s some time to step back and take in the scene and experience stuff you wouldn’t otherwise. I’ve seen some pretty cool sunrises and sunsets that I would’ve slept through or otherwise missed.
The shooting was conducted over six short trips to Saigon over a nine-month period and the processing probably took about a month. I spent a lot of time staring at computer screens. There is a saying: “if you want to take pictures, then don’t become a photographer”. Personally I love the whole process. I love feeling that I’m pushing the boundaries and doing something new and exciting with the technology available, and the way that time-lapses are both technically and creatively demanding.
How would you describe saigon traffic to the uninitiated?
Chaotic. It’s a must-see part of Vietnam. When people ask me what I like most about Vietnam I tell them it’s the traffic. Ho Chi Minh City is the only city I have ever been to where I can cross several districts and park in a sensible amount of time. I’m a natural biker at heart so I love being in a country where the motorbike is king.
How are you dealing with the overnight fame?
Funny… the response has been fantastic. As with many people working in creative industries my work often only gets seen by a handful of people at most and you often get very little feedback, so having it shared around the world is amazing. I’ve been particularly blown away by the response of Vietnamese at home and abroad. There is a real pride that my video seems to have tapped into by presenting Vietnam in a different vibrant light compared to how it’s sometimes presented in mainstream foreign media. All this being said I don’t think I’ll be stopped in the street anytime soon and asked for an autograph!
What‘s your next project and will you make any more time-lapses in Vietnam?
I’m hoping to complete a time-lapse of Hoi An, which will have a very different feel. There is certainly a wealth of shooting opportunities in Vietnam and I’m spoilt for choice with potential locations.
Angle and Pan
For any camera enthusiasts wanting to know how the zooms and pans were achieved in his time-lapse, Rob Whitworth says that the camera movements were all implemented during post-production using Adobe After Effects.
“I’ve played around with in-camera movements but they’re limited and unsatisfying,” he adds. “The RAW footage from D-SLRs is very high resolution, which makes it possible to achieve zooms, crops and pans that wouldn’t normally be possible in-camera.”