Chloe Aftel
Chloe Aftel

Chloe graduated from U.S.C. with a Master of Fine Arts in film production and she was named Fuji Student Photographer of the Year and one of PDN's 30 Under 30.

How to make a Cinemagraph

March 02, 2015

Have you ever looked at an image online and thought it to be a still photo, but then suddenly, a little part of it comes to life? Not the whole image, but maybe a smirk of the mouth, a blink of an eye or a wag of a tail while all else remains static? Call them a “Cinemagraph,” a GIF or a picture where something in it moves; these hybrid motion/stills have become ubiquitous. They have an element of the unexpected and further explores how to tell a story in a single frame. And when executed well, they allow the visual story to expand and become infinitely richer and more engaging.

When I began really exploring Cinemagraphs, it was for a corporate advertising job a few years ago – just when Cinemagraphs were becoming popular. My post-production supervisor/retoucher, Maria Muradyan, and I began from scratch so we could work out what techniques we preferred, designed and created many drafts to work out how creating them made the most sense to us. The biggest challenge back then was getting an image that looked fluid, as Cinemagraphs initially were much more choppy and clumsy looking.

It has been exciting to see Cinemagraphs showcase more refined, subtler movements as they have evolved. This smoothness allows them to feel more like a story unfolding, rather than rapid-fire movements. They work best when one really considers where the light comes from, what the intent of the visual narrative is, what is moving, and how its loop will be most effective and more.

Gear choices and settings

I only use a camera’s manual functions, including manual focus, when shooting Cinemagraphs and I love working with a full frame, so it was awesome to use two EOS-1D C cameras from Canon for a recent project. Having the power to choose your ISO, f/stop and shutter speed by hand creates a more nuanced and striking image because you can make sure your blacks stay true and your whites are blown out only as much as you intend them to be.

Often, after doing stills, I’ll do a Cinemagraph on my own as an extra gift for the client and to show them what the medium can accomplish. I prefer to shoot at 60 fps (frames per second), as you never know what kind of tiny detail of movement might really cement the Cinemagraph. Slow motion means you have a lot more frames to use, but it also becomes possible to pull a still as your master plate.

Usually, I shoot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and use an assortment of lenses (EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM, EF 85mm f/1.8 USM, EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM and EF 135mm f/2.8). I love that it is a full frame camera that can shoot both still and motion well. The EOS-1D C has the ability to do 4K at 24 fps, which is amazing for motion and can work well for Cinemagraphs. Otherwise, shooting at HD at 720P/60fps/ALL-I with the EOS 5D Mark III is a good way to go. You don’t want too huge a file size as this is a web medium, but getting high quality images is always an asset.

One may wonder why I chose ALL-I over the IPB video file type. IPB has more compression and only select frames in a shot contain all original video information. This is better for longer continuous recording time, but creates problems for precise frame-by-frame edits. ALL-I has less compression and each individual frame (while compressed to some degree) contains full video information. This means larger files than the IPB file type. However, if you are doing a frame-by-frame edit, ALL-I makes it easier to edit precisely at any individual video frame.

Some may say it’s a trade-off between image quality (4K or the like) and smoothness of movement (60 fps). I prefer a Cinemagraph that has an elegant flow that slowly draws you in and then reveals a subtle piece of movement. In addition, this is a medium that lives on the web, at 72 dpi, which means you have to down-res considerably no matter what resolution you shoot it at.

Planning and shooting

One must remember that if you do Cinemagraphs with people, performance still matters. I find having big changes in expressions doesn’t work well on loops. Alternatively, things on the body (clothing, accessories, things around the body) are much better objects to animate. You can get a great, real moment in stills and have the Cinemagraph be about enhancing the world around the subject, rather than forcing expressions to make the Cinemagraphs technically successful.

Considering a successful loop is also one of the important factors. Watching someone’s eyes roll into infinity is not a welcoming image, nor one that has any narrative enrichment. When I’m thinking of a Cinemagraph, the first question is always, “Why does this image need to be animated? What is that bringing to the equation?” If a still image tells the story just as well, you should keep brainstorming.

Because a Cinemagraph involves shooting motion, you must use a consistent light source — this means lighting with hot lights. Even when using natural light, you must be careful that your light does not flicker or vary during recording. If you are by a window and the sun is behind some clouds, but then pops out from behind them, the light on the subject changes and will destroy your image (unless that is the motion element you are going for). In general, Cinemagraphs work best when the movement is limited to a specific area and not impacted by other moving elements. If the scenery behind or around the movement is still, the impact is greater and the movement has better flow. If two moving elements will overlap, you need to shoot each independently and layer them on top of one another. Otherwise, the image will become jumpy, as you can’t control when each element interacts with the other, and therefore you can’t confine the movement.

There are many ways to create a Cinemagraph; Maria and I have a particular way we go about creating them. There are several different ways depending on your content — some simpler, some more complicated. Here are some basic steps to help you get started. There are easy go-tos that always seem to work and create a little magic: hair blowing, steam rising, water reflecting, etc.

  • Choose a subject
    You want something that can seamlessly loop, either continuously or back and forth. There are many subjects that work, but the idea is to explore what appeals to you and what can tell a visual story rather than being a simple repeated motion. It is best to have the movement cycle from beginning to end with your subject. By this, I mean if the motion is curtains blowing left and right, have the object complete the entire movement, going left then right then back again. This way you have all the coverage you need to get a seamless loop.
  • Frame the subject
    Make sure your subject can easily be isolated from the rest of the shot. Overlapping movement can interfere with the main movement and give you unintended results, like jerks and jitters.
  • Film the subject
    Try filming several variations of your scene. You only need a few seconds of usable footage for each take. Use a tripod and make sure it is steady and weighted down — you don’t want anything to move or you will have to shoot it again. I would also urge you to take several stills of the scene before ending the capture. It allows you to have a master plate from which you can work and create the motion element. I would suggest using the lowest ISO setting that works for the scene; I prefer ISO 100-160 when it’s possible. You want to shoot at 1/60 of a second and at 60 fps.
Putting it all together
  • Bring into Adobe Photoshop™
    Just drag and drop the video file directly into Adobe Photoshop™ and bring up your animations/timeline palette and review the film to isolate a section, which will loop properly. Every Cinemagraph should start and end on the same or similar frame.
  • Select your still frame
    Now you want to go through and choose a frame from this selection to be the “still” part of your image. Once you've chosen a frame, add a new layer and use the stamp visible command (Shift+Ctrl/Cmd+Alt+E keyboard shortcut);  this will create a still image running the entire duration of your timeline. Once you have your master frame, you can retouch and color correct it to your liking. This can give the Cinemagraph more of your aesthetic.
  • Make the mask
    Think of your mask as a window through which you can see your video loop. At the bottom of Photoshop’s Layers palette, click on the little icon of the rectangle with a circle in its center to create a Layer Mask. Select the Brush tool, with Black as the foreground color, and use this to create the area you want movement in.
  • Test your mask
    Make both layers visible and play the clip to make sure your action is visible in full without anything being hidden. This is where the importance of keeping your subject matter still becomes apparent. Make any adjustments to the mask if you need to.
  • OPTIONAL Step
    If you need to adjust your timing, import your movie by selecting “File > Import > Video frames to layers.” This will bring up a timeline of your video clip as individual frames. You can now add a pause at the start and change the duration in the dropdown menu of your first frame. Adjust this on other frames if you need to tweak any other timing. You can also delete frames to speed up certain parts of the sequence.
  • Save and output
    Save your edited .PSD file and then go to “File > Output for web and devices” and make sure the “.gif” format is selected and save it. You have now successfully created a Cinemagraph! Drop the Cinemagraph file in a web browser to test.

Each Cinemagraph tells its own story. They initially felt like a gimmick, but over time and with a lot of talented people exploring how to create them, they’ve come into their own. Initially, the surprise of a moving element got people’s attention, but as they transgressed beyond that, Cinemagraphs became a new way of looking at the world. An unexpected drop of rainwater in a reflection, light flashing over a passenger’s face, the way a gust of wind moves candlelight – they are capturing a fresh perspective on the world through unexpected details.

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