As I move forth in my animation and motion design journey, I have spent the past few days learning about one type of animation that I have only just recently found out existed – cinemagraphs. If you don’t know what a cinemagraph is, do not worry, I will provide many examples in the following sections, so long as you continue to read this article.

Cinemagraphs are really unique and exciting, but before we get into those, allow me to continue our studies through Liz Blazer’s Animated Storytelling book, where I will provide a quick overview of the second and third steps in making your dream animation – storytelling and storyboarding.

Reading

Blazer begins by reminding us all that there are virtually no limits with animation. Whatever you can dream up, you can create inside your animated world. But to steal the quote from Spider-Man, “with great power comes great responsibility.” You cannot go too insane with your area or else nothing will make sense and your audience will be disinterested. If you are able to control your world and limit the possibilities, then you are setting yourself up for greater success down the line.

The two main storytelling structures to focus on are “three-act structure” storytelling and “non-linear” storytelling. For those who do not study filmmaking, the three-act structure is the main template for how a large majority of narrative films are shot. The first act introduces us to our character and the problem that he/she must face. The second act focuses on the character’s journey to try and overcome that problem (usually ending with the character being at his lowest point yet). The third act reveals how the character overcomes his odds and finally solves the problem he/she was facing. The two main aspects of your film to focus on when designing for a three-act structure are your character and your theme. When you focus on your character, you can come up with all of his personality traits, his strengths and weaknesses, and any other relevant information. This will make it easier to decide what roadblocks to include in the second act as they will tailor to the character’s strengths and weaknesses much better. As for theme, you want your message to be sprinkled throughout the course of your story, but you really want to beat the message over the audience’s head by the time the character has resolved the conflict and the story is in the third act. It is important that you use the end of your film as the opportunity to tell your message because that is the last thing your audience will see before walking out.

Non-linear storytelling allows you to through everything I just mentioned out of the window and do whatever you want with the story. That being said, you still want your story to be impactful and meaningful, and planning this type of story without having a template such as the three-act structure means pre-production may last quite a bit longer. Luckily, there are some guidelines that can help make your non-linear story much more effective: end your story the same way you began it, continue to raise the stakes and drama until the very end, purposefully keep your audience in the dark, and use sound to bind the whole film together. Even with these set of guidelines in place, you still have the freedom to take your story wherever you go, and if you feel confident enough to make your own non-linear story, then go for it, as Blazer stresses the importance of being “just as proficient a non-linear storyteller as a linear one” (30).

Storyboarding is now a very important step in the filmmaking and animation process, thanks to Walt Disney, as drawing out your stories can save you so much time and money before heading onto the computer. When you’re starting to storyboard feel free to go as rough as you’d like, but don’t be afraid to get rid of or change certain frames if they simply do not match your story. As you continue improving your storyboards, adding more clarity and quality to each frame, the four things to focus on are shot compositon, framing, staging and trainsitions. Use shot compositions to reveal or hide certain information from your audience, thereby forcing them to interpret your scene in the way you intended. Utilize the rule of thirds and frame your subject about a third of the width or height away from a given frame border in order to increase emotion in each shot. Focus on where elements are staged in a given scene, and only include elements inside the frame that will enhance the overall story.

Transitions, in Blazer’s mind, are the key reason animations set themselves apart from other filmmaking methods. While you can change so much in a few frames, you must focus on three types of continuity: spatial continuity (which ensures the physics and world you’ve created remain consistent throughout shots), temporal continuity (which keeps your story logic consistent and easy for your audience to digest), and directional continuity (which ensures the subject/object is moving in the same physical direction in relation to the camera from one shot to the next).

The last two key topics Blazer mentions are timing and animatics. Though your storyboards are static, timing them is very important as it can save you a lot of stress in the animation room, especially if you have a client who is looking for an exact run time of their project. Animatics help visualize the timing of your project a lot better because your storyboard frames will be edited together in their desired length while being accompanied by sound for support. Once all of this is taking care of, the storyboarding process is complete!

Research

Now it’s time to enter the world of cinemagraphs. To my surprise, the term (and medium) “cinemagraph” was invented less than 10 years ago! Artists Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg teamed up to create still pictures with small hints of moving elements within them, and it was not until 2011 that they coined the term “cinemagraph” for the projects they were making.

Below you will see five cinemagraphs that I have found to be very intriguing for many different reasons.

This first cinemagraph comes from the inventors themselves, Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg. It is a still image of a pair of glasses with leaves falling all around them. There are plenty of reasons as to why this image is spectacular. Firstly, it is very seamless, you cannot tell where the start and endpoints of this GIF are (a common theme throughout all of these examples). Next, the leaves are the only things moving and are falling throughout the entire frame. Part of me questions whether or not the leaves were taken as stock footage because I cannot understand how the leaves are moving the full height of the frame while none of the other bushes and trees are moving in the background. I’m sure I will figure it out as I learn more about how cinemagraphs are made but as of right now this is marvelous.

I also really appreciate the attention to detail by making only the area inside the glasses clear while everywhere outside the glasses is blurred, including the moving leaves. I understand this is likely done with a masking tool in order to add the blur to the selected area, but it is still a very neat touch.

This cinemagraph also comes from the same two people that made the one above. There is so much to marvel at here, it’s incredible. The crazy thing about this piece is that there are so many things moving that it hardly looks like it’s standing still. The guy’s face, entire right arm, the steering wheel, his left sleeve, and the road from outside the car, through the mirror reflection and through the windshield reflection. Honestly, even some of the things that aren’t moving are just as impressive as the things that are, such as the guy’s left arm and shoulder, the interior and exterior of the car, the windshield wipers, and the rest of the car behind the guy. The things I find most intriguing are the ones I cannot immediately figure out how to do myself, and this one definitely lifts a lot of eyebrows for me.

While the artist is unknown for this cinemagraph, I still find it really impressive. Even though only the makeup artist’s hand is moving here, I appreciate the attention to detail for making the hand move both in front of the mirror and inside the mirror. The hand in the foreground is completely blurred out, allowing for an increase in the overall depth of the cinemagraph. It’s a very simple cinemagraph, but it works so well.

When I think of cinemagraphs that are so impressive because I do not understand how they are pulled off – this one stands out. It’s a simple night shot of a city and some rain. I understand masking the sidewalk and the SCAD sign, but the rain falling from the sky and the rain on the streets? That is a mystery to me. Even the lights are not moving, which you think would bend to the cars (supposedly) moving, but they don’t. I guess the only explanation I have is that the rain was falling so hard that the cinematographer only needed to take about 0.5 seconds worth of video to get what he needed, which makes sense because then the cars wouldn’t have time to mess up the street light reflections by driving under them. All of these inquiries make me really appreciate and respect the amount of work put into something like this.

Last but not least, I wanted to show off this cinemagraph because of how beautiful the picture looks. Having a vignette look with a deep blue coloring really makes this image stand out for me, even if the masking for the cinemagraph is not the greatest (just look to the top by any tree line). One other impressive feat this image does well is that not only do the clouds move in the sky on top of the image, but they also move in the lake reflection below and the puddle reflection towards the front of the frame. While not the best example of a cinemagraph, the shot composition and coloring is extremely well done and makes it tough to move my eyes away from it.

Creation

Now that you have seen my inspiration from various cinemagraphs, I will now like to present you with three of my own cinemagraphs…

I must let you know, though…that making these cinemagraphs were an absolute nightmare. I don’t know what went wrong, and I will go into further detail as I write about each image, but holy cow, these things were absolutely terrible.

On a side note, one of these cinemagraphs was required to be made in Photoshop. That did not happen for me. As soon as I tried importing a video into Photoshop, I would get an error message saying that Photoshop cannot import a video file because the “Dynamic Link Media Server was not available.” This seems to be a common problem among many Photoshop users, with no easy fix as far as I know, so I went ahead and avoided the program. If any of you reading this know anything about this and have an idea on how to fix it, I would greatly appreciate it.

This is a cinemagraph of my girlfriend on top of a mountainous hiking trial. I wanted to add some sort of wacky effect to it, which is why I immediately imported this video into After Effects. In order to keep the clip continuous, I used the method of duplicating a section of the clip, reversing the speed and attaching the beginning of that clip to the end of the first clip in order to make a seamless movement. So in reality, this cinemagraph is really a looping video that is going forward three seconds, rewinding the same amount of time, and going forward once it hits the start again, but no one needs to know that, right?

In order to make this officially a cinemagraph, I had to make one part of the image move while the rest of the image is frozen in time (I bet you can’t guess which part of the image is moving). Her head is the sole moving section of the image, and I drew a mask wide enough so her head or hair does not cross it, while also tight enough so as few tree leaves as possible are included in the mask. I also feathered the mask to make it more difficult to see the seam line. The last effect I did was mask her entire body as accurately as I can with the pen tool. Once I did that, I added a stroke effect and animated it so it would appear and disappear to my liking. I also animated the color and added a CC light sweep to make the stroke feel a bit more alive. I just wanted to add something more to this image and I felt this would be a neat addition.

As soon as that was over, though, that’s when I started experiencing the real problems. Firstly, I did not know that After Effects removed the H.264 codec from their render queue, so I had to use Apple ProRes to render. However, as soon as I saw my final export, I noticed a huge quality difference…

Adobe After Effects preview (left) vs. final export (right)

The colors look so much more muted in the final export and the quality appears a bit lower as well. If anybody knows why this change happens when exporting from After Effects, and if there’s a way to fix it, please let me know. I even tried bringing the file into Media Encoder so I can export it as H.264, but the final output was still just as bad.

Even though I now had my H.264 file, I still could not bring the video into Photoshop to convert it to a GIF file. So what I did (and please don’t kill me) is I brought the file into Final Cut Pro, messed around with the color until I got it to pop the way I like it to, and then I brought the file into Apple Compressor (Apple’s version of Media Encoder) where you can apply various presets to a file before exporting it. One of the presets is a large image sequence file, which exports as a .GIF file. Once I exported the GIF file, I looked at it and couldn’t help but notice how much they lowered the quality while exporting. I was not satisfied with how poor the quality was.

So I looked online, and realized there was a way I could bring the file into Photoshop without it rejecting my request: I needed to export the video as a folder full of .TIFF images that I could then import into Photoshop and put them all on a timeline in order. This is exactly what I did, and as soon as the timeline finished up, I was ready to save to the web…

…but somehow the render looked even worse than after being sent through Compressor. First off, the file was around 60MB, which is way too big. I tried messing with the color and the size of the video, but it was making the file look worse and worse. After a bit of trial and error with various export settings I gave up and decided to go with the Compressor file (which you see above). Yes it is 40MB and the quality is not high at all, but doing this method of making a GIF proved to be the easiest method which provided the best results, even if they don’t meet my own standards. This is the type of method I will end up using for all three cinemagraphs.

While I figured I’d make up for breaking the rules by drawing a fancy stroke around my subject for the first image, I wanted to make this cinemagraph look somewhat complicated as well. It’s not as hard to do as it looks, though. This is a video of me sitting next to my JBL Pulse 4 speaker, which is currently playing music. As you can see, the Pulse 4 is moving while I (and any other visible background elements) are frozen in time. The tricky thing about this video was that any time the speaker pulsed, my face glowed up a noticeable amount. With my face masked out, however, there was no way for it to glow up. So once I exported the video from After Effects, I brought it into Final Cut where I cut the sections when the speaker pulsed and for each of those cuts, I bumped up the exposure to mimic the effect of more light from the speaker hitting my face. I think it was well worth going into Final Cut just to get a neat effect like this. I could have done the same in Premiere Pro but I needed Compressor to export the video in a GIF format.

Lastly, this was the GIF I was going to edit in Photoshop. It’s about a 12 second cinemagraph of my dog hanging by the couch, looking out the window, watching the cars go by. The window is obviously masked out while my dog and everything inside the window is frozen in time. I wanted to edit this cinemagraph in Photoshop because I knew selecting out the window would be easy, and I could therefore mess around with styling and colors more. It was with this image that I found out that Photoshop was not accepting my videos.

I ended up doing the exact same thing I did with the previous two images. I took this into After Effects first, made the cinemagraph seamless by dissolving a portion of the window video into the scene, thereby eliminating a cut that caused the size of the sun’s reflection to jump. I then took this video into Final Cut where I added a color grade, and after that I took it to Compressor where I made the file a GIF. This is probably my least favorite because of how simple it is, but as I said, this was originally going to be the Photoshop cinemagraph before the program just stopped accepting video.

What did you all think of my cinemagraphs? Besides getting really frustrated behind the computer and being severely disappointed with how low quality the cinemagraphs appear, I do think the concepts are really neat and some of the effects I put in are hopefully enough of an apology for letting Final Cut aid in the completion of these GIFs. If for some reason After Effects continues to render and export my videos with the huge difference in color and quality, then I’ll try Premiere next and see if that program can do a better job of preserving the color than After Effects can. And if any of you, like I said, know any solutions or tips for any of the problems I discussed above, any comments down below would be greatly appreciated!

About the Author Gabe Walerysiak

My name is Gabriel Walerysiak, and I am a graduate student at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. I graduated with my Bachelor's Degree in Film, Television and Media Arts, with a minor in Mathematics in June 2020. I am currently pursuing a Master of Sciene in Interactive Media and Communications and will graduate with my master's degree in May 2021. I recently interned at GlucoseZone this past summer, where I edited and helped film a bunch of promotional content for their social media pages. I have a hobby of capturing and editing video-game footage for a YouTube channel that I started in the Seventh grade, and that channel is the primary reason I chose to major in Film, TV, and Media Arts. I am also a passionate runner, and even though I am no longer on a team, I run to keep in shape because I know how important that is in today's world. I am looking forward to be more fluent with technologically enhanced creative programs such as the Adobe suite, productivity tools such as Microsoft Office, and any other creative tools I can get my hands on to further improve my work as a creator.

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