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A photographer’s kit for Cinemagraphs

If you’re a Mac user, Cinemagraphs may be something you’re familiar with, as there is a software to create them. Windows users have to look elsewhere, as there is no commercial solution available to animate photographs. Only Cliplets…

Cinemagraphs are, let’s admit it, the old animated GIF from the early days of the Internet, adapted to modern times and created, usually, with photographs. Cinemagraphs are a hybrid, a photograph with a section that is animated, a puzzling effect that attracts the attention of people, divided between two options: is it a photograph or a video? It’s none and it may well be both, as you’re about to discover, if you keep reading.

Although being an animated GIF at heart, the modern Cinemagraph is much more than a sequence of clipart with motion, so popular on websites during the early days of the Internet. The term “cinemagraph”, which was first used, in 2011, by photographer Jamie Beck and digital artist Kevin Burg, represents one still image from which a section shows movement, sometimes so subtle that’s almost imperceptible. While animated GIFS are normally associated with fast, frenetic, sometimes irritating non-stop animation, Cinemagraphs go the opposite way, creating a cool effect that puzzles people.

Because Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg’s technique and body of work was, felt the authors, more than “animated photographs”, they looked for a term to reflect that experience. Cinemagraph, which is closely related to Cinema – the art of moving images – seemed perfect. The term became widely used, and you’ll find it everywhere, associated with apps for Smartphones, or even a specific software for macOS and iOS, Cinemagraph Pro, from Flixel.

Unfortunately, there is no version of Cinemagraph Pro for Windows. When Windows 10 was launched I asked if we would soon see a Cinemagraph version for the OS, and was told – by a little bird – that the people behind the program “really enjoyed Windows 10”. For me it meant that maybe a Cinemagraph version was being prepared, but that was back in 2015. Maybe now, that programs as Affinity Photo or Aurora HDR, which were “Mac only”, have or are about to transition to Windows, we will see a version of Cinemagraph Pro for another platform.

From video to photographs

Creating a cinemagraph with the software from Flixel is easy. In Cinemagraph Pro you “simply import a video, select a still frame and paint motion directly on the screen. Your cinemagraph instantly comes to life. Export in broadcast quality or upload to flixel.com and easily share with the world.”

Although the end goal is to create one single photo with animation, the starting point in modern times is, generally, a video clip, and not a sequence of photos. It may sound strange, but it really is the best way to work. Photographers have discovered the power of video, which is nothing more than a sequence of stills, to create animated photographs, which are the result of a continuous loop of the selected frames. Most modern cameras offer video, so the core tool to create those videos is available to almost everyone.

Animated images can be created online, as there is a plethora of websites offering tools to create animated GIFS, which can appear in different flavours, due to the technologies available. For many of those, you still use sequences of photos, although some use video. But to have complete control over the process, it is better to have software that you can use in your computer.

As mentioned before, Mac users have Cinemagraph Pro, which is the reference tool for creating Cinemagraphs. Notwithstanding the fact that it is a great tool, there are other ways to create Cinemagraphs – or animated GIFs, if you prefer – and these are available for both Mac and PC users. In fact, a classic solution to create animated GIFs is Photoshop, which offers a basic video editor – something  not everybody is aware of – which makes it possible to edit video sequences and layers to create a final animated GIF.

Cliplets, a tool for Windows users

Photoshop does a good job and allows for complete control of the process, but it’s not the kind of tool everyone can use, especially now that it is only available through the Creative Cloud subscription. What this means is that while Mac users can buy Cinemagraph Pro, Windows users are left without a commercial tool to create their Cinemagraphs. This void was filled, some time ago, buy a free program, Cliplets, a research project from Microsoft Research.

Cliplets is not a perfect tool, but it does the job and for the price it costs – it is free – we’ve to thank the people behind the project –  Zicheng Liao, Neel Joshi and Hugues Hoppe – for sharing the tool with the community of Windows users, which otherwise would not have a tool to create Cinemagraphs… or Cliplets. As explained on the website, “Microsoft Research Cliplets is an interactive app that uses semi-automated methods to give users the power to create ‘Cliplets’ – a type of imagery that sits between stills and video from handheld videos. The app provides a creative lens one can use to focus on important aspects of a moment by mixing static and dynamic elements from a video clip.”

Microsoft Research released two applications to create “cliplets”: the original Cliplets, a desktop app for Windows 7 and up, and more recently BLINK Cliplets, a Windows 8 app available from the Windows Store. If you’re really interested in creating your own animated GIFs, I suggest using  the 64-bit version of Cliplets, which offers better results. In fact, the BLINK Cliplets limits the GIF files to a maximum of 500 pixels wide or tall and limits the MP4 or WMV videos to a resolution of 640 pixels wide or tall, and so does the 32-bit version of Cliplets. The 64-bit version of Cliplets, though, does not limit video resolution at all, meaning if you’ve a 4K video to start with, that’s what you get on output.

GIFs were not made for video

There is, according to the creators of Cliplets, a good reason to limit the output of GIF files: the GIF file format is very bad at storing video sequences.  GIF files were not designed to hold video, and the file size quickly gets out of hand if you want to store reasonable quality at high resolution. That’s, in fact, one of the problems with animated GIFs. The larger and more complex they are, the heavier the file becomes. Although there are ways to compress files and optimize them for web viewing, it’s always a compromise between quality and size.

The illustrations in this article are a good example of the problems facing those who want to create animated GIFs. They aim for a balance between quality and weight of the file, something always difficult to reach. For the creation of these Cinemagraphs – or Cliplets – I also opted to rely on more visible movement, so they work as quick examples of what is achievable. Generally, Cinemagraphs explore very subtle movement, a bit of motion in a section of the frame, usually a repetitive movement, which allows to reach the goal: the illusion of perpetual motion.

To create a Cinemagraph you start by capturing the images needed. Video is the best option, as mentionned, especially if you want to use Cliplets, which is going to be the tool explored/explained here. Almost anything that has some motion can be transformed into cinemagraphs. For these examples I created video sequences of subjects both indoors and outside, to demonstrate that the technique can be applied to different types of subjects.

The gear and the software

A tripod is, I would say, a must for the creation of the base videos. A good stable tripod will allow for a perfect framing of the subjects and the needed stabilization to ensure you’ve a well-defined sequence. While with some subjects, like the wildlife example, with the deer, you cannot, usually, repeat takes, to guarantee you’ve material to choose from, indoor captures, like the water tap, allow for precise control of all elements.

While for the outdoor cliplet natural light was used, and the camera supported on a car’s window sill, the indoor video sequences were all captured with tripod (a Manfrotto 190), a LED panel (the Lykos BiColor mentionned in my previous articles) and in the case of the coffee cup with a reflector (Lastolite Collapsible Diffuser 50cm 2 Stop), to open some of the shadows.

The diversity of subjects presented here confirms the potential of the technique to reveal, in a completely new way, themes that have already been explored in multiple other ways in photography. Maybe after reading these lines you’ll feel the need to try it yourself, maybe set a project and create a series of Cinemagraphs, your first experience with these modern days animated GIFs.

If you’re a Windows user, Cliplets is the program to use. The images published with this article show some of the steps needed to get the final result. Cliplets limits to 10 seconds the sequence of video to use, so you’ve to define, when you first load the video into the program, the section you want to use for your animation. It is important to understand that a cliplet is formed of two parts: a static frame, which has to be interesting as a photograph, and then a section which will have the necessary bit of animation, allowing for the creation of a seamless loop, so the illusion is complete. The static frame and the animated part all have to come from the 10 seconds video, so the better you’ve worked during the capture the more chance you’ve to get the results you’re after.

Exporting your animations

Cliplets works in a similar fashion to the video editor in Photoshop. Once you’ve defined your static frame place in a layer, you create a new layer, which will have the animation. While in Photoshop you need to understand how layers work,  and then paint the area in the static frame to reveal what is below, in Cliplets you only have to draw, with a pencil, around the section you want to animate. The program takes care of everything else and in a matter of seconds you’ve an animation which you can export.

When exporting, the limitations in size mentioned above are something to consider, if you want to go above the 640 pixels on the longer side, allowed by the GIF. It’s better to export the animation as a video, with MP4 being the most common format to use. This video is then uploaded to a website online, where you can transform it in an optimized animated GIF – or Cinemagraph or Cliplet, if you prefer – which then can be shared on the web, and viewed with any browser.

Websites as ezGIF are the final destination to prepare your Cliplet to be shared with the world.

CloudConvert is another page I will visit and recommend. I like the results from CloudConvert, but ezGIF has more options in terms of resizing and optimizing videos, so you may want to check them and add both to your Favorites. As you’ll discover there, it is a complex task to get a good balance between size, quality and weight of the file. The results, though, will probably make you want to keep trying. Have fun.

Vitec Group