How to Make the Perfect Cinemagraph

29th October 2015 - Abhishek Chaudhry

“There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.” And Ansel Adams would have said the same about cinemagraphs. Though they have been around for quite a while, this intriguing format has soared in popularity among advertisers of late, pushed along by looping video support on social media platforms. With a place on any digital display surface, these “moving pictures” are compelling for a few reasons, and this set of guidelines gives some insight into why. Remember, these are guidelines, not rules.

Unnatural is intriguing

The most compelling element of a cinemagraph is how deeply steeped it is in the unreal. While this is the most basic part of the puzzle, it is often not thought out from all angles. Many pour too much focus into the movement, and the stillness goes ignored. A cinemagraph needs to balance the two parts, using them together to create a compelling piece. If your cinemagraph ends up looking like a regular video because of decisions on what moves and what doesn’t, you have (obviously) failed. A good example can be found in trees. They can be still, or they can be swaying in the wind. But we don’t know what they’re supposed to be without context. Fluttering flag but still trees? Intriguing. Child on a swing under still trees? Could just be a regular video.

Perfect the loop

If you can keep somebody watching your cinemagraph because they’re not sure it’s over, you’ve done well. The most common way to force a loop is by playing the footage in reverse after playing it forward and setting that as the loop. This is typically very noticeable, though with some clever composition and timing, it can be masked. The other option is to shoot as a loop – for example, have the subject enter and exit the frame for each loop. Keep in mind, a perfect loop isn’t always what you might be going for – a broken, or obvious loop might help create a feeling of uneasiness.

Keep it Minimal

Minimalism is important when planning a cinemagraph. An overcomplicated frame with many moving parts and multiple focal points takes away from the intrigue and message, unless you’re looking to portray chaos. Keep your target audience and message in mind – what moves and what stays still should play into this and add to the emotion you are trying to appeal to. Multiple flashes at a fashion show are just as interesting as a flowing dress, but they create very different moods. 

Shoot for the Cinemagraph

While it is possible to use existing footage and build cinemagraphs from them, it is best to approach each cinemagraph as its own shot. Plan your composition with the motion vs. stillness in mind, keep the frame clear where needed, and keep your targeted platform(s) in mind. Clear artistic direction is of utmost importance, and the still frame needs to tell the story, enhanced by the motion. Most importantly, keep your camera steady. While a little bit of floating can be stabilized, why not go out there with a tripod in the first place?

Get Creative

In some cases, a more complex cinemagraph shoot might be needed – greenscreens, large lighting rigs, plates and VFX in post – the more skills you have access to, the more approaches you can take to a cinemagraph. However, never forget guideline #3. Break expectations on what moves and what doesn’t, play with depth and speed, and remember – there are no hard rules, only guidelines. Like most creative work, the process is fluid, and the best work comes from experimentation and experience. Hair blowing in the wind, flowing water and swaying fabrics have their place, but always keep an eye out for unexpected approaches that enhance the product.

Be Engaging

This might seem like an obvious point, but in order to engage viewers, it’s very important to keep in mind what and who you’re building the cinemagraph for. The target audience, the product (if there is one) and the platform all come into play when planning.  Consider the differences between a car ad for use on Instagram, a header-image for use on the front page of a bakery’s website, and a display for use in-stores at a high-end fashion boutique. The placement on Instagram would need to be more noticeable to stop a viewer from scrolling past, whereas subtlety can be pushed when used on a large screen in a physical space.

At the end of the day, cinemagraphs are a unique form of story-telling, living in the world between photography and videography. Beyond the visual end-products are considerations of what this story is, how the brand needs to be perceived as a result, and what emotional response needs to be triggered. Cinemagraphs are commonly breathtaking, awe-inspiring, or serene. What about comedic, unnerving, or chaotic? How can this feeling be pushed in a medium that doesn’t try to be grounded in reality? 

  • Interesting read Abishek. Great to see fellow Torontonians that have discovered the magic of cinemagraphs. Stop by our office in Liberty Village sometime.