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Photography

Cinemagraphs: How to Create Animated Photographs in Adobe Photoshop

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This post is part of a series called Animation in Adobe Photoshop.
Create Animated Falling Snow in Photoshop
How to Compress Animated GIF Files Without Losing Image Quality

Subtle or explicit, the Cinemagraph still puzzles people. It's an art form divided between the affirmative "it's a photograph!" or the inquisitive "is it a video?" Above all, it's still an animated GIF, dressed in a completely new way. While animated clipart has almost vanished from pages on websites, the animated GIF is still going strong. It's just disguised under a new look: that of a photograph.

In this tutorial you'll learn how to make cinemagraphs of your own.

A Brief History of the Cinemagraph

The term "cinemagraph" was coined in 2011, when photographer Jamie Beck and digital artist Kevin Burg used the technique to animate some of their photography and wanted a name other than "animated photo." Photographers were already exploring that way of showing photos with animation, but it was their body of work that attracted attention and got people doing their own cinemagraphs. Suddenly it was trendy to have animated GIFs again, although those modern examples were not based on clipart from the early days of the Web, but really photographs with an area showing minor and repeated movement.

Animated GIFs are produced by taking a series of photos that are placed together in a sequence, very much like the frames in a traditional animation, of which cartoons are probably the most popular form. In the early days of animation each of those frames was drawn by hand. The illusion of animation was created through the rapid display of static images (cinema is nothing more than a sequence of static images, after all). Flip books are a good example of a simple but effective way to create animations. Computers made everything easier and changed the way animation is made in modern days. But the passion of Man for the capture of motion is much older, and can be traced to pre-historic times. In some Paleolithic cave paintings the figures of animals are shown with multiple legs superimposed, a simple but effective way to suggest movement.

Although the use of photographs taken in sequence to create animated GIFS or cinemagraphs is a viable solution, photographers have discovered that video capture gives them more options and are using it to register sequences that can easily be transformed in a seamless loop of frames. Different software solutions make it easy for anyone to create cinemagraphs, although some of those solutions never offer the flexibility of a software like Photoshop.

Recording

All kinds of subjects make interesting cinemagraphs. The key ingredient is a bit of motion. Repetitive movements work best: they create the illusion of perpetual motion. A static frame is also important for creating that feeling of continuity. Using a tripod is recommended. If you are capable of holding very still and have image-stabilization in your camera or lenses this can work, but it's tricky to do consistently.

The App Advantage

Even smartphones - IOS, Android and Windows Phone - offer programs to create cinemagraphs. If you Google for "Cinemagraphs for Smartphones" a list of multiple choices will appear. Lumia Cinemagraph, which was originally called Nokia Cinemagraph, is such a software, bundled with the Lumia Windows Phone smartphones. It lets the user capture a sequence of video and select an area to animate; then, it automatically creates a cinemagraph.

Software Selection

If you want to create a cinemagraph using a free software, the Cliplets software from Microsoft Research Labs, for PC, is a good option. Microsoft Research Cliplets is an interactive program that gives users the power to create "Cliplets" - a type of imagery that sits between stills and video, including imagery such as video textures and cinemagraphs. The program provides a simple, yet expressive, way to mix static and dynamic elements from a video clip.

Record Video to Make Cinemagraphs

Still, the best way to control the whole process is to use a software like Adobe Photoshop. Although it is possible to shoot a sequence of photos to use, video is a better way to go. Video is, after all, a sequence of static images. Shooting video means you've more frames to choose from, as video can be shot at different frame rates, from 24 fps upwards. A segment of some 10 seconds of video will provide you with  more than enough material to create your first cinemagraphs. Go for simple animations first, to explore the tools and potential of the technique, and with time you'll be able to create more sophisticated cinemagraphs.

How to Make Cinemagraphs

There are multiple ways to create cinemagraphs, but the easiest of them is to choose a segment of video, select a static image from it to use as the base image, and then select the sequence of frames for the animation. Follow along in the example shown in the text and images below.

Once the video segment opens in Photoshop the timeline shows it so you can choose your static frame
Once the video segment opens in Photoshop the timeline shows it so you can choose your static frame.

Step 1: Open Your Video in Photoshop and Create a Static Frame

Start by selecting and opening your video in Photoshop.

The first thing to do is to select one frame that you want to use as the base for your static image. Play through your clip. Once you’ve identified the frame, select the image by clicking the video and Select All (Control-A) and Copy Merged (Shift-Control-C), then and Paste (Shift-Control-V) it on the base image.

After you move the static image layer on the layers panel a new layer appears on the Timeline The static frame chosen as a photograph is now above the video
After you move the static image layer on the layers panel, a new layer appears on the Timeline. The static frame chosen as a photograph is now above the video

Step 2: Move Static Image to Separate Track

Pasting the copied image on the video Timeline creates a static image after the video clip on the same track. In on the Layers panel, on the right, it appears as a separate layer. Now we want to move the image to its own track in the video time line, so grab the layer on the right panel and move it above the Video Group. You'll see a new track created in the timeline.

You’ll find that you now have on the Timeline a Video Group 1 and a Layer 2. You could rename them, for easier identification, if you were working with more items. As we’re only using two layers to create our Cinemagraph it is not needed.

Align the static image with the video segment so they run for the same time
Align the static image with the video segment, so they run for the same time

Step 3: Align the Clips

The next step is to align the Layer 2 (your photograph from one frame in the video) with the video itself, so they run for the same time. With very short video clips you may need to Zoom in the Timeline using the slider at the bottom (with the mountains) so that you can see everything properly.

It is a good idea to choose a smaller working size for your video as the final image will usually be around 800 or 600 pixels on the longer side
It is a good idea to choose a smaller working size for your video, as the final image will usually be around 800 or 600 pixels on the longer side

Step 4: Reduce Image Size

This is a good moment to reduce the dimensions of your video. Cinemagraphs are usually relatively small files. Cutting down the data you have to work with at this stage generally makes processing easier. I reduce my image to a longer side of 800 pixels, which gives me a good compromise of quality and file size for the final cinemagraph.

Select Image > Image Size (Alt-Control-I) and define the new horizontal dimension as 800 pixels. A diaglogue box with open asking you to transform your video into a Smart Layer. Say “Yes”.

Using the scissors it is easy to cut the section of video you want to use and throw away the others
Using the scissors it is easy to cut the section of video you want to use and throw away the others

Step 5: Cut the Clip

The next step is to choose the part of the video that you want to use in the animation. It has to be a small portion, or the animation will be too heavy. To do this, uncheck the visibility of the Layer 2 on the Layers panel, and select the video. View the video - use the arrows to move between frames - and decide which segment you want to use. Once you’re satisfied, select Video Group 1 and use the scissors tool to cut a beginning and end to the segment. Delete the remaining footage.

When the static image and the video segment are aligned you can move to the pure Photoshop operation using a mask to reveal the layer below animated under your top layer the static image
When the static image and the video segment are aligned, you can move to the pure Photoshop operation, using a mask to reveal the layer below, animated, under your top layer, the static image

Step 6: Trim the Image Clip

Now it is time to readjust the static image to the remaining video segment. Be careful and try to not change the dimensions (and time) of the video clip segment. Zoom in the Timeline so you’ve a good grip on it and move it to the start of the line. Then adjust the duration of the image by clicking and dragging the end of the clip .

Step 7: Mask and Reveal

Now we'll make the magic happen: a layer mask on the photo layer will create the illusion of movement within a static image.

First, select the static image, Layer 1. Then add a layer mask by clicking the Layer Mask icon (a circle inside a rectangle) on the Layers panel bar. Select the mask and paint with a black brush (B) to reveal the layer below.

This sometimes is a time consuming operation. Use black to reveal and white to hide until your mask produces a result you’re happy with.

Step 8: Final Touches and Export

You can adjust colour and tone. But remember the final image is going to be a 256 colour GIF, so the colours will be heavily compressed.

Saving the image is the next step. You can always save it at a higher resolution (800 pixels in this case) and then change its dimensions to create a smaller file. The File > Save for Web option will take you to a menu where you can choose the best options, and view results. Remember to keep file sizes small and to set the animated GIF to loop forever!

If you need to optimize your GIF, the easiest way to do it is through a website like EZGif is your best option.

Conclusion

That's it for the technical aspects! There is, still, an interesting note about this process that, again, relates to cinema and deserves to be mentioned. When you create a static image in front of an animated one you're in fact using a technique similar to the matte painting technique pioneered by the visual effects inventor Norman Dawn in the early days of movie making.

The matte process is based on a large plate of glass positioned in front of the motion camera. That glass has the intended scenery painted, with one area left clear, so the actors are filmed through it. That "double layer" created in a single capture allowed to reduce production time, as multiple sceneries, indoor and outdoor, could be done in studio. The introduction of computers in film production changed this, but the way  cinemagraphs are created is in fact very similar to the old technique of matte painting.

Recap

  1. Open your video in photoshop and create a static image
  2. Move the static image to a separate track
  3. Align the clips
  4. Reduce image size
  5. Cut the clip
  6. Trim the image clip
  7. Mask the static and to reveal the moving image below
  8. Final touches

Happy cinemagraph-making! Share your results in the comments below.

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