We are witnessing the birth of a new art form. Most artistic mediums are refined over time with new technology, whether an improved pigment for painting or a different type of chisel for sculpting. Some arrived with a bang such as photography and film. These were created through a series of technological breakthroughs such as machines and chemistry. cinemagraphs were born within the firing electrons of the digital revolution. Digital cameras, computers and screens have come together to give rise to them. If art forms survive long enough they develop a vernacular of their own with subtleties and nuances then become ingrained in society. It is too soon to say whether cinemagraphs will achieve this but they are certainly making a splash now.
A cinemagraph is a living photo. You read it like a still image with all the attention to composition, subject matter, design and concept that is usually found in good photography. But with a twist: part of the frame moves, usually playing for a few seconds, then loops. The movement can be subtle, such as clouds slowing moving across a sky, or the wind playing with someones hair, or overt, such as person standing up and sitting down. The movement becomes a device to catch your attention and give meaning to a person or an object beyond that if it was frozen.
The origin of the cinemagraphs is amorphous. You could say the ‘animated gif’ of the 1990s was an early version of the technique, where a cheezy graphic looped through a few frames and brought web pages to life,. As web bandwidth increased, gifs moved on from block colours and began to use a few frames of video, while still keeping the loop as a key component. These animated gifs have become a genre in their own right and are found everywhere online.
Cinemagraphs can be far more sophisticated than ordinary gifs. In the early 2000’s some artists played around with ‘moving photographs’ and began to develop the visual style that is used today. The term ‘cinemagraph’ was coined by New York fashion photographer Jamie Beck and graphic designer Kevin Burg . Their fashion series in early 2011 brought the art form into mainstream web culture. Today there are thousands of people creating and sharing them online. There are ‘originals’ that are shot and produced by the artist and then there are ‘covers’ where a piece of footage is taken from an existing movie and then turned into a cinemagraph. Jack Nicholson is a popular subject.
“Unlike traditional video where everything moves by and is quickly forgotten the looping aspect of cinemagraphs gives you a lot of time to explore the movement.”
The visual language of the cinemgraph has several forms. They can be a simple, seamless loop of video; think of the newspapers in Harry Potter. A progression from that is to take a still frame and then select part of the frame to move. An example might be a crowded street with everybody frozen, except for a man opening and closing a newspaper. These can be surreal and mesmeric. Your eye moves around the frame then settles and is drawn to the motion. Unlike traditional video where everything moves by and is quickly forgotten the looping aspect of cinemagraphs gives you a lot of time to explore the movement. In this regard they are very much like a traditional still photograph. It is this hybrid photo/video aspect which makes them perfect for tablets and other screen media. They work well with a standard magazine or news layout surrounded by text and graphics. They happily sit on the page without the viewer having to press play or listen to sound.
There are many online tutorials explaining the techniques used to make cinemagraphs. The most common way is to take some video footage and import it into Adobe Photoshop. The footage is cut down to a a few seconds then a single frame is selected and pasted on a layer above the video footage. This frame is then masked to let through part of the frame that will move. The footage is then exported as an animated gif. Of course, there are copious variations and the technique can become quite tricky. A simpler method is to use one of the many cinemagraph apps available on smart phones: Flixel, and Cinemagraph Pro are some of my favourites. If you are serious, Adoe After Effects or Photoshop allow more creative freedom.
The internet is a window to the world of cinemagraphs. The original cinemagraph.com is good for fashion. There is lively conversation at reddit/com/r/cinemagraphs. A tumbler search returns many thousand, some good and other not so. It is as if the world’s image makers were ready for this: the explosion of creativity is astounding. The craft is still in its infancy and may not persevere, although with the substantial number of devotees creating, viewing and discussing cinemagraphs, it may just thrive and become a mature art form. It will be fascinating to watch what happens.