Cinemagraphs on Steroids

Telling a Story With Living Photos

Today I released an iPad picture-book called “Fiona & the Fog,” and it’s the culmination of a design idea I’ve been tinkering with for a while now. A couple years ago, a design fad called “cinemagraphs” swept the internet – these were still photographs in which portions of the image subtly moved. Imagine a still landscape photo with actual moving, drifting clouds, or a photo of a woman whose hair is waving slightly in the breeze. Here’s one of my favorite examples, made all the more impressive in its use of a living subject.

What makes these images so compelling is that they go on forever; technically, they’re short, seamlessly looping videos, but they appear to be photographs that are forever restless and dynamic. After watching for a moment the “gimmick” becomes clear, yet it’s still hard to take your eyes off of them.

To me, the exciting thing about cinemagraphs is that they sit in a peculiar space somewhere between photography and videography. A photograph captures an instant, out of time; a video captures an event, a scene, a story, however fleeting. A cinemagraph does something else entirely: it captures a “moment.” Look out the window, and what you’re likely to see is a moment – clouds contort, trees sway, cars roll by – nothing “happens”, per se, but it’s a moment you can lose yourself in. Movement without narrative is peaceful (think about watching fire, or fish), and it’s something that exists stubbornly outside the bounds of either photography or videography.

This peacefulness is what I’ve tried to create with “Fiona & the Fog.” Each page of the book is a cinemagraph: it’s technically a looping HD video, but it presents as a living, breathing photograph. Using a video clip (most cinemagraphs use animated GIFs) makes possible higher resolutions, better framerates, and a dramatically wider color palette. But, playing (and seamlessly looping) HD video consistently creates a host of other technical complexities. I’d love to see a “GIF-HD” image standard receive wide adoption — aPNG’s are in some ways a solution, but they come with their own limitations.

(A scene from “Fiona & the Fog,” compressed significantly and converted to GIF format)

In the end, though, all this technical wrangling is just a means to a creative end. In the case of “Fiona & the Fog,” my hope is that this “living photo” effect will invite the reader to sit with each scene for just a moment, the way one would look out a window. I think that the cinemagraph effect lends itself particularly well to the medium of children’s books – scenes can be dynamic and captivating without being overstimulating or garish. It might be wishful thinking that children beneath a certain age will appreciate this subtlety, but at the very least I hope it will give parents something new to experience with their kids.

Of course, I am by no means the only one tinkering with this merger of photo and video. Look for it, and you’ll find all sorts of great examples – take, for instance, this promotional website for the upcoming movie “Interstellar.” Even Microsoft is getting into the game, with some very early software that can essentially turn a short video clip into a cinemagraph. I suspect that in the next few years we’re going to see these lines blur even further — and I can’t wait.

“Fiona & the Fog” is, I hope, the first of many experiments for me in the area of “mixed digital media” (whatever the hell that means). This first attempt is by no means perfect, but it’s taught me a great deal, and I hope that the ideas and techniques behind it continue to evolve and find audiences.

~William Poor,

Trailer for “Fiona & the Fog”