How to Create a Cinemagraph or GIF
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Forever ago, I wrote a basic guide on how to create a cinemagraph on my tumblr, Adventures Once Had. Then I wrote this guide as a follow up in 2016 but it was on a site I eventually abandoned (let us never discuss my many digital projects that I endlessly start and stop). Every couple of years I get a surge of questions about how to create Cinemagraphs and GIFs and I seem to be in the middle of one right now so I dusted this off and am updating it with my current workflow.
This is how I do things currently but one thing I’ve learned in the past few years is that for every creative project there are a million possible routes to get you to your desired end point and those routes are constantly evolving.
Coming up with a GIF IDEA
Most of my photos and cinemagraphs begin with some sort of idea or rough thought. I like to go into most projects with a list of shots that I want to get and how I want to get them (movement, direction, light, location, people). If I’m collaborating with someone or going into a situation where I don’t know certain details, I leave things vague but there’s always a rough itinerary.
I don’t like walking into a situation with no plan because then a lot of time gets whittled away trying to refine an idea instead of executing.
For ideas, I use feedly, pinterest, a ridiculous list of link round ups and tumblr to find inspiration. I also put together a newsletter of links that I find interesting, inspirational or funny and I’ll occasionally go through old newsletters if I’m struggling to think of something. Sometimes I use private Pinterest boards to share inspirational images and to come to a cohesive idea of the direction I want to head in with collaborators.
When I first started making cinemagraphs, it was on tumblr and file size was a considerable restraint. These days, I’m often using the format but exporting to video and using that on Instagram or Twitter, so file size no longer is such a limiting factor. I feel that the early experience of having to constantly think about number of frames, amount of movement and the colors to keep the final size down really forced me to think through each piece. It’s nice not to be limited in that way anymore but I think it was good practice.
During a shoot, I usually start out with the easiest ideas first and work into more complex ideas, that way if I get stuck I will always have some footage to fall back on. Same with editing, if I’m not sure if some things will work or not, I save them for the end. Generally, I’ll have some simple movements and little things like that to start out with and everything after that is project dependent.
Recording footage for GIFs & Cinemagraphs
When I started out, I shot everything on a Canon 7D and then upgraded to a Canon 5D mark iii and now use a Canon 5d mark iv. Along the way, I’ve also tested out the Sony Alphas. To a certain degree, you can make almost any equipment set up work as long as the final pieces are for web not broadcast.
These days, I most frequently shoot 1080p at 23.967fps except if I want a slow motion effect, in which case I’ll shoot 60fps but I’ve also worked on projects that have required 4K footage. Shooting higher quality footage isn’t such a big deal, it’s the processing and editing that becomes more and more of a pain the higher the quality.
The one thing I see go wrong in a lot of GIF and cinemagraph footage is accidental movement. If you’re shooting with a tripod, sandbag it or task someone with making sure it doesn’t move. Also, if it does get moved consider starting over or adding more motion into the footage so it looks purposeful instead of a mess up. Lastly, you can fix some of these issues in post either by doing auto align layers on Photoshop or using warp stabilizer in After Effects. Below is footage that I’ve stabilized in post but sometimes it doesn’t work out so be cautious about depending on it.
Jumping into Photoshop
I do the brunt of my GIF making in Photoshop. There are programs that can specifically just make GIFs from video footage and they’re simpler to use than Photoshop, so if you’re just starting out that might be an easier route. By the time I got into GIF making, I was already accustomed to using Photoshop so it wasn’t a big leap into using it for GIFs. There are a number of ways to go about creating a GIF in Photoshop but they all work within the Timeline window (as either a video or animation). If you have a bit of footage you want in GIF form, just set your start and end points on your video clip. If you just want to make a GIF, you can go to File -> Save for Web -> and set your file to save as a GIF -> Save and there you go! Your GIF is made!
There are tons of tutorials that go through this process with more detail and screenshots. When I was initially figuring out the process, I found this tutorial to be most helpful from LifeHacker.
If you want to create a cinemagraph style effect, that will require masking. You can mask your GIF in either the video or animation mode in the Timeline window. Personally, I like seeing all my frames so I convert my frames into clips and work in animation mode, to do that go to convert frames -> flatten frames into clips. You’ll have a bunch of layers and I usually like to duplicate them into a new document. From there you create a new frame animation and then create new frames from layers.
To create the cinemagraph effect, you mask the top layer and set it to be visible throughout the entire animation so your motion is always playing below a top layer. Generally, at this stage I’ll watch my GIF for several loops and make judgements about timing and frames. When you create a loop, you know where the seam is so it’ll seem extremely obvious and maddening. I often have to step away from my work for a bit or ask for a second opinion. I’ll ask who ever happens to be around if they can tell where the loop jumps. If they can, I continue tweaking my cinemagraph and if they can’t I call it a day.
Getting fancier with After Effects
Originally, all of the cinemagraphs were GIF files but now they’re occasionally looping videos, which I usually make in After Effects. Instagram doesn’t support GIF files but it does loop video files so you can create a cinemagraph styled post. To a large degree, you do the same thing in After Effects as in Photoshop (create a top layer, mask out what you want moving and loop). The advantage with After Effects is that you can create several other effects and play around with the footage.
If I’m looping fire, smog, water I’ll always go into After Effects to create a smoother seam in the loop. I stumbled into using After Effects because of my cinemagraph making and have found the easiest way to learn how to use the program is to create small projects or follow along tutorials. When I started out, I would look for tutorials that roughly addressed whatever I was looking to create. Over time, I’ve become proficient and generally have a sense of what I need to do to achieve the effect that I’m going for but I will note that I had many days where halfway through a project I shut down the program and walked away from my computer exasperated. It’s a bit of a pain at first but becomes easier over time.
GIFS & Cinemagraphs on Social Media
One of the more challenging aspects of GIF making is keeping up with all of the shifting standards. Video files play on most computers but you run into trouble with mobile support. GIFs work on most sites but not on Instagram.
Ultimately, I now create a GIF and an mp4 version for most cinemagraphs. Here is how my files break out based on where I’m posting them:
For tumblr, I always post a GIF since their support is pretty good. GIF files should be under 540px wide and generally around 1.75 MB. Tumblr can support GIFs up to 2 MB but I’ve run into problems with the animation not playing.
I used to post video files that were 640 by 640 pixels but now do 1080 by 1350 pixels. When Instagram first launched video it was really buggy but it’s pretty stable these days.
For more information on export settings for Instagram see this tutorial (they use Adobe Premiere).
Generally, I post videos on Instagram and then share to Facebook, which always works. The one thing with Facebook is that I’m constantly baffled by how they surface content and I’ve been told that it’s better to embed videos directly. Whatever.
This used to matter to me when I ran digital for brands but now I entirely work as a creator and am less involved and aware so it’s possible this has changed.
Usually whatever GIF I post on Tumblr, works on Twitter.
Giphy is awesome. I host a ton of my cinemagraphs on there. If I’m feeling really lazy, I upload a GIF to Giphy and render out a mp4 via the site. The quality isn’t as good as if I do it myself with higher quality footage but if I just want something quickly it's a good option.
One of the main reasons that I don’t use cinemagraph or gif making software instead of Photoshop and/or After Effects is because of the range of file types that I need when I’m ready to post my cinemagraph. I find that I usually can get there most easily with Photoshop and/or Adobe Media Encoder.