Behind the Screens #1

The first of an ongoing series that goes behind the screens (of my camera, phone and computer) to reveal techniques in making cinemagraphs. These are not full detailed tutorials but they may reveal some ideas and techniques you hadn't considered.


This is a look at some cinemagraphs I produced a while back for both MVMT Watches and for Live Lokai bracelets in America plus a camera shot I did as a test but ended up featured by Flixel on a huge digital billboard over Times Square in New York for 3 days!

Levitation cinemagraphs are becoming part of my signature style, it ‘elevates’ that sense of illusion and magic that cinemagraphs are becoming so well known for. The simple nature of a cinemagraph is it’s ability to draw the viewers attention through the combination of a still photo with a elements of video motion. Even the most classic cinemagraph such as a models hair subtly blowing in the breeze while the rest remains static can be truly mesmerising.

The following is one of my recent favourites, shot for watch company MVMT using timelapse of traffic at dusk in the background.


There are many different ways to create what I'll explain below and there may be much easier ways too! I don't claim to be the most technically proficient but I love exploring new techniques... I'm self taught so it's how I learnt. In fact my workflow has moved on already from when I first wrote this and published it on my old website so I've edited the following to incorporate my use of After Effects to pre-process before finishing in Cinemagraph Pro compared to my original pre-process of Photoshop/Premiere.


Background: The background in the watch example above and the mid air camera shot below is captured clean without the foreground elements, either as a straight video in HD or 4K at whatever shutter speed or framerate suits the look you’re going for. For the timelapse of cars in the MVMT Watch shot I captured a series of stills at a slow shutter speed to create motion blur and edited the raw stills using Adobe Bridge, saving the processed jpegs to a dedicated folder. In Premiere I used the function to import those stills as an image sequence which automatically puts them together as a video sequence to drop on the timeline. Using time-lapse with raw stills is great because you have the ability to process all that raw data so much more without degrading the image.

Foreground Elements: on early versions of this technique I was shooting the foreground elements such as the hands or object mid air using HD or 4K video at a fast shutter speed or using the slow motion mode on the LUMIX GH4 (which only works in HD). Again, shooting the foreground object/subject as a raw photo gives you a lot more flexibility in grading that image. Just be careful you don't push it so far that it's impossible to match to the video layer which will be beneath it. When I was shooting a relatively unbreakable rubber bracelet for Live Lokai on a beach (see further below) it made sense to shoot video giving me multiple frames from which to choose the perfect moment of the splash. Some slow motion video like on the GH4 comes at a penalty on bitrate and can give a more compressed looking image. For the MVMT Watch and the mid air camera I sure as hell wasn’t going to throw them up in the air over a motorway or edge of a building! So for the watch I mounted it with gaffer tape on a length of straightened wire coat hanger and simply took a photo in front of the background scene right there on the bridge. That ensures the lighting will match the background video. For the camera shot I simply dangled it using the camera straps and edited them out in Photoshop.

1.) PNG Elements 2.) Background 3.) Ungraded 4.) Graded


In either Photoshop or After Effects (I do this more in After Effects nowadays) I import the background video and convert it to a Smart Object (Photoshop) or a new Composition (After Effects). I then add the foreground photo as a layer over the top and start selecting very carefully around the foreground object/subject then delete or mask out the background.

A lot of this masking can also be done direct in Flixel Cinemagraph Pro which I've explained further below but where After Effects or Photoshop help is that my Panasonic GH4 crops the 4K video compared to the still photos so the images don't align if I simply import the still using that feature in Cinemagraph Pro. Cinemagraph Pro doesn't have the facility to resize the still image to align with the video. I've started using After Effects more now because it cleverly aligns it automatically most of the time when I drop the still over the video in the timeline. I also do my core colour grading in After Effects now so I'll sometimes do a little masking if it requires some really straight sharp lines to be masked around the subject... Cinemagraph Pro uses a brush tool which is really powerful for getting into detail and varied opacity and softness but trying to paint a perfectly straight line by hand is near impossible so the Adobe selection tools are stronger on those details.

Either way you often need to mask different edges at varied opacity and softness to remove unwanted highlights from the original background or retaining the semi-transparency you get from bokeh blur against it’s background. With the water in the Live Lokai shot below I also painted transparency on each individual droplet of water so you would also see the waves moving behind them.

If you're using Photoshop... once the masking is done I would then turn off visibility of the background video layer which was only there for reference, to make sure the forground elements match. I'd export the masked layer as a transparent .PNG file to be layered back over the video in Adobe Premiere. Why do this instead of just export the whole thing as video from Photoshop? I just find Photoshop is too limited in it's video export options and I always had trouble with the video later, it uses very dated codecs. The advantage of using After Effects is you can do it all in one place and it's designed to handle video exports beautifully... after all it's basically Photoshop for Video! If you've done all this in After Effects you can simply export the video as ProRes to maintain all the colour depth and quality, then skip to further below to start the final loop in Cinemagraph Pro. If you're going to process the layers through Premiere read on...

1.) PNG Elements 2.) Background 3.) Ungraded 4.) Graded


If you've followed on from Photoshop as detailed above I would then composite all those elements together in Premiere Pro and you essentially have your video without the final loop. At this point I would I grade it with adjustment layers applying my favourite looks. So I would then export approx 10 seconds worth of the combined video (the max Cinemgraph Pro imports).


To be honest all the masking I did on all the images above could have be left till the end and done entirely in Cinemagraph Pro. As I mentioned earlier I'd recommend only using After Effects (or Photoshop) when there are objects that need masking with very straight and sharp edges which is hard to do well with a freehand brush. Otherwise it's much quicker to do it all with Flixel.

When I export from After Effects to do the masking in Cinemagraph Pro I would simply place the still image right at the start of the timeline so it only shows for a few frames and then reveals the video layer beneath it for the remainder of the clip. That way when I import it into Cinemagraph Pro I simply take the still frame selection handle on the timeline and place it on the first few frames which are the still shot. I then drag the video loop in/out point onto the video section of the clip and start masking and tweaking the loop to a crossfade or bounce.

To see the basics of this in practice have a watch of the following tutorial by Flixel using one of my own featured cinemagraphs.

What also makes Flixel invaluable in my workflow is how quick I can make alternate versions using their non-destructive crop settings (i.e. you can always revert back) as well as the colour grading tools and presets. For example I'll always export square versions for Facebook ads as they typically perform better and when the video is 4K and the footage suits I can get a vertical 9:16 crop for Instagram Stories. I'll oftentimes en push the content last and colour a little further for formats like Instagram where it's displayed in a smaller size, to make it more punchy. To be able to do this quickly in Cinemagraph Pro is fantastic.


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