The works of artists such as Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg have rejuvenated the interest and usefulness of a file type that was all but relegated to the history of the internet. The venerable GIF file has been a mainstay of web design since the Nineties, but frequently overlooked by photographers and graphic designers as simply a web file. Its limitations are well known: 256 colours, 1-bit transparency. But the simple fact that it can contain animation is what has brought it back into the eye of visual artists. Enter the form of art known as the ‘cinemagraph’. The idea is to create an animated file containing the life-like movement of what would otherwise be a frozen moment in time. This differs from a video clip in that the cinemagraph creates the visual expectation of a still photograph, but then the viewer is treated to a surprise when the still photo moves.
In this tutorial we’ll show you how to blend photos with matching digital video to create a stunning ‘photo’ of a lake with moving ripples in the water. Please also note that this project requires Photoshop CS3 Extended (or later) to handle the video layers. You will need both a still photo and a short video clip of the same scene.
Open up your main still image and use the Content Aware Fill or Clone Stamp tool to remove the construction equipment and houses. Use a Curves adjustment to tighten up the contrast. We’re going to add a new sky image on top and position it so the tree lines match. Change the blending mode to Darken and mask out everything but the clouds and some of the reflection.
Save the file as a separate document and then flatten the image with Image>Flatten Layers. Go to Image>Adjustments>HDR Toning. The goal of this step is to super-saturate the colours in the image and greatly enhance the details of the scene. We used these settings: Radius = 24, Strength = 1, Detail = 68, Shadow = -32, Vibrance = 25, Saturation = 20. A quick Levels treatment helped darken the midtones afterwards.
Go to Layer>New Video Layer from File and open your video of moving water. Video layers don’t scale well in Photoshop. We recommend unlocking the Background layer and scaling it to fit the video, then cropping the file down afterwards. Use the Pen tool to create a path around the foreground dock and use it as a vector mask on the video layer. Add a layer mask and use a soft brush to fade out the video layer as it nears the opposite shore line.
Change the video layer’s blending mode to Luminosity. Add a Levels adjustment layer clipped to the video layer and use the Levels controls to increase the contrast and darken the animation until it visually matches the photo. Open Window>Animation and playback the video. The playback will probably reveal areas where the mask needs to be touched up to keep the effect as seamless as possible.
The animation is roughly ten seconds long. We only need about two seconds for the effect to work well. Select a portion of the animation by adjusting the Start and End tabs of the work area on the timeline. Click on the first frame of the work area, then go to the flyout menu of the Animation panel and choose Trim Layer Start to Current Time. Click on the last frame in the work area and choose Trim Layer End to Current Time.
When the animation is played back there’s a noticeable jump when the movement loops. To treat this, we will use an animator’s trick for creating loopable motion. Duplicate the video layer and clipped Levels layer twice. In the Timeline, grab the bottom video layer and slide it to the left until its ending point is in the middle of the work area. Then shift the middle video layer to the right until its start point lines up with the end of the bottom video layer. This is where the jump happens; when one video layer ends, the other begins.
The top-most video layer covers over the seam of the two below it. To allow the animation below to show through, we’ll animate the Opacity of this layer. Go to the first frame of the work area. Dial down the arrow next to the video layer in the timeline and hit the stopwatch icon next to the Opacity. Set the Opacity to 0%. Click on the middle frame and set the Opacity to 100%. Then click on the last frame and set the Opacity to 0% again.
One of the visual cues that can create the expectation of a photograph is a vignette. Since we want to animation to take place beneath the vignette, we don’t want to use the effect on the background directly. Place a blank layer over the background and fill it with 50% Gray, then add the vignette to this layer through the Custom tab of the Lens Correction filter. Change the blending mode to Overlay to render the grey invisible.
Playback the animation again to check the movement. When you are satisfied, go to File>Save for Web and Devices. Set the type of file to GIF and colours to 256. The dithering settings will vary for each image, but for this one we found the Adaptive setting with Diffusion to work well. It’s important to set the Looping options to Forever or the animation will play through once and stop. Hit save and enjoy your new cinemagraph!