“It’s tough to be boring when you only have one second,” pointed out Techcrunch when Boomerang launched in 2015. These playful, woozy pieces of quick-fire moving image seem so ubiquitous now that it’s odd to think they only looped their way into the world two years ago, democratising gif-making to make it accessible to anyone with a smartphone.
The app is the logical next step from the advent of cinemagraphs, still photographs or pieces of footage that use the subtle repetition of a single element to create the illusion of an animation, which are available on Adobe Stock. They are created through modifying a series of photographs or a video file in image editing software, which composites the photographs or frames into a sequential, seamless loop. The motion of the subject between exposures creates a beguiling contrast to the static nature of the rest of the image; making it a fascinating and rapidly evolving medium for creatives.
“As humans we seek out motion – we want to see things that are moving and as soon as something moves in a pattern we can predict, we can lose interest”
So what’s the appeal of such a short loop? What’s the benefit of such a short burst of movement over something static or a longer gif? Some have posited that in an era where political, technological and economic concerns feel more gloomy and fast-moving than ever, image-makers (be them professional or otherwise) are creating a legacy through similarly rapid visuals. Maybe it reflects a collective sense of being in limbo. And, as we pointed out earlier, even the most goldfish-like of millennial attention spans last at least a second. In more simplistic terms, they’re fun: The odd sense of being in fast forward renders a simple picture of a bunch of people jumping, or a baby smiling, that little bit more interesting. “Get that exact moment your friend blows out his birthday candles, then watch them come back to life again and again,” promised Instagram in the blog post that accompanied Boomerang’s launch.
For Chris Converse, partner at Codify Design Studio, the definition of a cinemagraph isn’t so much about the tools used to make it or the technical minutiae, but the overall “experience.” He explains: “The term ‘cinemagraph’ is really made up – there’s no definition of a cinemagraph, even though there are companies trying to copyright the name. I consider them to be an experience over a particular technology. A photograph gives you a snapshot in time, and a video give you motion, but it has a beginning and an end, and only tells the story if you watch the whole progression. A cinemagraph has a cinematic quality, but you don’t have to watch it from beginning to end – it works by itself.”
“Again, for me it’s all about the experience. Can you get the whole experience from looking at it? That’s where I think the breakdown of the term cinemagraph happens, and designers and developers are considering ways to use that for [clients’] content.”
So what do clients want when they commission cinemagraphs? “We get bombarded by so much material,” says Converse, “but with cinemagraphs you can grab people’s attention with cinematic effects but deliver the message as quickly as you can with a photograph. That’s why they’re so incredibly popular now for advertisers.
“As humans we seek out motion – we want to see things that are moving and as soon as something moves in a pattern we can predict, we can [lose interest.] But it’s compelling when only part of it’s moving and the rest isn’t. That’s really unnatural to us, so we’re trying to make sense out of it and really watch it.”
Tina Touli is a multidisciplinary graphic communication designer and art director who frequently makes work in gifs and cinemagraphs, and has seen a dramatic shift towards client demand for short pieces of moving image, as either a standalone piece or part of a wider design project.
“Nowadays it’s getting harder and harder to keep somebody’s attention for longer than a few seconds,” she says. “Videos and animations usually last for a few minutes, and if the viewer is not 100% interested in it, they probably won’t see the whole video or the message. Gifs allow you to create meaningful stories in just a few seconds – they’re a great tool for storytelling that allow you to communicate in a really quick and efficient way and can transform a standard image into something exciting and engaging. In other words, they can lighten up and bring to life any visual.”
With such a rapidly changing landscape technologically, creating work in these formats and with their technical limitations isn’t without its challenges. Touli explains that working with them means having to consider the right amount of colours while designing, since gifs are limited to 256 colours. “In order to retain a good quality image in such a small format file, you have to be mindful about its content and the amount of detail that you use while designing it,” she adds.
“Looping animations like gifs work their way into our subconscious. By saying the same message again and again, repeating the same visual, it will somehow stick in the viewer’s head”
So what do her clients want when they specifically commission cinemagraphs? “It’s trendy these days, and people want to do what they see their competitors doing. Clients are probably aware that repetition helps someone to easily memorise information,” she says.
“Looping animations like gifs work their way into our subconscious. By saying the same message again and again, repeating the same visual, it will somehow stick in the viewer’s head. Repetition can definitely help to inform. Even if you know what comes next, since you’ve already seen the loop, you somehow feel that there is always something more to see, something new to focus on with each repetition.
“Moreover, gifs are a powerful, low-cost format compared to videos and animations. They can be a cost-effective way for a client to bring a message to life. They don’t require a lot of production time and are a great method for minimising the animation process.”
A major benefit of this sort of motion over static is a sense of creating a microcosm of a story. Brooklyn-based illustrator and animator Julian Glander is a master at making brilliantly bold, surreal and cute work that’s prime for Instagram. As well as working on comics for Vice and on-air bumpers for clients like MTV, much of his work is in a gif format. To the viewer, each of these little loops tells a clear story – whether it’s an animated editorial illustration for the New York Times about sneezing, or a strange Heath Robinson-esque rendering of LeBron James for Nike Basketball. In short, they’re a ‘content person’s’ dream: engaging, funny, shareable, and succinct in their storytelling to suit famously short online attention spans.
“Sometimes it’s hard for people to express themselves, but there’s something completely succinct about using a nice little square you can send to someone with a face on it, or someone going like ‘this’ [Glander manically shrugs his shoulders and waves his arms over Skype.],” says Glander. “There’s an ambiguity and magic that you could never try to encapsulate in a text, or that won’t have the same resonance. Gifs are post-words.”
Ultimately, the appeal of cinemagraphs and other forms of quick-fire moving image is in their ability to convey narrative in both succinct and fun ways – and communicate to an audience with (we’re told) a rapidly dwindling attention span. Today, they’re easier to make than ever, as well as being easier to incorporate into a project thanks to their availability on platforms like Adobe Stock. These miniature, looping animations in many contexts can also be surprisingly powerful: as Glander puts it, they’re “a deeper form of expression.”
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