Cinemagraphs are a loop of video saved as a GIF (Graphics Interchange Format.) Properly made, movement in a cinemagraph is seamless. The viewer is unable to tell where the action begins or where it ends. That is the trick to make a successful cinemagraph.
The first component of a successful cinemagraph is a piece of video with a strong foreground subject. While you can certainly shoot your own video for cinemagraphs, for this project I’ll hop over to stock.adobe.com to find a suitable clip. At the landing page for video, select HD. GIFs are intended for use on the web so the HD format is more than large enough for making one. I searched for the keywords “cloud” & “sky.” Several pages of possibilities appeared.
Using Adobe Stock previews
Adobe makes it easy to be certain the clip chosen for the cinemagraph is perfect. After searching by keyword (1. above,) I found a cloudscape with trees in the foreground. It looked good so I downloaded a watermarked preview to use in my cinemagraph. The preview is a full HD version of the clip but with a watermark. Kudos to Adobe for making the watermark subtle. It’s quite visible yet doesn’t interfere with visualizing how the clip will work in a finished GIF.
Making the cinemagraph
Step one: Find the clip you selected or click this link to get the file used in this example: 132511037. Once it’s downloaded, usually, it will be in the downloads folder. Open it in Photoshop CC 2018. Older versions of Photoshop can make cinemagraphs too. The Timeline will be at the bottom of the document window. Click on the gear icon to the right of the Audio Playback button (1.) Check Loop to loop the clip. Click play. The clip plays to the end, jumps back to the front and plays again. The jump is super distracting. We are so going to get rid of it.
Making a seamless cinemagraph requires the first frame and the last frame be exactly the same. Dissolve between them to achieve the jump-less look.
Step two: Watch your clip several times. Look for a place at least a second or two into the clip that looks likely to be matched with itself. While it sounds difficult, practically any place that is not at the very beginning of the clip will work just fine. Stop the playback head where the cinemagraph is to begin and end. Click the front of the clip then drag it to playback head (2.) This clip is the beginning of the cinemagraph.
Step three: Duplicate the video group by dragging it in the Layer stack to the New Layer icon. Place the playback head at the end of both clips. Highlight the bottom layer (Video Group 1.) Drag it to the right until the first frame is lined up with the playback head.
Step four: The first frame in the top clip is now duplicated and is at the end of the bottom clip. Click the front of the bottom clip. Pull video out from the bottom clip without moving the whole clip.
Step five: Now we make part of the top layer (Video Group 1 copy) transparent using keyframes. Place the playback head in the Timeline at the front of the bottom clip (Video Group 1.) Spin down the disclosure triangle for Video Group 1 copy. Click the Opacity stopwatch to set the beginning keyframe. Note that the top layer (Video Group 1 copy) has an opacity of 100% in the Layers panel. Now move the playback head to the end of the top clip. Click the Add Keyframe button to the left of the stopwatch. Now, move the opacity of Video Group 1 copy to 0%.
Step six: Finally, drag the end of the clip Video Group 1 on the bottom to the playback head. Click play to see the clouds move across the screen seamlessly.
Freezing the foreground
The trees in the foreground move and the light on them changes. This is distracting. Here’s how to freeze the trees and the light on them.
Step one: Move the playback head to a place where the trees are in sunshine. Highlight the top layer (Video Group 1 copy) in the Layers panel. Hold down the Command, Shift and Option keys (WIN: Control, Shift & Alt) then press E. The visible layers are copied to a new layer. It appears in the Layer stack named Layer 2. It is at the top of the layers and at the top of the clips in the Timeline. Slide it to the left and trim the right end until it exactly lines up with the clips below it.
Step two: Use your favorite masking technique to separate the trees from the clouds. Here’s my version. Go to the Channels tab. Click on the Red, Green and Blue channels to see which has the most contrast between the trees and the sky. The Blue channel gets my vote.
Step three: Duplicate the Blue channel by dragging it to the New Channel icon at the bottom of the panel. Press Command (WIN: Control) + L to open the Levels dialog. Drag the Highlight slider to the left until the sky goes completely white. Drag the Shadow slider to the right until the treeline is black. Use a white paintbrush to fill in the gray in the sky.
Step four: Hide the Blue channel copy by clicking its eye icon off. Now, click on the RGB channel. Finally, Command (Win: Control) click on the Blue channel copy thumbnail to load it as a selection. Click the Layers tab. Make sure Layer 2 is highlighted then click the new layer mask icon at the bottom of the panel. Finally, type Command (Win: Control) + I to invert the mask. Click play in the timeline. The trees don’t move and the sunlight doesn’t change either.
Step five: Use the Save for Web… dialog. It’s buried under File > Export… in Photoshop’s menu. The keyboard shortcut is Command + Shift + Option (Win: Control + Shift + Alt) + S. There are some settings in the dialog to be aware of. For animation make sure that Looping Options are set to Forever. The type of file is GIF 128 colors dithered. Be careful to keep the file as small in size as possible as this format can be a size pig. Color can sometimes suffer when making GIFs. Remember these are destined for the Internet not a billboard on Times Square. Size (small) matters.
License the clip
When the cinemagraph is finished, license the clip from Adobe Stock. Follow the steps above and the new animated GIF will be watermark free.
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