Behind the Scenes: Creating a Cinemagraph

You’ve probably seen them already, but cinemagraphs are photos with a little extra magic in them. Something about their never-ending motion catches our eye and entrances us like a mobile entrances a newborn. 

We wanted to bring some of that magic to our clients.

Each year, the Sioux Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau asks us to find new and unique ways to share Sioux Falls attractions with the wider world. In 2017, we dipped our toes into a new-to-us medium, the cinemagraph, and got great results. We used this image:

But it took a lot of work. A cinemagraph is a combination of the words cinema and photograph. This meeting of mediums produces the cinemagraph: a short looping video or GIF that has the appearance of a still photograph but with some portion in motion.

We saw great engagement with this and, for 2018, were tasked with creating increasingly ambitious cinemagraphs of Sioux Falls. 

Mark Henderson, our director of creative services, had a vision. His son loves the butterfly house, and he thought it would be magical to capture, up close and personal, the moment a child experiences an encounter with a butterfly. Not ones to shy away from a challenge, the video team set out to execute this vision.

What made this concept particularly challenging is that cinemagraphs usually work best if most of the elements in the image are static, making it easier to isolate the motion of only a few elements in the frame. 

Children and butterflies, however, are both notoriously bad at sitting still. On our shoot at the butterfly house, we captured material that we knew had the magic we were looking for. But we also knew that we had our work cut out for us in post-production. Take a look.

You can see what we’re trying to accomplish: a Blue Morpho butterfly perched on the girl’s arm, flapping his wings, with the waterfall on the right burbling away. Meanwhile, the girl and the rest of the scene remain motionless. Sure, it’s straight out of camera so the color is still flat But as soon as we had our elements in position, I knew this shot was going to work and look great!

Here’s the moment we captured that we decided would be our best bet for turning into a cinemagraph.

Upon initial inspection, the butterfly doesn’t appear to be cooperating—it’s just unfolding its wings and shivering. Other challenges here include our subject’s arm moving downward in the shot, which changes the position of the butterfly and what portions of the waterfall are obscured. 

We chose this clip for the potential we could see in it: Buried in this clip was the material to achieve our vision. 

Here’s what how we brought it to the surface.

The girl and butterfly image chosen to build the cinemagraph.
Step 1: Freeze time

Step 1: Freeze time

First, we took a single frame from the video to represent the still image on top of which we would be building our motion. This would serve as the background of everything else.

The process of painting the butterfly out of the image.
Step 2: Paint out the butterfly

Step 2: Paint out the butterfly.

When the butterfly is flapping its wings on the girl’s arm, we have to be able to see what’s behind those wings. That meant creating a clean “plate” of the area we can see behind the butterfly. 

To do this, we took our main background freeze frame, as well as three other freeze frames from other moments in the video. We used Photoshop to paint  out the butterfly and replace parts of the girl’s shirt, neckline, and arm. This created a still image with no butterfly at all.

Step 3: Face replacement

To get a sharp image of the butterfly, we chose a clip where we had biased the camera’s focus closer to the lens, bringing the butterfly into crisp focus, but leaving our subject’s face a little bit blurry. We had another shot where her face was in better focus, though, so we composited a still image of her face from that clip into our main shot.

Before and after replacing the girl's facial expression
Step 3: Face replacement
Masking out the butterfly
Step 4: Isolate the butterfly

Step 4: Isolate the butterfly

At this stage, the work became more difficult. How difficult? We had to manually adjust each one of these red points  to isolate the butterfly for every frame of movement that I wanted—11 times. This was by far the most time-consuming part of the process.

This was no small task, but once completed, we had the butterfly isolated and moving its wings down in one single beating motion. Reversing this motion at the end of the cycle and then looping the combined down/up motion allowed us to create the impression of a butterfly flapping its wings in place, forever. 

Step 5: Composite the Butterfly

Once the butterfly was isolated, we needed to add it back into our scene—first, by just dropping it in there. Here's what that looked like.

As you can see it needed some work. The butterfly appears to float around (thanks to the motion of the arm the butterfly sat on in the video clip). So, first we stabilized the butterfly so it wouldn’t move around any more.

Definitely an improvement, but there’s something very disconnected about its appearance. The butterfly doesn’t appear to really be a part of the scene, despite being locked in place and having the correct lighting to match the background scene. Incorrect lighting often makes compositing more difficult, but in this case, because our background and our foreground were originally shot together, the lighting matches. 

Upon inspection, it’s easy to see what’s wrong: The butterfly is no longer casting a shadow! To solve this, we had to once again stabilize the motion of the arm in the video clip, isolate the portion of the arm on which the butterfly cast its shadow, and loop that to match the looped butterfly. 

Here's WITH the shadow, but without the butterfly.

Step 6: Isolate and composite the waterfall

In addition to the moving butterfly, we wanted the waterfall to remain in motion in the cinemagraph. We used another clip from the same angle without the arm blocking the waterfall, masked out the just the waterfall, and then isolated the arm in our still frame and created a mask around that. This allowed us to place the moving waterfall behind our subject’s arm.

Here’s the waterfall dropped in on top of the arm.



And here’s the arm masked out and ready to place back on top of the waterfall.



If it seems like this has gotten complicated, we’re not going to disagree with you. To bring some clarity to the puzzle pieces required to build this cinemagraph, we created an exploded view.

This is an expanded view of the various layers of our image.
  1. Base still image
  2. Butterfly 
  3. Butterfly’s shadow 
  4. Sharper face 
  5. Moving waterfall 
  6. Isolated arm

Step 7: Final Polish

When compositing elements, it’s a good idea to add a bit of color grading and film grain to the full image to tie it all together. It helps the final image all feel like one image.

Unpolished version of the video's final frame.
Unpolished final frame
Polished version of the video's final frame.
Polished final frame

The difference is subtle, but every little bit helps.

Final Result

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Thanks for reading along! If you’d like to learn more about what Click Rain’s video team can do for you, let’s talk.

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