Building a Better GIF

By Conor Risch

© Jamie Beck & Kevin Burg
A photograph from a shoot Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg recently did with model Edythe Hughes for her foundation, Project Model Tee. Check out Cinemagraphs created by Beck and Burg at the bottom of this article.

A few years ago graphic artist Kevin Burg began experimenting with the GIF file format, cutting movie footage in different ways and posting the results on his Tumblr. The social-blogging platform’s file-size limit meant there was only so much motion one could get into a GIF before it became too large to share. In response, Burg began isolating the moving elements in images to see how much motion he could get into a sharable file. His GIFs looked, at a glance, like a still image, but elements within the frame moved.

After he spent a couple of years experimenting and perfecting his process, he and photographer Jamie Beck, his then-fiancée who is now his wife and business partner, decided to try to create one of the unique images at New York City’s Fashion Week, which Beck was shooting on assignment. It took them three days to capture a compelling still and enough good frames of video that they could stitch the animated elements back into the still frame. “I remember the first time it worked, standing there looking at it, and I knew it would totally change my life,” Beck recalls.

Beck and Burg posted the results on Tumblr, where Beck had a significant following for her still photography, and the GIFs spread virally. Beck began showing up for traditional still shoots she had scheduled and clients would ask, “Can you do that moving thing?”

The pair decided their creation needed a name. “Saying ‘make a GIF’ doesn’t really describe what it is,” Burg notes. GIFs are fairly simple to make in Photoshop. What Beck and Burg create takes a minimum of two 12-hour days of post-production. They decided to call them Cinemagraphs. “[The name] just really clicked. It had the romanticism to it,” Burg says.

(The couple has trademarked the name, which has become something of a proprietary eponym, but they’ve chosen not to pursue a patent for the process Burg uses. “On the one hand, we get a lot of advice saying protect your this and protect your that,” Burg says. “On the other hand, we’re artists and we’re not in the business of trying to prevent other artists from expressing themselves.”)

Initially Beck and Burg were using a Canon EOS 5D Mark II to capture stills and video, which Burg would then stitch together in post to create a Cinemagraph. Beck would first capture the video of a particular scene and then shoot stills. The camera technology, which allowed her to shoot stills and video using the same sensor, enabled the process. “What we did is a result of this technology being out there and using it in that way,” Burg notes.

They later upgraded to the 5D Mark III, which they occasionally still use, though now Beck and Burg mostly work with a Red Epic camera that allows them to pull a still from the video capture that is “just like a RAW file out of a Mark III, so for all of the digital purposes it’s perfect,” Beck notes.

While the Cinemagraphs are sometimes output as GIFs for use on social-media platforms, Burg also uses HTML5 video files or looped, high-quality movie files depending on the usage, which has ranged from social media to 1080p in-store video displays.

The couple met model Coco Rocha and collaborated on a series of Cinemagraphs for Tumblr during New York City’s Fashion Week in 2011. Rocha, who is a blogger herself, “has such a huge online following,” Burg explains. “So that gave [the Cinemagraphs] this level of legitimacy and there were a lot of articles written about [the collaboration] at the time.”

Momentum continued to build. In April 2011 the Daily Mail UK and Italy’s La Repubblica published articles online about the Cinemagraphs on the same day, and the couple’s website crashed. Work started to pour in. “The amount of people trying to hire us to do stuff was crazy,” Beck recalls. “We were on the verge of a nervous breakdown.” Burg quit his day job and they started their business.

The couple has primarily created Cinemagraphs for commercial clients, which have included Tiffany & Co., Bloomingdale’s, DKNY, PUMA, major tech companies and the Lincoln Motor Company.

Maury Postal, a creative director at the agency Social@Ogilvy, had followed Beck and Burg’s work on Tumblr for a few years before he hired them to create a series of four Cinemagraphs to launch a social-branding effort for Lincoln Motor Company late last year. The Cinemagraphs were period pieces depicting scenes with vintage Lincolns from past decades.

“The best part about what they do is that they craft these sort of fantasy worlds,” Postal says of Beck and Burg. “What we really needed to do for Lincoln was develop a way to initiate people into the brand who weren’t alive during its heyday.”

Part of what makes Cinemagraphs so effective, Postal says, is that they “are as beautiful as a still image, they’re as captivating as a still image, but they’re not as [demanding of a viewer’s time] as a full video or full film.” They are also substantially more artful than your typical GIF.

Cinemagraphs, Postal says, answer the question: “How do you captivate people using motion in a way that entices them to go into the brand more, to go into the scene more, or stop and actually notice? Because that is the toughest thing to do in the ad world now: to get people not just to look but to actually see something.”

The couple says they’ve delved more into the film world, using continuous lighting and crews who know cinema cameras and lenses. Though they don’t have to, Beck says they “go outrageous” with production “because it’s our profession and we want to see how far it can go.”

They’ve learned that creating subtle motion in people can be challenging because “people can look really robotic really quickly,” Burg notes. “We’ve learned weird things about human blinking,” Beck adds. Figuring out how to adjust frame rates has helped.

Directing models has “been really interesting too,” Burg says. Rocha, for instance, “is known for doing super-fast poses, so we had to get her to slow down.”

“It’s like putting on a different hat,” Beck explains. “We’re doing stills one way and then when it’s time to do a Cinemagraph it’s a different mindset, what you look for is different, how you relate to the subject is completely different.” As the name would suggest, creating Cinemagraphs is a hybrid of still and video shooting. They have to direct for motion, but “it’s a moment in time,” Beck says. “You’re looking at composition, you’re looking at what makes a good photograph.”

Animated GIFs advertising movies like The Great Gatsby began cropping up on Tumblr, even before its sale to Yahoo!. These appeared on Tumblr as native advertising efforts—ads made to look and feel like the content one might normally see on a given platform. And Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer has said that native advertising will be a major part of the business model for Tumblr going forward.

In the weeks following the sale of Tumblr, however, native ads appeared in the form of poorly imagined and executed animated GIFs, which drew immediate criticism from the site’s users. The lesson, which may seem obvious to some, is that it’s incredibly difficult to create advertising that melds with the esthetics of an online platform full of user-created content.

At least part of the success of Cinemagraphs in general, and the effort for Lincoln in specific, is that the creative came from artists, in Beck and Burg, who are part of the Tumblr community. The work looked at home on Tumblr because it was in some respects born there.

While Lincoln did buy a one-day ad placement on Tumblr for one of the Cinemagraphs, they started the campaign organically with a post on Lincoln’s Tumblr that was then reblogged by Beck and Postal and other people who were involved in the production of the Cinemagraphs. “The biggest thing that helped us is that each image was accompanied by a series of written posts” by the people involved in creating the Cinemagraphs, describing the work and experience, Postal says. The Cinemagraphs on Lincoln’s Tumblr have thousands of notes, and one, of a woman sitting in a field on the hood of a Lincoln Continental picking petals off of a flower, was noted or reblogged by more than 20,000 people.

“That’s the new model for artists,” Postal says. “It’s not just what you produce, but who can you talk to about what you produced? Who’s your community and how does that community act?”

Through their Cinemagraphs work, Burg has developed a theory that the human eye perceives the world  at “around 48 frames per second.” Our brains, he posits, “are perceiving much faster, so everything looks more romantic.

“You see a beautiful girl and her dress gets blown by the wind in real life, you’d think it was pretty, but then if you shot that on your iPhone it would look awkward.”

“We see the world in a different way” because of Cinemagraphs, Burg adds. “It also gives us this opportunity to investigate different aspects of life and perception.”

Check out some of the Cinemagraphs Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg created below:

"Kiss Me in Paris" been noted or reblogged hundreds of thousands of times on Tumblr.

One of the Cinemagraphs created for the Lincoln Motor Company.

From the Project Model Tee campaign.

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