When I first started creating cinemagraphs, I really wanted to create something fluid that drew the eye and never seemed to stop. Things like water and trees blowing in the wind were great for that. However, without a subject or some element of the image that is not in motion but should be, then the cinemagraph lacked something.
This is when I really took notice of something that I like to call “visual tension” and that basically is that feeling you get when you first see a cinemagraph. When parts are moving and others and not, it creates this battle between your mind and your eye. That is the really attraction for cinemagraphs. I feel that is also the psychology behind their allure on social media as well.
If you have a regular image then the viewer looks at it and scrolls on by. Videos now have a lot more stopping power but if you have a slow connection, as soon as the video starts to lag (which could be a matter of seconds) the viewer is gone. Cinemagraphs are that bridge and more. That visual tension is what perplexes the brain and really holds people. It’s that “wait… what am I looking at? why isn’t that moving?” In effect, that is the tension that gets the views. Understanding how to create that tension is key to creating great cinemagraphs.
Balance the Frame
So what we are looking at is to achieve some sort of a balance within the frame that pits the motion against the still. Think of what elements work great for this. People work great for stills because our brain normally expect people to be in motion if there is something else in the frame that is also moving. So having that balance of movement versus still is a great approach to creating a cinemagraph that really has an impact.
As I will mention in the next section, having too much of the frame in motion or too many elements in motion also greatly reduces the visual tension as well. Sometimes it works in order to create a tranquil moment but for something that you want to really catch the viewer’s eye; less is more.
Bigger is NOT Better
The larger the movement or the larger the area that is masked out often decreases the visual tension in many cases. Sometimes it works but generally speaking it greatly reduces visual tension simple because the balance is off. So when thinking about motion and what to have moving in your frame, look at areas that create the most impact and tension. Often these areas are smaller but will have a substantial effect on the image that you are creating.
Often I have masked large areas like oceans and whatnot but found that they are better if there is something there to show that it is not just a looping video. Again, having that large area in motion greatly reduces the visual tension and while this is not always a bad thing, it should be recognized.
The last thing that I want to share with you is the idea of looking at your cinemagraphs with regards to this tension. I have always talked about “finding the motion” or creating “the perfect loop” but this is the next level. Find that one stopping point that will have a huge impact on your cinemagraph.