The History of Cinemagraphs Includes David Bowie

Visual Storytelling: Past, Present & Future

In the ever-evolving digital landscape, every day, there seems to be a brand new, revolutionary tool, device, phenomenon—whatever—making its debut on the marketplace. Less frequently, though, is the introduction and subsequent adoption of an entirely new medium. You know, a never-before-seen-or-heard instrument to express one’s thoughts, feelings and attitudes. Concerning the visual domain, at first, there were photographs; a simple method of capturing someone, something, or somewhere with the mere click of a button (well, in those days, the process was a lot more cumbersome). But then, thanks to the efforts of crazed inventor Louis Le Prince―AKA the “Father of Cinematography”―we got motion picture. Sure, it may have just been a series of images printed on a roll of paper that looped in succession, but by golly, Le Prince had triumphed. The 1800s provided us with two utterly groundbreaking pieces of technology that forever changed how we document everyday life―not to mention, exhibit our work.

However, save for a few minor innovations, things went quiet. Like, real quiet. Camera technology got better, which improved both the quality of the images and the manner in which we gather them. But, for the most part, both mediums remained the same. Video was still video. Pictures were still pictures―literally.

That is, until the year 2011, when two artists joined forces to produce what ultimately became the first-known instance of a living photo: an entirely new visual medium, which would henceforth earn the colloquial title of cinemagraph. Now, only so many years later, cinemagraphs are gaining momentum and attracting people from all disciplines, as the novel format’s fresh appeal garners more and more support. At this very moment, we’re at a critical point in the cinemagraph’s short history; a windfall, if you will. For the sake of broadening our knowledge and getting everyone up to speed, we wanted to publish an exhaustive, all-encompassing answer to the question most often begged: what is a cinemagraph?

In the spirit of Wikipedia and its holistic approach, we’re aiming to not just gloss over the details, but unpack them, too. We’re going all in, folks, beginning with a cold, blistery week of yesteryear.

The History of Cinemagraphs

Naming Cinemagraphs

Although cinemagraphs may have come to pass at an earlier date (stay tuned), the etymological roots of the word arose more than 6 years ago. In February of 2011, during New York’s illustrious Fashion Week, web designer Kevin Burg and photographer Jamie Beck teamed up to animate a collection of the latter’s images. Together, the two Americans crafted and shared a number of dynamic photos, which spurred a great deal of curiosity and interest from the fashion community. Without an adequate term to describe what, exactly, these new kind of media files represented, Beck and Burg decided to coin a new phrase. And just like that—following a healthy brainstorming session—the term “cinemagraph” was born.

Jamie Beck Kevin Burg Cinemagraph New York Fashion Week 2011

Cinemagraph by Jamie Beck & Kevin Burg

Since New York Fashion Week 2011, the visual storytelling community has rallied behind this designation, thus ratifying cinemagraph as the de rigueur term for a living photo. And while cinemagraphs did, indeed, generate a fair amount of buzz that year, those intrigued were still without a definitive tool for actually making them. So, as creative people do, many found workarounds in existing multimedia apps (originally designed for still images). At the outset, it was Photoshop that emerged as the strongest option for producing cinemagraphs, despite the program’s lack of sophistication in this regard. So yes, through Photoshop, it was entirely possible. But the process commanded a lot from the user, forcing people to expend creativity in less than ideal ways.

Is pop icon David Bowie the real inventor of the cinemagraph?

Like any good superhero, the cinemagraph, too, has an epic origin story. As far as anyone’s concerned, the medium was first introduced to mainstream audiences in 2011. And there’s no doubt about it: without the initiative and resourcefulness demonstrated by Beck and Burg, the cinemagraph, as we know it, would not exist today. Beyond just coining the term, the two photographers also popularized the novel format, thereby greasing the wheels for an entirely new style of visual storytelling.

However, while conducting research for this article, we stumbled on something truly remarkable. More specifically, a music video, released almost 4 decades back in 1980. It was the work of the unshakeably talented David Bowie: an iconic artist whose vast and diverse oeuvre can only be described as transcendent. And by our accounts, the music video in question, “Ashes to Ashes,” may have contained the actual first-ever use of a cinemagraph, which you can see at the 0:33 and 1:25 minute marks! Yes, you read that correctly. For all we know, the cinemagraph medium was the brainchild of Ziggy Stardust himself.

As seen in David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” music video

Of course, though. Of course it was him. Who else could it have been? He, quite literally, never ceased to amaze. Time and again, The Man Who Fell From Earth proved to be a singular, creative force, parallel to a select few of history’s greats. If not his seemingly untameable imagination, Bowie’s real superpower was his ability to glean into the future, and, somehow, extrapolate the sensibilities of an era that had not yet taken place.

This is as much news to you as it is to us—a critical part of the cinemagraph’s history that was, before now, completely overlooked. But, to me, a revelation of this magnitude isn’t all that shocking. Just think about it: how are we supposed to identify something, if we don’t know what it is? Or what to call it? To all appearances, David Bowie is the true inventor of the cinemagraph. Nevertheless, we must give credit where credit is due: in the absence of Beck and Burg’s craftsmanship at NY Fashion Week just 6 years ago, the medium would have amounted to nothing but a visual relic from times past.

How to Explain Cinemagraphs to Your Friends

I know, I know, this is all you really care about. Believe me, I cannot overstate the importance of getting the explanation right. Seeing that, you know, I work for a company that lives, breathes, and sleeps cinemagraphs. So, upwards of a dozen times a week, I have to describe what it is with perfect clarity, using accessible, non-buzzwordy language. Initially, I would say something to the effect of…

Cinemagraphs are like, I don’t know, high-definition GIFs.

In actuality though, that statement couldn’t have been further from the truth―much less, a tad ignorant (more on that later). Upon realizing this, I opted for a more sincere rhetoric, using terms like hybrid photo/video medium, animated pictures, moving images or, most accurately, living photos. And if your friends are pop culture junkies―namely, of Harry Potter lore―then why not liken cinemagraphs to the magical elements of the everyone’s favourite wizarding world? I mean, you remember that film series, right? The final instalment bowed-out over a half-decade ago, but the trials and tribulations of Harry, Hermoine and Ron are still cherished today, yeah?

Cinemagraph by dcooksonphoto

All joking aside, for me, cinemagraphs have always felt like something out of Hogwarts. One could argue that if not for J.K. Rowling’s seven-part YA fiction masterpiece, the genesis of cinemagraphs may have never happened. Well, that’s a bit of a stretch. Then again, Facebook Chief Product Officer Chris Cox cited Harry Potter as the impetus for Facebook becoming more video-centric. Never doubt the power of pop culture, I suppose.

All right. Then what is the best way to describe cinemagraphs, to your friends or otherwise? We’re not here to put words in your mouth, but instead of the above-mentioned example, how about trying something along the lines of…

Cinemagraphs are like, I don’t know, moving photos. They’re dynamic—elements of the composition seem to come alive.

Just the other day, we decided to pose this very question to the great people of Toronto. With a camera crew in tow, I harnessed the on-screen charisma of Brian Dunkleman Ryan Seacrest and hit the streets, microphone in hand. Check out the video below:

Cinemagraph Examples: Use Cases

Like photographs and video, cinemagraphs can be availed in any number of ways. Artists are flocking to the medium to leverage its novelty and challenge the way in which they can express themselves. Brands and organizations, too, are quickly enacting marketing content that incorporates cinemagraphs. Other, more specific examples of how and where cinemagraphs can be used include:

  • Digital advertisements
  • Websites (and background images)
  • Email/newsletters
  • Social media
  • Articles and blog posts
  • Videos
  • Museum and galleries
  • Other content (i.e. basically anywhere that can display a video file)

Nevertheless, as I’ve said before and I’ll say again, cinemagraphs are an emerging medium. The instances noted above represent what we’ve seen, to date. Feel free to make use of cinemagraphs in any way, shape or form imaginable. And that’s an empowering notion—any one of us could take the medium to extraordinary new heights.

Formats & File Types

Now that you’re familiar with both what a cinemagraph is, and how it came to be, let’s get into some technical details and just nerd out for a bit (am I using that phrase correctly?). For the sake of clarity, allow me to make one important distinction: cinemagraphs are not high-definition GIFs. In truth, they’re vastly different.

Cinemagraphs vs. GIFs

GIFs were invented toward the end of 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was still president, puffed up hairdos were popular, and people went nuts for new wave music, neon-laden apparel, and Aerobics. Also, you know, when most households were without a personal computer. All things considered, by the Internet’s standards, GIFs are virtually prehistoric. The image quality is often rendered quite poorly, so if you’re trying to exhibit your work through, say, a cinemagraph, then exporting it as a GIF file would not be a wise choice.

That said, the popularity of GIFs in today’s cultural climate is undeniable. But their purpose has nothing to do with art and everything to do with communication. People employ GIFs to relay messages that cannot be understood well enough with just words; GIFs are communicative memes, chiefly designed to elicit laughter. Whereas cinemagraphs—like photographs—are a mode of expression that visual storytellers use to convey their sensibilities, artistic flair, and, most importantly, perspective. At the end of the day, the GIF is merely just another file format—like PNG, MP4, and JPEG—while the cinemagraph a full-blooded medium. One is considered a form of art, the other, not so much.

The One Exception

Yes, cinemagraphs can and are occasionally exported as a GIF. This is one of a few different options that are currently available. Proceed with caution, however, because doing so would totally compromise the image quality of your cinemagraph. That’s to be expected. So, why would anyone opt for this route? Well, all it really boils down to is format restrictions and incompatibility, which is especially important when disseminating newsletters and other forms of email communication. As it stands, the lion’s share of email clients can only support image files, and thus cannot house embedded content or video. So, when showcasing cinemagraphs within an email, a GIF file is actually your best option. Otherwise, video files are the way to go.

Cinemagraphs vs. Boomerangs

While we’re on the topic, there are a couple other media formats that routinely draw comparisons to cinemagraphs. First, we’ll start with Boomerangs, which are short video clips, set on a continuous, bouncing loop and typically shared via social media. Created through an Instagram extension app, people often confuse Boomerangs with cinemagraphs due to the aforementioned looping and the aforementioned bouncing. Although Boomerangs are cool in their own, unique way, they are, in essence, videos. Videos that loop and bounce, which are merely two of many functions that are found in a cinemagraph. There’s nothing surreal, hypnotic or engrossing about them. What you see is what you get.

Cinemagraphs vs. Live Photos

Secondly—and this one draws the ire of the Internet’s impassioned cinemagraph community—I would be remiss to not bring up another variation of image capturing: iOS Live Photos feature, which is available on all new iPhone models. When you take a picture through the Live Photo option, prior to the snap/flash, the camera records approx. 1.5 seconds of video. That way, when viewing the end result, it’ll quickly roll the video, creating something of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it micro-illusion. But that’s all it is. And to be frank, I cannot see where the value lies. Apparently, a Live Photo can be converted into a GIF, but hey, that just brings us back to square one. Please, if you’re a big proponent of Live Photos and/or Boomerangs and don’t jive with the tone I’ve taken to, drop us a line in the comment section and tell us differently.

So, what is the native file format of a cinemagraph, anyway? Well, that remains to be seen. On platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, cinemagraphs are generally uploaded as a video file—either a .mov or .mp4—which auto-plays upon entering the user’s view. Still, though, compatibility is a far cry from universal support. As more people learn about cinemagraphs and the medium presses on toward ubiquity, in my opinion, someone or something will have to develop an entirely new media format to accommodate it. Maybe it’ll be a .cim, .cgh, or, my personal favourite, a .cap. No matter what the extension is, I will welcome it with open arms and a gaping smile. Because this is about as innovative as things get, people. And we’re currently living through it.

Cinemagraph by michelmolder

Flixel is Born

Shortly after New York fashion week concluded and cinemagraphs were first made public, two Canadian entrepreneurs and longtime friends couldn’t get over the newly minted medium, and its mesmerizing magnetism (decent alliteration, I know). The goal was to develop an intuitive yet powerful tool for converting video files into bona fide cinemagraphs. Working with an ambitious developer and designer (who both became co-founders), and following weeks upon weeks of hard work, determination and little bit of luck, the first iteration of what would eventually become Cinemagraph Pro had finally been completed.

But it wasn’t all peaches and cream for the new media upstart. During the first few years as the founding team worked tirelessly to convince the world that cinemagraphs were, in fact, here to stay, they hit a snag in the road. Not only did Flixel strive to attract new business and generate revenue, but to build awareness around an entirely new medium. If they were going to sell their product and services, they had to sell cinemagraphs first. And when things were looking particularly grim and the business was plagued by uncertainty, one of the founders, Mark Homza, elected to divest himself from the company. It wasn’t easy, but it was necessary: an executive decision that has almost become a rite of passage in the Silicon Valley mythos. Mark was gone, yes, but he couldn’t quite prevent himself from pressing on.

A New Hope

Unbeknownst to the remaining partners, Mr. Homza headed to the airport and decamped for the entertainment capital of the world, Hollywood. There, he connected with fashion and beauty icon-slash-entrepreneur, Tyra Banks, as well as the producers of America’s Next Top Model, to chew the fat over cinemagraphs, his company, Flixel, and what they could do for the show.

Long story short, Cycle 20 of America’s Next Top Model introduced cinemagraphs—and Flixel—to millions of viewers around the world, with many experiencing the new medium for the very first time. Ultimately, Tyra Banks was so enamoured with cinemagraphs that she went on to become an investor in Flixel Photos. She believed in the medium. She instantly recognized its potential.

This is where a writer would typically say “and the rest is history,” so I’ll jump on that bandwagon: the rest is history.

Since that fateful day in Tinseltown, Flixel, too, has evolved over the years, reformulating its strategy to accommodate the market, as well as the needs and wants of the then-nascent cinemagraph community.

Compatibility Across Social Media

While we’re not quite at the level of universal compatibility, at present, the majority of prominent social media networks have built-in support for cinemagraphs. However, for each platform there is an eensy weensy caveat that must be satisfied in order for the cinemagraph to display correctly.

Facebook

We’ll start with the byte-for-byte champion of the World Wide Web, the brainchild of Harvard dropout-turned-billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook. Although they weren’t the first big-timer to authorize the use of cinemagraphs (that, my friends, belongs to Instagram), Facebook is arguably the most congruent with the intricacies and nuances of hosting the novel medium. Owing to a handful of recently-integrated updates, when a cinemagraph comes into the user’s view, not only will the media file auto-play, but auto-loop as well. Facebook—like Instagram—went above and beyond, facilitating a user environment where cinemagraphs are displayed and rendered precisely how they should: seamlessly. And before you accuse me of sprinkling in a few buzzwords to look cool and appease my boss, take one look at the dictionary definition of the term.

seamless (adjective):
smoothly and continuously, with no apparent gaps or spaces between one part and the next.

What’s more, Facebook just—and I mean, JUST—announced a brand new feature that is currently rolling out to Business Pages: Cover Videos (which you can read more about here). And on top of that, in conjunction with a handful of different app makers (Flixel included), Facebook also released the Profile Expression Kit, which, essentially, is fancy developer jargon for one, simple yet critical function: it allows users to upload profile videos directly from app (Cinemagraph Pro included).

If anything, Instagram and Facebook’s push to better facilitate the cinemagraph medium portends what lies ahead. You know, in a similar way to how kids often try to copy their older siblings, or cooler cousins. That is to say, it won’t be long before having the technical architecture to support cinemagraphs becomes a requirement. Something that users expect.

Instagram

As I touched on above, Instagram was, in fact, the first passenger aboard the cinemagraph train. Truly, the firstest with the mostest. And that’s cool and all, but how does one actually post a cinemagraph to The Gram? Ideally, the file should be uploaded as an .mp4 video, which will allow the cinemagraph to display seamlessly if it’s under 1 minute and over 3 seconds.

Twitter

Across the media landscape, Twitter, too, supports cinemagraphs. But there is a provision: to get the video to loop automatically, the file must not exceed 6 and a half seconds. A weirdly specific amount of time, I know, but like its other, more successful relatives, Twitter has also embraced the tenets of automatic playback.

Snapchat

In regard to Snapchat, well, things are a little more complicated. While the impermanent photo sharing app does, indeed, allow users to upload cinemagraphs, there are something like ten different hurdles between the start and finish line. Need not worry, though. As always, we’ve got your back on this one. We’ve unearthed the secrets to sharing cinemagraphs on Snapchat so you don’t have to.

Besides social media, there are a plethora of different avenues for sharing and exhibiting your cinemagraph work. As I stated earlier, the majority of email clients will house cinemagraphs, which is fantastic if you’re regularly crafting newsletter campaigns—but they’ll have to be exported as a GIF (and you know fully well how we feel about that).

Looking Ahead

Is there anything more fun than gazing into the future, speculating on what’s to come?

In the visual storytelling community, we’re always seeking new processes, technologies and, yes, mediums, to further our craft and ascend to greater heights. And the rules of futurology totally apply to cinemagraphs, as the hybrid medium continues to evolve. So, what are some things that we should keep in mind during this critical period?

Well, if Facebook, Instagram, and other popular social media tell us anything, it’s that these widespread efforts to improve support for cinemagraphs will only grow stronger with every passing day. Broadly speaking, even with all of the enthusiasm that cinemagraphs have been receiving, it is, still, an embryonic medium. Should we reach a point where awareness has spread to the majority of people, no longer will we have these conversations on support and compatibility. It’ll become omnipresent—something expected by the users, not demanded.

Let’s bring this discussion offline for a minute, shall we? Figuratively speaking, of course. And not totally offline, per se, but—

Secondary Verticals: Digital Canvasses

With great innovation comes great betterment, disruption, and ancillary markets. Guess what? Cinemagraphs are no exception to this proverb, as there are a number of interesting verticals that are sure to experience massive growth in the coming years. For instance, consider the digital canvas, which, like many innovative new products, is currently navigating the peaks and valleys of the hype cycle. You know, through the trough of disillusionment all the way up to the slope of enlightenment, all before levelling out to a point where the technology’s both sophisticated yet affordable.

Cinemagraph in frame by Jason Teale

Imagine having the walls of your home adorned with digital canvases. You would feel as though you’re finally living in the future, while also hearkening back to the Harry Potter-esque nature of cinemagraphs. Fantastical yet hyper-modern, like a revised interpretation of steampunk. At any rate, we can expect to see a proliferation of the digital canvas in the coming years, as well as other, similar forward-leaning products (ahem *cough* Samsung).

Winding Down

So, as you can see, there’s a lot of ground to cover when answering such a question. One minute, you think you’ve got it all figured out. The next, you come across a David Bowie music video from 37 years prior that throws everything into question. Founding father or fortunate fluke? Well, by virtue of Bowie’s staggering and spotless record on these sort of things, we’re gonna go with the former. Only a pioneer of David Bowie’s fortitude could have advanced a medium so dramatically, so nonchalantly, and so subtly.

In short, cinemagraphs are a burgeoning, often misunderstood medium that is only becoming more pervasive from one day to the next. Not a picture nor a video, but somewhere in-between. An uncharted space, if you will, which never fails to inspire awe when discovered for the first time.


Interested in exploring the cinemagraph medium for yourself? We have everything you need—check out our cinemagraph-making app, Cinemagraph Pro, which is available on both macOS and iOS devices. And if you feel as though there’s more to unpack—or if you’d like to add something to the conversation—leave us a comment below. We’d be delighted to hear from you.

(Content Intern)

Peter flexes his fingers/writes copy at Flixel. His enthusiasm for content creation is only surpassed by the Oregon Dunes, as well as a lifelong goal to soar through the clouds on a blimp.