Cinemagraphs and Plotagraphs: Understanding the Difference

Original cinemagraph by fstopshot

What is the difference between Cinemagraphs and Plotagraphs?

Distinguishing between seemingly-identical things has long been a problem for us humans. For instance, consider the Pepsi Challenge, an ongoing marketing campaign where everyday citizens are asked to blindly taste both a Pepsi and a Coke, only to declare which the two they prefer. Or, the scientists’ eternal quest to make us non-scientists realize that mass and weight are completely different concepts. Who knew?! Perhaps due to its freshness and novelty, but there are very few mediums quite as misunderstood and bewildering as the cinemagraph. At first, they were mistaken for GIFs, which isn’t necessarily wrong, nor is it necessarily right. Then, people started likening them to Boomerangs, Apple’s Live Photos, and pretty much any kind of image where even so much as a pixel appeared to move. But of all the cinemagraph comparisons floating around in the cosmos, there is one misconception that still needs to be straightened out: Plotagraphs. Yes, on the surface, the two fledgling visual mediums appear to have a lot in common. You know, like they’re cut from the same cloth or something. Typically, both cinemagraphs and plotagraphs are composed in HD or 4K resolution, have both a still and moving component, are shot by professional photographers, and shared on the web abound. In light of this confusion, we took it upon ourselves to settle the score and differentiate cinemagraphs from plotagraphs with the utmost clarity. We even asked several Plotagraph customers that also use Cinemagraph Pro, to animate a few still photos. 

Cinemagraph by Kyle Marchen

The Similarities Between Cinemagraphs and Plotagraphs

Right off the bat, let’s do a brief rundown of what makes them similar, and try to understand where this confusion stems from. To the average, less informed person who doesn’t work for a company that’s trying to popularize an entirely new medium, yes, the differences are tough to notice. Heck, it you were to stop me on the street a mere 4 months ago and pose such a question, I, too, would be dumbfounded. All this to say, unless you’re already a cinemagraph aficionado, there’s no reason for you to know… until now.

First Impressions

Plotagraphs, like cinemagraphs, have this immediately striking quality that’ll lure you in upon first glance. Initially, because parts of the composition are moving, you’ll assume it’s a video, which, as we know, is already a thumb-stopper. But once you take note of the image’s three-dimensionality, curiosity befalls on you, and your eyes cannot seem to look away.

Visual Layout & Groundwork

Making a great cinemagraph is all about holistics—while gathering the footage, you’re supposed to have an idea regarding the formation of the work, and which elements should be brought to life. It is through this lens that plotagraphs are composed too, but not all subject matter translates as well as you might think. For instance, the quintessential “pouring some kind of liquid into a cup” cinemagraph. I’ve done it. You’ve done it. We’ve all done it. But plotagraphs aren’t for creating isolated instances of real, physical motion. It’s more of an optical illusion, and manipulating the imagery so it has a certain air of life to it.

Cinemagraph by Alexandre Miguel

Simply put, there’s more preparation involved with a cinemagraph. As it happens, to make a truly fantastic cinemagraph, you gotta put in some work during pre-production. Plotagraphs require less mental gymnastics, and less attention to detail; you approach the piece as you would a photograph, and apply the blending technique after. Whereas with cinemagraphs, there are a lot more considerations to make, which can be challenging at times, but overcoming them is what the creative process is all about.

The Differences between Cinemagraphs and Plotagraphs

The foremost, number-one, fundamental difference between cinemagraphs and plotagraphs is the base material. Cinemagraphs are predominantly composed with video. Granted, should you possess the requisite skills (read: magical abilities), yes, you can wag your wand a few times and whip something up from a picture. On the contrary, though, plotagraphs are exclusively crafted from image files, such as .JPG or .PNG. At the time of this writing, it is not possible to make a plotagraph with video.

Organic vs. Manufactured Motion


That was my initial reaction upon seeing a cinemagraph for the first time. Utterly gobsmacked. And where did that amazement come from, you ask? Forgive me in advance for saying this, but the realness. Cinemagraphs are expressed so naturally, and so fluidly. They have an unprocessed, rhythmic beat to them, which is a byproduct of how it’s captured: all of the motion, lighting, and movement is real, and organic, thus when fused together within a still frame, everything just comes together so nicely.

Cinemagraph by Kyle Marchen

Plotographs, on the other hand, are composed of fake blended motion. This psychedelic effect can definitely turn a few heads and capture some attention, but it is ever so clearly a manipulation of the core image file. Cinemagraphs have this magical, often ethereal quality to them that derives from real, genuine motion.

Cinemagraphs and Plotagraphs Creation Tools

Remember that old TV series on the Discovery Channel, How It’s Made? Fantastic show, by the way. Really enlightening stuff. In any event, while not hugely important, both mediums are made with two, entirely different software applications, which I’ll unpack below.

Making Cinemagraphs

Cinemagraph Pro, Flixel’s proprietary application, is the easiest tool out there for making cinemagraphs. And I say easy because, well, simplicity is one of Flixel’s chief design tenets. Anyway, once you’ve recorded the footage and imported it into Cinemagraph Pro, all you gotta do is select a single frame, and, with a paint brush-like tool, draw over where you want the video to shine through—the results of which you can see in real-time. This neat little trick is called live masking: a patented technique that is absolutely imperative to the cinemagraph creation process. Also, you can adjust the hardness and opacity of the brush, which allows you to seamlessly blend the cinemagraph’s animated components with the stillness of the frame.

Cinemagraphs and Plotagraphs Cinemagraph Pro Cinemagraph Creation Tool

From there, all that’s left to do is export the file and share your epic creation with the world (in 1080p HD, mind you). No matter where you end up posting it, if that’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, SnapChat, or on your personal blog/website, the cinemagraph will look crisper than the morning sun. Sharper than a freshly shaven pencil. More defined than an athlete’s calf muscle. And another simile that is currently escaping me.

Making Plotagraphs

Plotagraph has a wildly different approach. It all depends on what image you’re using, and deciding which direction the motion should flow. Once that’s been established, you then use a series of points to plot out the animation, while also indicating what parts of the composition should remain stable. Adjust the speed, aspect ratio, colour hues, and voilà, there’s your plotagraph.

Cinemagraphs and Plotagraphs Plotagraph Editing Animation Points

To me, however, what’s most impressive about plotagraphs is the underlying tech. Almost unbelievable, really, as the program renders the images with such precision, and delicacy, resulting in a nice synthesis of the two divergent elements. Each plotagraph is essentially a collaboration, between the artist-slash-photographer, and the algorithmic functions—powering the code—which generates the final product. Though, I suppose you could say that about any image or video manipulation software. But, based on my somewhat limited use of the Plotagraph tool, it does feel like the program handles much of the heavy lifting. And that heavy lifting is ultimately a sleight of hand, which deceives the eye, and, in that way, the brain.

Export Options

Another point of difference that’s worth mentioning is how cinemagraphs and plotagraphs are both exhibited. As it stands, the Plotagraph app allows you to save your file as an .MP4/.MOV video, or, alternatively as a.GIF—all of which available on Cinemagraph Pro, but with the added option to embed your creation as a high-definition iFrame. And in today’s Internet-driven world, iFrame’s are far and away the best way to exhibit your work. It loads faster, displays better, and the flexibility is unparalleled.

Hearkening back to an earlier statement, plotagraphs are best described as an optical illusion. Smoke and mirrors. A mirage of sorts. Don’t get me wrong—a well-done plotagraph is incredibly eye catching; quite like cinemagraphs, the marriage of stillness and motion will have your viewers staring in complete wonder, questioning their very existence, unsure if they’re hallucinating. But, with plotagraphs, at the end of the day, the final product has been manufactured. It’s fabricated reality, which is neat in its own way, but nothing like a cinemagraph.

So no, the two are not cut from the same cloth. They’re not even made of the same material. And that’s not a bad thing at all. It’s just different.

If you would like to check out some other incredible cinemagraphs, head over to the Flixel Gallery. And to learn more about Flixel’s cinemagraph creation tool, Cinemagraph Pro, visit our product pages for the macOS and iOS versions.

Cinemagraph® and Flixel® are registered trademarks of Flixel Photos Inc. All other trademarks cited herein are the property of their respective owners.

(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.