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

Gobsmacked.

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.

  • Lea Sabban

    Amazing article! It’s very true that people mix those 2 techniques that are completely different.
    For me Plotagraphs looks fake just because at the origin it is just a still image.
    Cinemagraph are real video filmed for one or 2sec and look much more real 😉

    • Robert Lendvai

      Thanks Lea. Glad you found the post to be helpful.

    • Peter A. Weir

      Exactly! There’s only so much “life” you can breathe into a photograph, but with video, the possibilities are endless. It’s always going to look more natural.

  • designeveryday

    I absolutely love the ongoing information you give to support the creatives using your software!

    • Cassandra King

      Thank you! Really glad you’re finding it helpful. If you have any ideas for new content that can help our community, please let us know 🙂

  • Troy Plota

    I Love Both!! I just wish I had the choice of which images to use as comparison. Either way Flixel has created a great tool to make Cinemagraphs. Also, your Team has done a great job in helping to bring looping content to the main stream. We have all have more work to do but lets have fun along the way and help Artists expand their image making capabilities through more Apps and tools.

  • NxtEye

    Simply put :

    Cinemagraph does NOT create motion. Motion already exists readymade beneath the layer.

    Plotagraph creates motion in an ‘otherwise still and frozen image’. Indeed not everything can be set to motion but that is not the handicap of Plotagraph, but the fundamental difference between Still Photography and Videography. Both are different mediums, very clear.

    The choice between the two depends on the artist’s attitude, whether he would find it creatively satisfying to create motion that doesn’t exist at all in the first place or he wishes to play around hide and seek with readily available motion.

    The Plotagraphs shown in the article looks like being made out from a screen grab from the video and made by someone who intentionally bungled up the work. I say this because down the page the animation graph is given and it is not how it should have done.

    I invite the blogger to have a look around PlotagraphPro gallery in Instagram or popular Plotagraph artists’ galleries to see how incredibly Still Photography has evolved.

    Glad to note from the article that a few months ago the author didn’t know much about Plotagraph. But today he knows and even made a comparative review because people around are talking too much about it. Well, that is a good sign, indeed !

    Better stand would be to view both as complementary for artistic expression.

    • Kudos to the Plotagraph Team for an amazing product and impressive launch. We’re not against animating stills. In fact, Flixel Studios, the Creative Services arm of Flixel, regularly does “stills to motion” for many of the biggest brands in the world. We did this post at the request of our community, and asked Flixel customers that also use Plotagraph to do the examples in Peter’s post. You’ll find an interesting discussion about both tools in our FB Community.

      • NxtEye

        Appreciate your point of view Robert. Both tools have their strengths. I read some time back about the struggles and pressure the Flixel founders went through until Tyra Banks walked in. With that experience in mind, hope you guys will only appreciate new and young technologies that enter the market. Plotagraph adds value to creative artists who wish to carve out a niche in the Still Photography genre, the same way as you do with the Video stream.

        The article above was a desperate attempt to portray Plotagraph as a silly choice by relaying poor sample shots and the blog concludes labelling it as “fabricating reality”. Well, altering or modifying anything from its “natural” state of being can be labelled as fabrication of reality. Hope you get the point.

        Thanks.

        • As Jon suggested, we’d be happy to include one of your images in the post. Just send support@flixel.com an embed code for WordPress that is responsive with autoplay and autoloop enabled. Thanks.

        • Hamstergerms

          What you are doing is giving users video and asking plotagraph and cinemagraph users to do something with it –
          to be fair, why not give users a still image and ask both sets of users to do something with it – just for balance.

          http://resourcemagonline.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/plotagraph-alex-niki-hair-throw-michael-bonocore.gif

          • I don’t that that you realize that the two forms are very different. Plotagraphs create motion where there is none. Cinemagraphs in some ways create a still image where there was none (referring to the way it creates a still image on top of the video). The two are different in many ways and I feel that this article points that out as well.

          • Hamstergerms

            They way the work is different – the end result isn’t so much.

          • Hi Hamster Germ. You can use Cinemagraph Pro to animate a still image. Here’s an example. In this case we took the SpaceX photo shared on Instagram by Elon Musk and turned it into a cinemagraph. This is a low quality GIF. The MP4 versions in the Flixel gallery look much better. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/bbd642252e8b0c480f61e52c9b4ca711531e980cdf7bf26d26065e530c6fe0d0.gif

        • I don’t really think that this is a desperate attempt at all. It is a fair and balanced look at the software but you have to realize that there might be a bit of bias given that this is on the flixel blog. What I see from the article is an image that is a prime example of something that cinemagraph pro and plotagraph can handle in their own ways.

          With regards to Plotagraph as they maybe a new and upcoming company, they are now also partially owned by Trey Ratcliff and with that comes his legions of diehard followers. Trey is also great at marketing products and I see this no different than and if more important than simply having Tyra as a backer.

          Point being that this article was not a take down about how cinemagraph pro is better but rather a look at how the two are different.

  • Jonathan Houldsworth

    Great article… very fair and well balanced look at the two considering it’s coming from Flixel, makers of Cinemagraph software 😉 In complete fairness I guess you could show one standalone example of a Plotagraph done really well from a still image that wouldn’t be possible as a cinemagraph from video because the Plotagraphs shown here are perhaps not the best examples of really detailed ones done in their desktop software. NxtEye who commented here too does amazing Plotas, maybe he would share one for inclusion. Regardless really nicely written as always Peter!

    • NxtEye

      Well balanced take about this comparative review. Honored to get your mention about my work too. Thank you ! 🙂

  • Hamstergerms

    The real difference is price – $4.99 for Plotagraph and $499 for Cinemagraph – the latter being 100x more expensive and seemingly getting more absurd each year (it wasn’t that long ago that it was $200…)

    Sure, there are technical differences and Cinemagraph’s final output is better, but your twitter / facebook / instagram users aren’t going to care about that or notice much, if any, difference. Very similar to photos taken with a Sony A7r and an iPhone. You’ve got to know what to look for to appreciate the difference.

    Plus, with plotagraph you have way more creativity available as you can animate static images, so you can animate literally any photo on the web or even create your own artwork for animation.

    Is Cincemagraph going to be worth 100 times more? Not to 99.9% of plotagraph users.

    • It wasn’t too long ago that plotagraph pro was $300. Even now if you want to get all the features on your desktop there is a monthly plan in place. That being said, while you can animate any image, the quality of it depends a lot on the image used. You are a still quite limited to what you can animate.

      • Hamstergerms

        As with all things the quality of output depends on the quality of input – cinemagraph is no different, only you are severely lacking in input options compared to plotagraph

        • I would say that you are limited with a plotagraph much more than with cinemagraphs. Yeah you can animate skies, smoke, and things of that nature but you can’t animate living things, overlapping objects, complex movements and whatnot. Again, not knocking plotagraphs but I just feel that they are different and I feel that the article clearly pointed that out.

    • Hi again Hamster Germs. I’m always happy to have a conversation about value. But do you really need to hide behind a fake account? If you’ve picked up a germ to two from your pet hamster then please get it taken care of. Otherwise, use your real name like others do.

  • Hendra Aditya Kurniawan

    Nice blog! For me with photo-video & IT background, Cinemagraph is best app and worth. I prefer natural & organic rather than fake & animation. Combining photo & video will result broader & endless creativity. Of course, we need higher effort in doing both photo & video to achieve more! Plotagraph is good app. I am just planning to use Plotagraph for alternative animation when have the still-photo only and can’t do the video-shoot.