You know how people sometimes say that jazz is the only truly American art form? Animated GIFs are like the jazz of the internet: they could only exist, and be created and appreciated, online. That said, PopTart Cat is not exactly on par with Thelonious Monk. But photographer Jamie Beck and motion graphics artist Kevin Burg may have finally found a way to elevate the animated GIF to a level approaching fine art, with their “cinemagraphs” — elegant, subtly animated creations that are “something more than a photo but less than a video.”
The pair was inspired to create these cinemagraphs while preparing to cover Fashion Week this past February: “We wanted to tell more of a story than a single still frame photograph but didn’t want the high maintenance aspect of a video,” they told Co.Design via email. Primarily, Beck shoots the photos and Burg applies the motion-graphics magic in what they describe as “a highly collaborative process” that can take several hours of manual editing in order to breathe the whisper of life into each image.
So why did Beck and Burg choose the GIF format, rather than something more flexible like Flash? After all, it doesn’t take more than a couple of these gorgeous pics to slow most browsers to a crawl. “The format has interesting capabilities as well as some severe limitations which are very influential in the visual style of our images,” say the pair. “GIF is very basic, highly linkable through outlets such as Tumblr, and integrated into the web. Flash certainly has more capabilities but since our images are at their heart a traditional photograph, a format like .gif makes the most sense.”
Says Jamie Beck:
We feel there are many exciting applications for this type of moving image. There’s movement in everything and by capturing that plus the great things about a still photograph you get to experience what a video has to offer without the time commitment a video requires.
(One might argue, given recent campaigns with Ralph Lauren and Juicy Couture, a photo editorial in The New York Times and an appearance in Lucky Magazine, that their stars have already risen, but we firmly believe the best is yet to come.)
Beck, 28, and Burg, 30, combine an unusual set of talents that have attracted not only the notice of the Tumblr community, but also of a growing roster of brands and editors.
Beck is the photographer and the blog’s primary model and stylist. She leverages her pinup figure, makeup and hair-styling skills, and a wardrobe of vintage finds to create spreads that connote the glamor of American icons such as Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly.
Burg is the more technical of the two, leading the blog’s design and the creation of their signature (and trademark-pending) cinemagraphs — animated GIF images that look like moving photos. He also — from what I observed in meetings with one of their clients and their manager, Karen Robinovitz of DBA — heads up business relations, jotting down notes on clients’ expectations and deadlines for deliverables.
The two met in 2006 through mutual friends, and are now engaged. Before they began working together at the beginning of this year, Beck — who says that from the age of 13, photography is “all [she's] ever done, and all [she's] ever wanted to do” — was still shooting in film. Burg encouraged her to purchase her first digital camera with which to begin blogging and tweeting, and more recently, to begin uploading her iPhone snapshots to Instagram. (“I’m obsessed,” she discloses.) He also designed her Tumblr.
Burg had, for some time, been taking frames from Saturday Night Live clips and turning elements into looping animations on a still background. These became the prototypes for the their first cinemagraph “Les Tendrils,” which was published on Feb. 13, 2011.
After they published their first cinemagraphs, Beck recalls that no one wanted to book her for photographs anymore. They wanted her to create “that moving thing you do” — which is when they decided to coin the term “cinemagraph.” The two felt they needed the term because what they created was unlike an animated GIF.
“There’s a cinematic quality to it … like a living photograph. It’s always a photograph first and foremost,” says Beck.
How They Create Cinemagraphs
Beck and Burg never know for sure if a cinemagraph is going to work out, which makes it difficult when brands hire the pair. “We can be 90% sure,” Beck discloses. “When we shoot from the street or at [New York] Fashion Week, and I can’t control the environment, it’s never a guarantee.”
To create a cinemagraph, Burg and Beck focus on animating one object: a swinging chain, for instance, or a spoon moving around the rim of a coffee cup. In a studio setting, the pair will employ pinpoint light to create sparkle, and fans to tousle hair and garments. Beck directs the camera, a Canon D5 Mark II, while Burg controls the props that produce the animation.
Beck and Burg will then import and edit the files in Adobe Photoshop and After Effects. The number of frames they use depends on the medium. For Gilt Taste‘s website, they were able to create much longer loops and embed their work on the site using HTML5 video layers. A cinemagraph that appears on their Tumblr will end up being between 25 and 100 frames; a banner ad is even more constrained.
Shooting a cinemagraph doesn’t take any more time than shooting a photo, roughly speaking, but the editing process generally takes a day, says Burg.
Both Beck and Burg expressed frustrations with the limitations of connections speeds and file sizes, which necessitate the use of GIF files, and consequently reduce the quality. Beck expects that in a year they will able to distribute cinemagraphs that look so lifelike that you could touch them.
Take a recent campaign Beck and Burg did for fashion brand Juicy Couture. They were commissioned to create a series of cinemagraphs using Juicy Couture products, some of which appeared as banner ads across a range of fashion sites, and some of which — like the one above — appeared solely on their own Tumblr, racking upwards of 15,000 notes (reblogs and likes) apiece.
“The great thing about Jamie and Kevin is that they’re not just artists, but they also have a distribution portal,” says Robinovitz. “Why would you just hire a photographer when you can hire a photographer who has a place to share photos… [and] a hungry audience?”
Robinovitz’s question was rhetorical, of course, but also a good one to pose.
In a recent interview, Scott Schuman, the photographer behind street style blog The Sartorialist, says that he earns somewhere between a quarter of a million and half a million dollars per year running ads on his blog, in addition to the assignments it has earned him. Will photographers who don’t blog and market themselves online stand as much of a chance? And will blog coverage be written into assignment contracts?
Beck says that while she has not negotiated blog coverage into any of her contracts directly, it is discussed with brands during an assignment — namely, she says, to figure out timing and what she’s allowed to post. Brands don’t control what goes on Tumblr, and she is careful to only accept assignments true to her aesthetic.
“If I am going to work with somebody, it has to be part of my life, something I want to share,” Beck explains. “I can be hired to make banner ads, but I want people to see the whole 360, and hopefully my readers will be amused or inspired.” mashable
The online response has been really wonderful. When we first started creating these together we felt it was a new form of photography adapted for a digital age. You never know if people are going to feel the same way you do but with the incredible response it seems people also respond to this form of storytelling.
Which of them is your favorite piece and why?
We love Anna Sees Everything (last one in this post.) We feel that it captures a portrait of her in a moment that is the essence of what she does.
What do you hope others get out of these works?
We hope to transport people to the moment, to take you a step closer to the subject. We want people to feel like they get to linger and look at something, almost in a voyeuristic way. In life, when you catch a moment, it can be gone in an instant or you instinctively look away. Through our images, the moment lasts forever and you can look as long as you like.
Which gif has been the most popular and why do you think that is?
Our series with Coco Rocha was the most popular collection and the single most popular cinemagraph factoring in pageviews and Tumblr notes is Meet Me at the Bar. We think that there’s a surprising aspect to it – it masquerades as a still photograph but then a car drives by. There’s also a romantic element to the story the image tells… at least we feel that way.
Were you inspired by other gifs or anyone else before you started this more artistic ones?
For us it happened very organically out of a need to show something more than a photo but not quite a video, and to stay true to Jamie’s photography. There have been a lot of really interesting things being done with gifs in recent years and since getting our work out there people have sent us links to other artists creating cool stuff within the gif medium. Our hope is that in the future there are many people creating original content in a similar way…in their own personal style.
What do you have next in store for us?
We hope to continually improve our storytelling abilities through our cinemagraphs. We’re testing with better cameras, meeting talented people we can work with and hoping to do more editorial collaborations. We’re also compiling an intimate look at New York City through this new medium. We’re looking to explore other ways to utilize cinemagraphs outside of the web through devices like iPad and through forthcoming display technologies.
Thanks for the interview, Jamie and Kevin. Absolutely in love with your sweet and subtle gifs.
I like their works so much that I collected almost biggest collection on the web :)
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