Alpha Universe Story Detail

The Power to Move

Virgo Haan

Have you ever scrolled through Instagram, stopped at a portrait image, only to have the subject wink at you after a second or two? If you have, then the chances are you have just seen a cinemagraph - a combination of a still and moving image. The first time you see one it can catch you off guard as your brain begins to comprehend what it’s seeing. And it’s this attention that has made cinemagraphs grow in popularity, especially as brands vie to grab your very limited online attention.

virgo haan sony alpha 7RII ady wearing a red dress seated at a red table with a matching table fan

© Virgo Haan | Sony α7R II + FE 85mm f/1.4 GM | 1/125s @ f/2.2, ISO 320

One master of the cinemagraph is Virgo Haan. After spending time assisting photographers, he eventually changed careers to work for an advertising agency, where he learnt more about the emerging world of online marketing and how to grab people’s attention. But it was a perhaps surprising source of inspiration that led him on his path to becoming a leader in cinemagraphs – Harry Potter.

“In about 2011 I saw a Harry Potter movie,” he explains, “and in it the characters were reading a newspaper and the images on the page were coming to life. It struck me how cool it would be if I could somehow create images that worked like that in some way.”

The seed had been planted, but then what?

“A few months later,” he says, “I happened to read an article about two photographers, Kevin Burg and Jamie Beck, who had basically invented this new photography concept - the cinemagraph - and I instantly knew that I wanted to try and create them.”

virgo haan sony alpha 7RII lady wearing a yellow teeshirt in front of a yellow table holding a matching water sprayer

© Virgo Haan | Sony α7R II + FE 85mm f/1.4 GM | 1/125s @ f/2.2, ISO 320

The concept behind the cinemagraph is relatively straightforward. Imagine two layers, the top layer being a still image with an area cut out, let say it’s a portrait and the area that’s cut out is the subject’s eye. Below this top layer is a motion layer that is identical in every way, but this motion layer shows the subject blinking. The cutout in the top layer reveals the movement in the movie layer below. The end result in this instance? We see the subject blink, but with no other movement to the head or facial muscles.

There are a lot of tricks of the trade when it comes to the creation of cinemagraphs. Of course, the frame must stay perfectly still for the video recording, so a tripod must be used. Subjects must also remain perfectly still except for the part that is moving, so they can be held in position by being propped up with stands or other makeshift supports.

virgo haan sony alpha 7RII lady wearing a lilac blouse gazes at large bowl being held above her

© Virgo Haan | Sony α7R II + FE 85mm f/1.4 GM | 1/125s @ f/2.2, ISO 320

Then there is the motion itself. Virgo explains that there are three types of loop that are used to create a cinemagraph. “Things like clouds can create a fading loop where you can fade the loop in and out to make it continuously look like a cloud is moving,” he tells us, “then there are bouncing loops, where the loop reaches a point and then is reversed. The eye blinking is the perfect example. The subject opens their eyes, then the clip is reversed to the start so that it starts and finishes in the same place. Then there is the hard cut loop where the subject must make sure that the movement starts and ends in the same place. These can be the most difficult and take the most practice.”

It may all sound complicated, but the technology used to create cinemagraphs is accessible to everyone. Virgo uses a Sony α7R II which enables him to capture both high resolution still images and 4K video with exactly the same colour settings. This allows the still image and underlying video image to perfectly match when he edits them using Adobe Photoshop. There are a number of different software applications that can be used to create the actual cinemagraphs, however for those starting out Virgo recommends trying Flixel, which is available as an app and desktop software.

virgo haan sony alpha 7RII lady wearing a pink blouse plays the flute in front of a pink table

© Virgo Haan | Sony α7R II + FE 85mm f/1.4 GM | 1/125s @ f/2.2, ISO 320

Other features of the Sony α7R II that help Virgo create his cinemagraphs are Eye AF and Silent Shooting. Eye AF means that even when he is using his FE 85mm f/1.4 GM lens the eye is perfectly in focus every time, whilst the silent shutter helps make sure that subjects aren’t distracted by him shooting.

Despite cinemagraphs being designed to be viewed online on a small screen, the resolution of the image is still important for Virgo, particularly in his recent project for a fashion magazine. “The series of images had to be bright and colourful,” Virgo says, “but I wanted to make the series also about overconsumption in our society. If you look closely you will see that the characters in the images are growing things like cars and hamburgers in pot plants. Those were printed as photos in the pages of the magazine, however using an augmented reality app on your smartphone you could hold your phone over the page and watch as the image came to life as the cinemagraph played on the screen.”

It’s almost the realisation of the scene Virgo first saw in the Harry Potter movie all those years ago.

Photo credits:

Assistant: Jaanar Nikker
Model: Gertrud (E.M.A Model Management)
Makeup and Hair: Maret Ubaleht
Clothes: Kriss Soonik, Tallinn Dolls, Embassy of Fashion 

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