By Graham Marsden, Director of Marketing, Entrepreneurs’ Organization
The Early Days of .gif Files
Think back to the early days of the internet, back to the time where you went to the store and shelled out a hard-earned $40 to purchase a screensaver featuring flying toasters in order to prevent screen-burn on your bulbous CRT monitor. Now remember the visual smorgasbord that the best internet marketers were employing at the time – an all-in appeal to grab your attention for more than a fleeting second. Yes, I’m talking about the early days of the animated .gif file format.
An 8-bit rendering of American flag billowing at the bottom of the right column of your shopping cart. An eagle flapping its wings right across the header of your website. It didn’t take long for the obnoxiousness to be spoofed in a classic episode of The Simpsons, as Homer Simpson took to the internets to find fame.
Ah, yes, the height of the early days of web motion graphics were, at their best, completely constricted by bandwidth concerns, combined with an overall lack of class. It was next to impossible for advertisers to create something truly immersive, compelling or photo-realistic. It was the web-equivalent of a side-scrolling Super Mario Bros. game.
Clearly, credibility was at stake, and agencies and advertisers realized their mistakes and went back to flat, motionless graphics until bandwidth and digital photography would allow for beautiful, embedded photography, and then video.
Next Chapter: The Ken Burns Effect
As I grew up consuming media in all its forms, similar growing pains were happening in the film/photography industry. We can recall stale slide-shows and transparencies being used to present photos and charts. Those sessions in classrooms and board rooms that could have only been rescued had Don Draper himself swooped in and convinced us we were all unwittingly part of life’s carousel, after all. The first attempt at adding motion to still photos really took root after the ground-breaking style of Ken Burns hit the scene. Incorporating a simple pan and tilt, a slow and steady zoom on an aged, brown photo of a WWI soldier made the subject somehow more engaging. It was so engaging, in fact, that Apple would build the “Ken Burns Effect” as a default setting for still photos in iMovie and other applications.
3-D Effects and Digital Media
Video games, too, made their advances. We quickly went from side-scrollers, like Mario and Mega-Man, to layered 3-D scrollers (where movement was divided into several layers to simulate a 3-D effect). Then came first-person shooters, with Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Duke Nukem’ and 007 – the true pioneers. Today, thanks to the magic of Moore’s law, gaming has become lifelike and photo-realistic at almost every turn.
It can be argued that our advances in digital imagery have now far outpaced our access to bandwidth. Sure, for high-end consumers, mobile users in densely populated areas, and lucky citizens of nations like Finland, where high-speed internet access has been declared a legal right – gapingly open bandwidth has become a reality. Virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift signal a coming era of total immersion, whether by live, 360-degree video broadcasts, or fully-developed virtual worlds. We are truly on the cusp of a revolution in digital media, which makes the rise of cinemagraphs (animated files with still-motion components) appear to be more of a passing fad than a true new wave in advertising.
Looping Video Files
When Twitter launched Vine, the oddly addictive, seven-second video platform that loops ad infinitum, innovative users challenged themselves to make the most of the loop function to create a seamless replay. A collection of submissions under the #loopperfection hashtag give a glimpse at some of the ingenious applications of this approach.
Trolls and agitators on other platforms took it upon themselves to make sure that looped videos would be a complete waste of your time. I have to reward the most maddening example I’ve recently seen with the embed below (usually accompanied by a click-bait headline akin to “You won’t believe what happens at the top!”)
Still, all that innovation has led us, somewhat, to the video equivalent of cheesy animated .gifs of the early ‘90s. They are more frequently deployed as an annoyance, or a gimmick, than they are for persuasive and immersive advertising.
And Now, Cinemagraphs
Into this scene, the cinemagraph enters as a new contender for agencies. A mélange of still photography, video, animated loops and layered 3-d effects, these visual Frankensteins are on the loose and will surprise you at every turn.
At once visually arresting and mesmerizing, these still photos with subtle added motion effects attract and lock in first-time viewers and casual web surfers. The applications for product, lifestyle and luxury marketers are plentiful.
Photographers and videographers can while away their hours crafting the perfect loops to make the right impression. The problem, for most, lies with the execution.
Web browsers are set to interpret embedded media files with certain pre-configured settings. Attempts by designers and developers failed for decades to find anything more suitable than the lowly animated .gif format to auto-play in web browsers. Mobile apps have opened the door for new implementations of native video files, and popular social platforms have enabled new controls on video formats. But when making a cinemagraph (here’s a handy 15-step, 1900-word guide), one still has to choose whether to use a decades-old, clunky image compression format, or to embed a video file that may or may not auto-play, and may or may not loop, depending on the browser and user preferences. Even cinemagraph pioneer Flixel uses embedded .mp4 video files for its high-res moving images and acknowledges the drawback that there can be no consistent, infinite loop using that solution.
Due to this technical roadblock in the final delivery of the image, combined with the advent of the next era in digital imagery to be found in VR and immersive video, I can’t see the cinemagraph as more than a passing fad. While anyone with a smart phone and a Facebook profile can upload a 7-second looping video, true cinemagraphs are very difficult to perfect (simple variables like clouds or waves or cars looping in the background are nearly impossible to loop without a hitch).
As for me, I could drive myself mad trying to set up and execute the perfect cinemagraph scene. I’ll stick to my photos being photos, and my videos looping poorly. Now where’s my VR headset, already, Facebook?
Graham Marsden is the Director of Marketing for the Entrepreneurs’ Organization. He is an avid photographer, movie collector, world-traveler and musician. Find him on Instagram and Twitter as @travelogician.