360-degree videos mark a turning point in cinemagraph ads

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Critical Mass gives new life to the isolated-movement images for Travel Alberta campaign redux

Time has a way of slowing down when you’re really in the zone. It’s a feeling familiar to anyone who’s passionate about skiing or snowboarding. For the second iteration of Travel Alberta’s tourism campaign, agency Critical Mass wanted to find a way to capture that feeling in a video. What it came up with represents a turning point—literally—in the evolution of cinemagraph ads.

Brands like Budweiser, Coke and Lincoln have used cinemagraphs – those subtly moving still photos – for half a decade, (they’re particularly appealing to fashion brands). Last year, Travel Alberta made a splash in the category with a suite of images that were highly regarded among cinemagraph devotees for their clean visuals and perfect looping. To produce the ads, Calgary-based Critical Mass, part of the Omnicom Group, teamed with Flixel, a cinemagraph app creator and production company.

For the perfect pour, pour a Budweiser. #ThisBudsForYou

A video posted by Budweiser (@budweiser) on

This year, the team wanted to outdo themselves and push the craft further.

"Normally we just show vistas," said Jared Folkmann, group strategy director at Critical Mass, "but we wanted to go a little bit deeper." The idea was to create a 360-degree cinemagraph, which would better convey the feeling of, say, skiing down a mountain slope. The technical challenges, however, were daunting.

A traditional cinemagraph has a static point of view – the camera doesn’t move. This allows software to isolate a single frame of a video as a background image while advancing the frames in select parts of the image. But in a 360-degree cinemagraph, the perspective continually changes. "There’s a track -- where we literally run the rig around the person at speed," Folkmann said. "We could have done it with bullet time, but you wouldn’t have gotten the video look to the 360, so the snow wouldn’t have been moving."

The videos consist of a single loop around the subject, a circuit that needed to be traversed in 5.4 seconds in order to produce 1080p video while shooting at 200 frames per second.

Of course, with a moving camera, the subject had to remain still. But two of the images feature airborne subjects, so Critical Mass suspended them from wires against a black backdrop. Adding to the difficulty was their desire to use athletes who actually practiced the sport, not stuntpeople or models.

"When snowboarders see moves and skiers see moves that aren’t perfect, they call you out," Folkmann said. "So we actually got athletes to do the moves and hold the position suspended in the air in order to maintain authenticity."

To create the effects, Critical Mass turned to local production company Studio Dialog, which has worked with brands like the Nissan Leaf and Call of Duty. The snow effects were handled by Arson Inc. "It’s pretty old-school in the way we created it," Folkmann said. "We didn’t have to do a ton of editing."

The cinemagraph videos are available to view on YouTube, but they’re also running as part of a native advertising campaign on adventure sports site GrindTV and as ads on the website for the skiing magazine Powder, as well as paid spots on Facebook. Flixel’s single-POV versions of the new images will be used on Twitter and Tumblr.

The cinemagraph’s appeal as an advertising medium is easy to grasp. The eerie movements have a mesmerizing effect that helps ads stand out from the barrage of similar posts. "What we’ve seen often is the dwell time for a cinemagraph can be up to 10 times better than a traditional still photo," said Robert Lendvai, chief marketing officer at Flixel, "and the clickthrough rates they deliver are also exponentially better."

Cinemagraphs have also recently made the leap to television. A Flixel-produced image ran as a 10-second pre-roll ad before a Pizza Hut commercial on the Turner cable channel TruTV late last year.

This is the first time Critical Mass has used this 360 technique. There are no current plans to try it for another campaign, so fans may need to wait until next year’s Travel Alberta campaign.


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