Why the Market for Still Lifes Won’t Hold Still

February 6, 2019

By Conor Risch

An increasing number of still-life assignments for both editorial and commercial clients now involve producing visuals that aren’t exactly still: cinemagraphs, stop-motion animations, GIFs, videos—what Celine Faledam, an associate creative director with Los Angeles-based agency The Many, calls “rich media.” Using moving images to complement still lifes is a response to the challenges advertisers face in grabbing people’s attention on screen, especially as they’re scrolling through social media feeds.

On the editorial side, motion “is largely responding to the fact that so many publications are either online only now, or have extremely robust online presences,” says Alexandra Citrin, art director for digital-only food publication Taste. Stopping power on social media is certainly one of the reasons editorial publications are commissioning motion pieces, but there are also “functional applications” within online articles, Citrin notes. For instance, in food media, video and stop-motion animation can illustrate “prepping, chopping, finished products” and the like. And, Citrin adds, having motion elements also makes for a “more high-end” reader experience.

© Meiko Takechi Arquillos

A GIFs from a series that Meiko Takechi Arquillos created for Walmart. © Meiko Takechi Arquillos

Photographer Meiko Takechi Arquillos says in the last six months, “everything involves GIFs,” and it’s her GIF work that’s brought clients to her.  She’s worked recently for Mars Wrigley, the retail payment service Square and—with Faledam and Mistress—for Walmart. Arquillios loves working on the short motion pieces. With still photography, she felt she had “hit the limit of telling the story.” GIFs*, she says, “fit so well with my sensibility, which is a playful, whimsical, graphic, colorful thing. That has taken me to a different level.” (*A quick note about the term GIF: The Graphics Interchange Format (GIF), was created by CompuServe in 1987 and last updated in 1989. The acronym has become industry shorthand for brief, stop-motion animations created from photographs. However, because of the lower visual quality of the GIF file format and the fact that Instagram doesn’t accept GIF files, photographers are frequently outputting these animations as MP4 video files.)

Janelle Jones, who has primarily shot stop motion for editorial clients such as Hearst Digital and Taste, says that motion makes storytelling easier by putting less pressure on a single image. With stills, she says, “if there’s a sense of motion that you need to convey or an action, that has to happen all in one still image, which is just inherently harder than if you have time or sequence. [Motion is] a whole other element that you can use to tell that story. You don’t have to be as succinct or concise.”

Photographers who have heard the phrase “Just do some video” understand that just because clients want motion doesn’t necessarily mean they know what it takes to produce it (or pay for it). A lot of clients “don’t seem to understand that a GIF is essentially many still photographs put into one,” Jones notes. Citrin, who also works as an illustrator and creates motion content for clients, says that stop motion isn’t, for the most part, quite as demanding as, say, a 30-second video or something with special effects, “but it takes more planning and I think people should charge more for it.”

An animation created by Janelle Jones for online cooking magazine Taste. © Janelle Jones

Faledam says clients just need a bit of education about what it means to create stop motion or other rich media. “Once they come on set and see what it involves, it helps [their understanding] a lot,” she explains.

Stop-motion animations generally require more planning than still images or even short GIFs, and photographers will often create storyboards for an animation shoot. Faledam says she and her team will usually go to a photographer “with a very clear idea of what we want” and look to the photographers for fine-tuning. The Walmart assignment with Arquillos involved a bit more collaboration on concepts, with the agency bringing some and Arquillos and her set designer creating some as well. “She had a couple of nice ideas that we shot,” Faledam notes.

Citrin is looking for a more collaborative approach. She especially likes working with photographers who are styling their own shoots. “I think it’s great when they have something more to say than just getting the shot.”

Jess Bonham says that clients are increasingly coming directly to her and the set designer she works with to art direct ideas, rather than working through an agency. She’s shot stop-motion work for Converse, Kenzo, Miu Miu, Nike and Hermès, among others, “everything conceptualized by me, or me and the set designer.”

Dwight Eschliman’s college football-themed shoot for Chobani. © Dwight Eschliman

Photographer Dwight Eschliman says he’ll “rarely get a pre-visualization” from a client on a video or stop-motion job. “Often [the assignment] is: We have this many seconds, here’s the idea, go for it. Most of the time storyboarding happens on our end, either internally or we’re hiring [an illustrator] to do it.”

On an assignment to create a series of college football-themed ads for yogurt brand Chobani, for instance, the client gave Eschliman specific ingredients—types of fruits and cereals—that he had to use to create several different regionally focused ads. But it was up to Eschliman and his team to figure out what actually occurred during the animations. He chose to move the pieces of fruit and cereal around the tabletop as if they were players on a football field.

He notes, “It took a long time. That’s the thing about stop motion. It’s fun, but it’s very time consuming, especially the set-up.” But because he had conceived and storyboarded each sequence in advance, “the creative had been finished before we got on set.”

The amount of work that goes into creating motion pieces can make it less profitable than stills work, Eschliman says. “For the scale of projects we do, which are not big video productions, we get paid better to make stills than video. I think that comes down to the time it takes to create video.”

Arquillos says her productions generally involve the same number of crew as she would have on a stills shoot, but there’s more work in the prop and styling department. Eschliman says the demand for motion means he’s working with a crew that’s “equally comfortable lighting with continuous [lights] and strobes.” His crew will get bigger if he’s working with a cinema camera.

@ Jessica Pettway

Jessica Pettway’s GIF for the sex-positive toy company Unbound. Pettway’s animation riffs on an arcade claw game. @ Jessica Pettway

Photographer Jessica Pettway, who has shot stop-motion animations for clients such as VICE and sex toy company Unbound, says some clients don’t necessarily understand how motion or video can affect compositing and post-production. “There seems to be a bit of a disconnect when [the ask] goes from photo to GIF to actually compositing, and how that’s kind of a whole other component to a project and another separate production need, so it’s been necessary to explain that difference to clients,” Pettway says. She’s been working with motion since she was a student at School of Visual Arts, and in her personal work she’s often rigged things. “There may be something exploding,” she says. The compositing that needs to happen gets more complicated and time consuming once motion and video are involved.

Pettway says her creative process for motion content is pretty similar to her process for stills, but she plans a bit more carefully and is “cleaner with my rigging.” Whereas she’ll often leave some room for experimentation in her still photography, she says, “with video, I like to do a little bit more planning” to make sure things go smoothly on-set and in post-production.

From a shoot by Jess Bonham for Converse. © Jess Bonham

Bonham says that learning how to “streamline shooting stop frame” to minimize the amount of post-production that needs to be done was “a really big breakthrough.” Early on, she shot a couple of jobs for which everything was rigged and shot in-camera. “If you’re talking about a 30-second stop frame, if it involved shooting every frame as you see it, then it puts a huge load onto the post-production house in terms of retouching.” Instead, she’ll look at everything that needs to be shot and identify things that can be shot once, retouched, and then put into the frame in post. For example, on a shoot for Converse, she was able to shoot a pair of shoes once and then it was cut out and animated across the other frames in post. “It’s an object shot in camera, the shadows [are] shot in camera. There’s no building something that isn’t there,” she says. But, it “made for a much quicker, much easier, much cleaner job in post production, and worked in a friendlier way with the budget.”

In an editorial market recently burned by the “pivot-to-video” debacle, one wonders whether all this animation is a fad. Citrin believes that animations are here to stay, but that they may evolve, adding something other than eye-candy to a story. On the advertising front, the number of screens present in private and public spaces appears only to be increasing, and it stands to reason that the market for animated still life will continue to develop. Moving visuals may increasingly become the primary ask on jobs. “I do think it’s here to stay,” says Pettway. “I’ve seen motion in a lot of unexpected places…. I think that’s what our eye is drawn to.” Faledam says the data bears that out. “We’ve found that moving creative or rich media creative is across the board something that [audiences] engage with the most.”

— With Reporting from Holly Stuart Hughes and David Walker

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