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How To Animate a Still Photo in Adobe Photoshop

Today we’re going to have some fun creating what’s known as a Plotagraph, which is a motion picture effect similar to Cinemagraphs, but it’s created from a single static image, rather than a video clip. The name Plotagraph comes from the brand name of the software and the associated community based on this effect, which you can find at The full software is pretty expensive, so I’ve been playing around in Adobe Photoshop to figure out how to create the effect manually. It works by stretching a certain portion of the image using keyframes in the Photoshop animation timeline. Repeating this simple transformation in a loop gives the illusion that the picture is moving. The effect works particularly well with landscape scenes of rivers or waterfalls that have continuous movement, which is what I’ll be showing you as part of my example using this image by Kym Ellis from Begin by opening up your chosen image in Adobe Photoshop.

This picture is pretty large by default, so I’m going to scale it down using the Image Size menu so it’s less CPU intensive when we get around to animating it. We first need to choose a portion of the photograph to animate. Turn on Quick Mask mode at the bottom of the toolbar, then set up the Brush tool with a soft tip. Begin painting around the area you want to move, which in my case is the waterfall. Paint with black to add to the selection, or press the X key to switch to white if you need to remove any areas from the selection. Click the Quick Mask button when you’re finished to have the painted area transformed into a selection, that retains the soft outline.

Go to the Select menu and choose Inverse, then Copy and Paste this clipping onto a new layer. Open up the Timeline panel from the View menu, which is where we’ll animate the image. Create a new Video timeline. Shorten the length of the clipping layer to around 1 second, then click the little arrow to expand this clips options. You’ll see that the first keyframe option is to animate the Position of the clip, but we want to be able to stretch it, not just move it around. Right click on the layer within the Layers panel and choose Convert to Smart Object. If you check the clip options again you’ll now see the option for Transform. Move the playhead to the start of the timeline, then click the stopwatch icon to apply a Transform keyframe. Move the playhead along and add another keyframe by clicking the little diamond icon. Zoom out so the image fits in the screen area and use the CMD+T shortcut for Transform to manipulate the waterfall clipping. Drag the bottom corner handle downwards to stretch the element in the direction the water is flowing.

In the timeline, drag this keyframe all the way to the right of the clip, then scrub back and forth to see the basic animation effect. To help the animation play more smoothly, add a Fade transition to each end of the clip. Give it a test by clicking the Play icon. It doesn’t look realistic yet, but the fading eliminates the harsh jump back to the start. Select the Background layer and use the Quick Mask to make a selection of a second portion of the image to animate. In my example it will be the mist and spray at either side of the waterfall.

Apply the mask, inverse the selection, then Copy and Past the clipping on to a new layer. Right click and convert this layer into a Smart Object. Make sure the clip runs from the start of the timeline, and trim it to the same length as the other clip. Move the playhead to the start and add a Transform keyframe. Move the playhead along a little and add another keyframe. Press CMD+T to Transform the image. Scale it upwards so the mist will appear to expand outwards towards the edge of the canvas area. Drag the keyframe right to the end and add the Fade transitions to each end of the clip. If you give it a test, you’ll notice that some portions of the image are being animated that we don’t want, like this person being swept away.

Select the background layer and press CMD+J to duplicate it. Drag this copy right to the top of the layer stack. Make sure this new layer aligns with the start of the timeline, then add a layer mask. Fill the mask with black using the CMD+Backspace shortcut, then move the playhead to a point in the animation where you can see things moving out of place. Set up the brush tool with white and begin painting over the unwanted areas. This will restore the static image to act as a mask so the animated elements won’t be seen in these areas. Once everything looks good within this short 1 second clip, we’re ready to extend and loop the animation. Select all the layers of the various animated pieces and Group them together. Hit the CMD+J shortcut 4 or so times to make numerous duplicates of the group. In the timeline, begin dragging the groups and position them so they offset by half the length of the previous clip. You can expand the group to use the transitions as a reference point for the centre. Give this extended animation a play to test how the transformation repeats.

To ensure the animation continuously loops, trim both the top mask layer and the work area to the halfway point of the last clip group. Hit CMD+J to make a final copy, then drag it back to the start of the timeline so far that the first half is completely cropped off. Expanding the group again will make it easy to see where that centre point is between the two transitions. Click the Loop Playback option in the Timeline settings to see the animation repeatedly play through. It’s amazing how the illusion of movement can be created from a static image. The final effect can be exported as either a video file by Rendering the timeline, or as an animated Gif if you were to scale down the document and find suitable compression to bring the file size down.

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