If you’re as big a fan of Kevin Burg and Jamie Beck’s animated-GIF "Cinemagraphs" as we are, you’ve probably wondered: How could I make some of those myself? To use Apple’s trademarked-but-annoyingly-useful phrase, there’s an app for that. It’s called Flixel, and it transforms your iPhone’s camera into a Cinemagraph-making marvel.
"We were so enthralled by Cinemagraphs but burdened by the complexity and time required to create them," Flixel co-founder Mark Homza tells Co.Design. "With Flixel, we wanted to propose a creative experience that blended simplicity, artistic integrity, and pushed the boundaries of iPhone imagery." Indeed, part of what made Burg and Beck’s Cinemagraphs so bewitching was their subtlety — and the technical skill that no doubt went into achieving it. How can you automate and package that process into an app that any schmoe can use?
Amazingly, Flixel pulls this feat off. Simply snap a photo just like you would normally, and the magic elves inside the app capture a handful of video frames, process them, and even image-stabilize everything for you. But the real genius of Flixel’s interaction design reveals itself when it’s time to animate the GIF. Rubbing your fingertip over the image animates just that portion of the frame, so you can create subtle effects like a candle flame flickering or a cat twitching its tail. (Note: Flixel didn’t invent this clever interaction, but does refine it in comparison to similar apps like Kinotopic and Cinemagram.) If you want to get fancy, you can choose starting and ending frames for your animation, decide to repeat it or loop it back and forth (the latter avoids distracting "jump cuts"—a nice touch), and even apply Instagram-esque filters (some of which cost money—well played, guys).
The app bungles the "first impression" user experience a bit by displaying a social-network-like feed of other people’s Flixels when you launch the app. (I’d have preferred to see the camera function as the default launch screen—I don’t want to miss capturing any Cinemagraph-worthy moments.) But other than that minor quibble, using Flixel is a delight. The results aren’t as pristine-looking as Burg and Bell’s Cinemagraphs, but the ease of making them with Flixel far outweighs any other concerns. It’s the first photo-enhancing app I’ve seen since Instagram to really add unique value to the cameraphone experience. Your first Flixel might be crude, but you’ll have so much fun doing it that you’ll immediately want to make another one. And another, and another. Cat photos, baby pics, and party shots may never be the same.
So is Flixel just a crass "product-ization" of Bell and Burg’s innovative art form? To their credit, Mark Homza and CEO Phillipe LeBlanc acknowledge right on Flixel’s homepage that the app was "inspired by Cinemagraphs." "The app in a way, is an homage to [Bell and Burg’s] work," Homza says. "The goal is to propagate the art form and make it accessible to a mainstream audience. It would be an honour to work with them and get their feedback." Despite these good intentions, some will inevitably say Flixel is a ripoff. Others—like me—will say even if it is, who cares? This app is awesome.
Update: Some of our commenters have mentioned that if Flixel is "a ripoff" of anything, it’s earlier apps like Cinemagram and Kinotopic. I checked both of them out and while the interface conventions of these apps are very similar, Flixel’s feels uniquely well-designed. Kinotopic forces you to jump through account-setup hoops before you can even experiment with the camera—a big UX fail. And Cinemagram’s interface, while responsive, is rough and one-dimensional compared to Flixel. Cinemagram is presented as a video app rather than a photo app, so it lets you record long clips—and forces you to throw most of that material away before creating an animated GIF. (Then why let me record that much in the first place?) Flixel’s snapshot-like UX makes more sense: you capture a photo—one moment—and paint video-like effects onto it in a nonlinear, opt-in interface (versus Cinemagram’s card-like interface, which pushes you through every step, including optional afterthoughts like color filtration, whether you want to or not).