Instagram’s Video Stabilization Will Make You Feel Like Martin Scorsese

The billion-dollar photo app’s killer new feature is the one that stays truest to its core brand value: creativity as an effortless fantasy.

I’m certainly an enthusiastic user of Instagram, and that enthusiasm wasn’t dampened when Facebook bought the company. Why? Because Facebook’s acq-hiring of Instagram didn’t change the job that I “hire” Instagram for a dozen times a day: allowing me to effortlessly inhabit a fantasy that I am a stellar fine-art photographer, and that my own life counts as art. In the real world, creating beautiful images takes training, skill, specialized equipment, and (above all) work. But thanks to Instagram, I can snap a picture that’s a not-bad simulacrum of Ansel Adams in all of five seconds–and get a handful of “likes” to reinforce the fantasy. Instagram lets me feel like I can skip over the 10,000 hours it should take me to become a good photographer (not to mention how many more untold hours it would take for me to build any kind of audience for my work). The “insta” of Instagram is this: instant art, instant audience. This is why I love it.


Enter Instagram with video. Filters: fine. Speedy UX: eh, not so much. But Cinema mode (Instagram’s name for video stabilization)? Holy cow. Now I’ve got a Steadicam in my pocket. If Instagram made me feel good by making me feel like Ansel Adams sans the effort, Cinema mode makes me feel like Martin Scorsese–again, effortlessly. This is the fantasy that Instagram delivers with every tap, which keeps me coming back. Here’s my version of the famous “Copacabana” shot from Goodfellas:

Kevin Systrom said that Instagram has always been about “capturing the moment” or something. Sure, whatever. As Anthony Wing Kosner at Forbes and Jenna Wortham at the New York Times convincingly argue, video isn’t good for that. It’s too raw, too real. Video is documentary, not dreams. And dreams are what we–or, at least, Wortham and I–want out of Instagram.

Which is why Instagram’s Cinema mode is so aptly named. How do you make your shitty cell phone videos feel like movies–like fantasies, like dreams, better than what really happened? Smooth them out! Stabilization is the “filters” of mobile video: the one-touch (or in Instagram’s case, no-touch) killer feature that makes your mundane “moments”–your life, really–look and feel like art, and you the artist. Instagram’s video feature is usually compared to Vine, but it really has more in common with Paper–another fantasy-driven art-making app that transforms your homely scrawls into graceful sketches. Here is a cinematic “moment” that I could never have captured without Instagram and Cinema mode:

That’s not a moment that “just happened” that I “captured,” documentary style. It’s a piece of moviemaking–a quantum of fantasy–that I saw in my head and that Instagram let me create, effortlessly. I happen to be a filmmaker, but you don’t have to be one to walk around seeing these little cinematic highlight-reel moments happening in real life all the time. Instagram was the first app that let you snap pics that–for once–had a chance of looking as good as they did in your head. Cinema mode lets the same thing happen for these fleeting personal movie-moments. Jenna Wortham thinks that by adding video, Instagram has killed its main appeal–its ability to effortlessly deliver fantasy, to turn your life into a better-than-real highlight reel. I couldn’t disagree more. For me, Cinema mode opens up Instagram’s on-demand fantasy into an extra dimension that I always wanted, and now finally have.

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.