Last year I attended Midburn, a regional burning man event taking place in the hot Israeli desert.
I filmed nonstop for five days and created “We are Midburn”. The video ended up getting featured multiple big websites and news outlets, including the official Burning Man newsletter. Creating the video was quite the journey, but it also required me to extensively film non-stop during the entire event. So I pretty much experienced everything through a dusty camera lens.
When it was time to get ready for Midburn 2017, I decided I’ll hold off the video this year. I wanted to be more present in the event, and it wasn’t possible if I was to create a video. But I did have an idea to try something that has intrigued me for quite a while, and this year’s Midburn “Lucid Dream” theme was the perfect setting.
Posted by Dan Lior on Thursday, June 8, 2017
What is lucid dreaming?
Before we begin, here is a quick rundown of what is lucid dreaming. As bizarre as it sounds, being able to control your dreams is a real thing. In fact, the movie inception relied heavily on the techniques and theories behind this phenomenon. I’ve dedicated two years of my life practicing it and although I only succeeded a few times, I can say that it is one of the most surreal and unique experiences anyone can have.
So tie in this year’s Midburn theme, settings, wacky characters and the overall surreal vibe, and you got yourself the perfect ground for some of the best photos one may take.
Coming up with the idea
I wanted my photos to tell a story, to pass the sensation of what it is to be at a Burning man event. I also looked for a way to have the photos play out the idea of lucid dreaming. I knew getting trippy photos would not be too difficult, but I wanted to find a way to bring the idea to life and show what it feels like to be inside a dream.
Not too long ago, I started seeing photos on Instagram which I initially thought were cinemagraphs. But after careful observation, I noticed something was off and some of them seemed impossible. Considering cinemagraphs are partly photo, partly video, these photos were somehow different. They reminded me of my experiences with lucid dreaming. In a dream, before you become lucid, you might feel like you are conscious, but certain things might seem weird. It is only when you really realize something is off, that you are aware you are in fact in a dream.
What is Plotagraph
Once I found the technique I wanted to use for my project, I needed to learn how it can be done. I found out that this type of animation can be made with Photoshop & AfterEffects . But then, I found this new software called Plotograph that I decided to use.
Plotograph is an app that allows you to turn every still image into a GIF or video file. It was created by the photographer Troy Plota and it’s really neat. The cool thing about this app is it’s simple to use, and acts as a social platform on its own. Allowing artists to animate their photos and upload them straight to the community hub for others to see.
I watched a few short tutorials on their official Youtube page and got a pretty good rundown of what can be done with the software. Then, I sat down to plan my project and discover how I can implant this technique to into my photographs.
Taking the photographs
Now, while there was no way of knowing what I would photograph and what kind of art installations would be present this year, I knew I should follow 2 main guidelines:
- The first was making sure that in each photograph I took there was always at least one element that needs to be animated. I figured that the best objects to animate would be those who are supposed to move. Cloth, fabric, dust, clouds, feathers, fire, hair, each photo should have at least one element for me to animate.
- The second guideline was that the photos needed to look dream-like. My goal was for those who see my photos to initially think it was a normal photograph, but with further observation discover they are in fact, moving.
When I got to the event, I dedicated the first day to walking around and scanning for any interesting art installations, camps, people locations, and basically come up with an idea of how I want to bring life to this project. There were two main things that caught my eye. The first was the dust. I wanted it to have a key role in the project. In a Burning Man event, the dust is an un-separated and integral element in the experience, to the attendees, it almost has a cult status. The second thing I noticed was just how surreal and beautiful the light is in the dusty desert. Dust was always in the air and it was acting as a beautiful softbox to the strong sunlight, giving every test photo I took a dream- like feeling.
I took my camera out on three separate occasions, each time for a few hours. I went to the locations I found and searched for the right people to help me make the reality into a dream. All the while maintaining my 1st guideline of making sure there would always be some kind of element to animate.
Here are a few examples. I will later go in depth on the process of animating them
This photo, featuring my lovely wife, was taken in an art installation that was referred to as the “Car Wash” with long strips of nylon streamers almost touching the ground. When scouting I noticed how sometimes a gush of wind would raise the installation into the air. I had my wife stand in front of the installation and we waited for it to blow upwards. I took the photo knowing that later I would animate the streamers.
This is another photo featuring my wife walking in the desert. My Instagram research showed that Plotagraph really shines with clouds, dust, and water. I asked my wife to violently walk through the sand so I can later create a sense of advancing motion using the software.
The editing process
Once I got home (and sent my camera to be urgently cleaned at a lab) I sat down and culled through the photos to find the best ones to be animated. I then edited them all in Lightroom. I wanted to create a single look through all the images. I went for a saturated & surreal Mad Max kind of look to go along with the desert setting. After creating the preset, which you can download here, fired Plotograph up.
I won’t go into all the really awesome features this app provides, but I will give the rundown on how it works.
- The app uses simple keyframes and masks to determine which parts of the photograph will move and which parts will stay frozen.
- While there are masking possibilities, I mostly used the “animated keyframes” and “stabilizing keyframes”.
The animated keyframes are key frames that when clicked on the photo and holding your mouse it would create a point, dragging the point will create an arrow. Depending on the direction of the arrow and where the mouse was clicked, the area in the photo will start moving in the set direction.
Dragging the arrow further will result in a more “smudgy” animation while keeping the arrow short will create a shorter animation. I personally like keeping my arrows short as it gave the photos a more realistic feeling, while still making them a somewhat bit trippy. This felt true to the idea of not noticing something was “off” at first glimpse. Just like lucid dreaming.
The stabilizing keyframes work great. They are simple to use and are to be placed on areas in the photo that should not move. I found out that I didn’t have to be extremely accurate with the stabilizing dots. Plotograph really shines in how easy it is to create these animations receiving good results on the first few tries.
Here are a few examples
Let’s take the boots photo as a workflow use-case. Notice I created quite a few stabilizing points (the purple squares). But I have no stabilizing points on the upper left side of the photo. That is because I had no animation points there and there was already no movement. I also found there is no need to be 100% accurate when placing the dots and distancing them. Plotograph did a great job figuring out what I wanted to move and freeze.
Using the nifty mask filters feature I could hide the image while leaving only the stabilizing & movement keyframes. Doing so, easily allowed me to see all the keyframes that I have placed and analyze the movement. The most important thing to remember is that movement should be simulated realistically. Obviously, you can (and should) experiment, but as a starting point here is my keyframe setting:
As you can see, the impact on the dust is a powerful splash. For those longer splashes, I used longer movement key frame arrows to simulate a more powerful movement.
I then added short arrow keyframes around the left foot and right leg to create some smaller movements. This was made the final photo more realistic.
Looking on the right side of the photo, you can see I added some stabilizing points on the darker patch of dust underneath the big splashes to hold it from moving. The result for this is three layers of movement, long, short and still, it really gives a three-dimensional feeling as the dust rises above the still ground.
In the Car Wash photo, I simulated the movement of the nylon streamers that were created by the wind direction.
Another good use for plotagraph is to animate fire, specifically the burning of the effigy (a wooden sculpture that is burnt at every event). Fire is very chaotic and I initially thought it would be a mess to animate. But it was actually one of the easiest photographs to work on.
I placed stabilizing points on the wooden bodies that were still untouched by the fire. But when animating the fire, I placed the arrows close to each other but, facing different directions to give emphasis on how chaotic the movement is.
This next photo is one of my favorites. I already knew how I wanted the animation to look when I clicked the shutter button.
I wanted the body of the model to stay frozen while all the dust around him will be in motion. So before I took that photo I swiped the dust around the model and already created sort of a “path” for the dust to move on. Wind and people walking kept destroying the smooth sand pattern I created but I it actually resulted in a more interesting photograph and animation.
The feedback for the project was amazing. So many people from within the community and outside of it loved it. the procejed was viewd over 200,000 views on Facebook and was featured on Burning man official newsletter.
One of the main feedbacks I repeatedly got was people sharing how while looking at the photographs, they feel like they are tripping on acid. I’ve never tried acid myself but this made me that I was successful with my intentions to obstruct reality. As apparently, being in a lucid dream and doing acid is a very similar experience.
One small note towards the people who created Plotagraph. The application is amazing. please made the dots smaller though. You have different presets that changes the colors of the dots (you can’t choose your own colors) but you can’t really change the size of them. This makes it hard to work on some photos where any of the presets were hardly visible.
Here are some more of those lucid dreams, enjoy.