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Charlie Chaplin 2.0: how a mobile app taught teens the lost art of silent cinema

Charlie Chaplin 2.0: how a mobile app taught teens the lost art of silent cinema


With just four seconds of video and no sound, Cinemagram forces users to master classic slapstick.

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charlie chaplin
charlie chaplin

GIFs have a long and storied history, from their humble beginnings as garish decorations on dot-com domains, to their more recent revival as artful advertisement and meme making tool of choice. But by and large GIFs born on the web are random, made from current events like political speeches or sporting event, tidbits of regular videos that needed to be clipped, looped and highlighted. They were the best way to immortalize what flowed by every day, not a medium for creating something new.

Cinemagram, a mobile app where users create and share GIFs, has produced a very different model. The app has the same basic structure as Instagram: shoot GIFs, share them with your friends, like and reshare the ones you enjoy most. But unlike classic GIFs, the moving images on Cinemagram, known as Cines, as being created from scratch. In fact, GIFs have found a verdant new home on mobile. They can load quickly and easily on any browser and since there is no sound and you don’t have to press play, they can be consumed in a feed.

Of course, those same advantages are also creative restrictions. The GIFs you can produce and share on Cinemagram, called Cines, have some very big limitations — no more than 4 seconds long and of course no sound. Responding to this, savvy Cine producers have made found ways to play to the app's strengths. In three seconds, with the help of a caption, users set up a joke and deliver the punchline.


When you fell when you were little
and you damn well it ain't even hurt

by @LeanandCuisine

"It’s like watching a TV show or movie with the volume all the way down," said DaQuan Matthews, known as Dope_Thoughtzzz on Cinemagram, where he is one of the more popular comedians. "I record multiple parts for my Cine before breaking it down to two or three." Then he finds the moments that translate best and cuts out 1 second clips. For inspiration, he looks to physical comedians like The Fresh Prince and the Wayans Brothers. "The caption and hash tags are very important when upload a Cine. It brings out the Cine more, like you can actually hear the person talking."

A large part of the community on Cinemagram is made up of African-American teenagers, and the model for silent cinema they have developed borrows heavily from trends noted by reporters among African-Americans on Twitter. There, a joke is set up with a hashtag, for example: #thatmomentwhen. The rest of the caption and the image deliver the punchline. On Cinemagram the construction would look something like this:


You get too close to a bug you're trying to kill
by @dope_thoughtzz

For Buster Keaton that would be:


You realize your push cart's headed the wrong way

Cinemagram actually began with a very different sort of GIF. The service allows users to mask the video they take so that only a certain portion gets animated. Early on almost all the popular cines used this trick to create fun visual effects. "I mainly did the one-eye-is-moving-but-the-other-one-isn't type of cine," says Hannah Werner, know on Cinemagram as Clapyourhanz.

"Anyhow, me and my few friends that used it stopped for awhile and about 9 months later I decided to download it again and see if anything was different. Boy was it! They weren't really cines anymore, there were gifs with funny captions. I fell in love with it though, who doesn't like watching someone get hurt over and over or a cute puppy waddling? So it was truly a lot different, but in a good way because it could still be used for what it was originally meant for, but now it had some pizzaz."

In a way, Cinemagram's evolution mirrors that of early cinema. At first, cinema was rife with optical illusion, like those by George Méliès, which focused on exploiting the technical structure of the medium. But quickly the best artists moved beyond visual tricks to focus on actors and performance. At only one year old, Cinemagram is still evolving, and with well over five million downloads, the app has a strong community of creators pushing the GIF format to new levels.