Moving Image Design – Self-portrait
Brief: Self-portrait? The filtered message
In my moving image project, I am exploring the concept of personas people create with images, filters and narratives they post online. Through research and design, I want to show what are the influences and motivations for the process of crafting the public persona. I am also exploring the practice of self-portraiture and self-disclosure online through visual narrative.
Approach and software: Film, Fast Style Transfer and Adobe After Effects
To understand what makes a self-portrait, I looked at the history of the practice. I tried to look at visual elements, motivation, and ways artists and people create narratives about themselves.
A self-portrait is a study of an artist created by the artist and represents their physical and emotional state. It allows us a glimpse into their lives. Schiffrin (1996) examined the narrative’s part in constructing identity and how that recollected stories about our experiences are subjective.
Self-portraits can tell a story with visuals, similarly to texts and oral reports. However, the idea of self, one’s confidence and aspirations of their ego can influence the message of the self-portrait.
Self-portraits have existed since the earliest times, but artists frequently painted themselves as the main subject or characters in their work beginning in the Early Renaissance.
In some works, it is visible how artists created the narrative about themselves. In Albrecht Dürer Self-portrait from 1493, the artist is dressed in Italian fashion, reflecting his international success. In his later painting from 1500, he styles himself to look like Christ.
Rembrandt, Goya or Courbet often depicted themselves with paints and brushes that gave precedence to their professional lives and identities as artists. More personal self-portraits represented artists’ emotional and psychological states, like in examples of more modern artists, like Edvard Munch or Egon Schiele.
Artists created narratives using allegory, historical scenes, props like mirrors and reflective surfaces in their paintings. Earlier personal self-portraits were small and only showed the artists’ upper body because only tiny and fragile mirrors were available in the past.
Looking at the changing historical art styles and techniques, we can see the changes in approaches to self-portraiture.
What is a self-portrait today?
Today, the most common ways of taking a self-portrait with a camera or phone are using a reflective surface like a mirror or holding the device in an outstretched hand. Some people use tripods as well and manual or automatic shutter release. The first photographic self-portrait ever was by Robert Cornelius in 1839. Today social media are filled with self-portraits, commonly known as selfies. Having your appearance preserved is no longer a lengthy and costly process reserved only for the prominent and wealthy like it was in the case of commissioned paintings.
According to sociologist Goffman (1959), who examined concepts of self and presentation, people express their identity through performance that allows them to control the viewers’ response and present themselves in the way they wish others to see them. Since the 1950s, communication methods and tools have changed, as social media allows the users wider reach and immediate feedback in likes, share buttons and comments.
We have more examples of self-portraits made by male artists from history, although works by female artists also exist. Nowadays, the trend shifts. Various studies tried to determine who takes more photos by gender, and females are more likely to take selfies. However, more interesting are attitudes towards self-portraits created for social media. Today, with females being more likely to develop a selfie, Burns (2015) postulates that selfies are gendered. Thus selfies are seen as a sign of narcissism and devalued just because women are more likely to practice it. They are also no longer considered art, and not every person with a camera is a photographer or an artist.
“The self-portrait and the selfie are two separate, though at times overlapping, efforts at establishing and embellishing a definition of one’s self”Getty curator Arpad Kovacs, 2016
Carbon (2017) wrote about the differences between self-portraits and selfies expressed in the effort of the undertaking, tools, composition and spontaneity of the process.
Taking selfies is either staged or spontaneous, so what does it mean in the context of a critical self-process?
How is self-portraiture connected to identity?
Selfie photographs are a form of self-expression. Today self-portraits can be instantaneous, so they are also more ubiquitous than self-portraits from the past that required artistic skill and tools. Balakrishnan and Griffiths (2017) defined six motivating factors for taking selfie photographs. People tend to feel more positive about themselves, which helps with their self-confidence and works as a mood modifier; they want to gain prestige among their peers, fit in with a group and seek attention; they want to commemorate visiting specific locations.
However, social media and the culture of selfie photography has drawbacks. The use of filters and photo editing creates feelings of inadequacy and self-consciousness, especially in teenagers.
It also leads me to wonder about the identity and self-image issues of those taking and editing their photos. Social media presents a persona, not an actual person’s character. Still, we could see similar practices used by painters in the past who, by creating self-portraits, wanted to advertise themselves. Like Goffman wrote in The presentation of self in everyday life, people want to control their image. Faces, expressions and behaviours become constructed and mediated.
Where is the self-portrait?
In my research and process, I looked at various questions about self-portraits, selfies, and social media culture.
How is the value of a self-portrait affected by the medium? Why are selfies seen as less valuable than contemporary paintings and do not belong in curated spaces? Is the frequency and immediacy of creating a selfie the issue? Does the process lack the concept and commitment? Are random people’s faces not worth preserving for future memory? What about a female self-portrait? Why is female self-expression often judged and devalued? Can we see the person through the fragments on social media? Do these pieces that are designed to show only the relevant and desirable aspects of someone’s life or appearance show the truth behind a person?
These questions led me to think of how I would present myself. As a person who avoids social media and rarely takes photos of herself, I wanted to look at the process of constructing my image with a false narrative. I looked at social media trends of girls putting on makeup on the social platform TikTok and various online tutorials about taking selfies. Speaking of myself or revealing myself online is not something I ever thought about doing.
I felt inspired to twist my narrative because of Goffman’s work and ‘back stage’ and ‘front stage’ concepts in social interaction. Goffman used the metaphor of a theatrical show to describe changing human behaviour in various settings. People engage in “front stage” behaviour when they know that others are watching. Front stage performance can be deliberate, purposeful, habitual, or subconscious. ‘Back stage’ behaviour refers to what we do when no one is watching, free of cultural norms and expectations or with our inner circle.
Social media is another stage in which people perform their constructed narratives about themselves. That is why I cannot dismiss selfies as less valuable than painted self-portraits and feel inspired to create the narrative for my motion image self-portrait.
I came up with the idea of a self-portrait depicting me getting ready for a date. I thought the act of getting prepared, transforming myself to fit the concept of ‘front stage’ social norm would be a good idea to explore. I wanted to use symbols that would suggest altering my image and behaviour, like using a mirror, makeup, alcohol and dating app. In my self-portrait then, I would focus on fragments, a vignette from a life that would show various ways people alter their image and control others’ perception of them.
I was designing a narrative for the video. I wanted to present myself as an outgoing, impulsive, frivolous party-girl, concerned with my looks. I decided to film myself performing actions opposite of my usual behaviour, like drinking alcohol, putting on heavy makeup. Vanity is a driving force, but at the same time, I did film only half or less of my face at the time to suggest that we only present pieces of ourselves to the world.
A self-portrait can show the essence of a person, but instead of revealing it, I wanted to use it to deceive the viewer about who I am. Curating your self-portrait or self-image was and is a fact. We package our image nowadays, whether on dating apps or job applications. The true self is hard to find.
Planned style of the video
Camera shots framing style: close-ups, medium close-ups and medium shots, tilt-up, tilt down.
Editing style: montage. Pace moderate to fast to increase intensity. Slow in the end.
Music: No foley sounds, only a background composition. I chose to include a fast-paced string instrument composition Continent by Adrián Berenguer to add intensity and the sense of something forthcoming. It also has a moment of lull which works for the ending part of the video where the reveal happens.
Self-portraits of the past are usually still paintings and images.
I decided to create a moving image using the tool most used for self-portraiture now – a mobile phone. I used a smartphone adapted tripod for filming. I also used a studio light setup with a daylight lamp and light-diffusing sheets and an umbrella on a stand. I prepared my props: the mirror, cosmetics, shoes, brassiere, hairbrush and wine bottle and glass. Then I proceeded to film the scenes and edited the video later with various effects.
I looked at the heavy use of filters and wondered about AI style transfer on a video. How does it change the video if filters or a different style are applied? What are design possibilities? We already have many apps that make a selfie look like a painting—filters are a tool to see ourselves in a different light, and they are gaining popularity.
I tried the technique using Video Neural Style Transfer. I decided to attempt to do style transfer for my video. Style transfer is a technique of recomposing images or videos in the style of other images using deep learning. The original image I used as a style guide was inspired by retro style with muted colours like creams and yellowed browns.
I looked at the Fast Style Transfer project with code developed by Logan Engstrom for processing. The code is available on GitHub. Unfortunately, my graphics card did not let me use a resolution higher than 720p for the input video. Also, it was very time-consuming to process the video.
Ultimately, I decided to use After Effects to stylize the video because of the quality issues with style transfer technique. I looked for a colour palette and used red tones associated with romance, passion and power. I chose to stick to red colour for this edit as red is stimulating; it expresses heightened emotion and strength. I used Threshold and Find Edges effects, and I needed to add masks in places and do a little rotoscoping. Also, I used Gradient Ramp Effect and blending modes to achieve the desired effect. Ultimately, I lost a lot of detail and focused on creating contrasting 2D-style outlines. Still, I like the idea that at first glance, when looking at a person, we only see the outlines of their personality rather than details. I also wanted to create a false version of myself for this self-portrait. Why not let it be a cartoonish 2D character that is changed by algorithms, effects and filters? We let these change the videos and photos we post online.
Compared to the Fast Style Transfer, a lot of details and original colours were lost, but the picture seems smoother and flickers less when I only use After Effects for the editing.
The slideshow below shows the work in After Effects such as editing, rotoscoping, masking, adjusting gradient ramp effect, adjusting Threshold and Find Edges effects, adjusting overall style and blending modes.
In my moving image project, I tried to explore the concept of personas people create with images, filters and narratives they post online. Through research and design, I wanted to show what are the influences and motivations for the process of crafting the online persona. I was also interested in how we create narratives about ourselves. I chose film as my medium. I intended to film myself to present myself to others in a particular way. I wanted to suggest that I am an impulsive, vain, outgoing person through props and imagery. The story I present under the guise of a self-portrait is crafted and staged. I decided to show my self-portrait through actions I do not engage in, like online dating, using heavy make-up or drinking a lot of alcohol.
My approach results from my explorations of how what people present online is inauthentic and crafted. The widespread use of filters and photo-editing technology led me to explore image style transfer techniques. I edited the video I made using Adobe After Effects and a machine-learning platform, TensorFlow and Python code. I had technical difficulties with style transfer as this requires a good GPU and is time-consuming. In my output that took me around 12 hours to transfer the style, I see a significant loss of video quality and various artefacts. The flow of the video seems to be affected as well. I wanted to explore this technique as it was directly inspired by how popular online filters are nowadays; as with style transfer, I could apply a filter to the entire video. When this approach did not bring the expected results, I decided to only use Adobe After Effects to change the video’s visual style. I wanted my output to use warm cream and red tones and have an animated film look in both cases. The style transfer technique was superior to applying effects in AE software, with the original colours of the video standing out more. Applying effects such as gradient in AE overlaid the actual colours of the video, and some of the details are less visible than with the style transfer technique. I want to continue exploring style transfer to improve my moving image design, which is one way I can improve that video.
I am not sure if the story is easy to relatable. The ending provides a revealing message that I want to express. On a mirror, I write ‘This isn’t me’. In the title, I also add a question mark: self-portrait? I hope these hints help show the dissonance of my message that what a person sees in the video is manufactured. I tried to style it visually, like online make-up videos, lifestyle shots, and selfies.
I am happy with the video’s pace and the ending reveal. I also feel that my research informed my design choices. I like the soundtrack I used, but it can seem a bit orchestral and severe after a while.
Balakrishnan, J., Griffiths, M.D. An Exploratory Study of “Selfitis” and the Development of the Selfitis Behavior Scale. Int J Ment Health Addiction 16, 722–736 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11469-017-9844-x
Burns, A. Selfies. Self(ie)-Discipline: Social Regulation as Enacted Through the Discussion of Photographic Practice. International Journal of Communication 9 (2015), Feature 1716–1733
Carbon C. Universal Principles of Depicting Oneself across the Centuries: From Renaissance Self-Portraits to Selfie-Photographs, Front. Psychology (2017). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00245
Cole, N.L. Goffman’s Front Stage and Back Stage Behavior. ThoughtCo, (2021). thoughtco.com/goffmans-front-stage-and-back-stage-behavior-4087971.
Engstrom, L. Fast-Style-Transfer. (2016) GitHub, github.com/lengstrom/fast-style-transfer/blob/master/README.md#stylizing-video.
Gatys, A. et al. A Neural Algorithm of Artistic Style. (2015) arxiv.org/abs/1508.06576v2.
Goffman, E. The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Anchor Books. Chicago (1959)
Is a self-portrait a self-portrait if the portraitist has no self?. New Scientist, Magazine issue 3336, (2021). https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg25033363-200-is-a-self-portrait-a-self-portrait-if-the-portraitist-has-no-self/
Richman-Abdou, K. 28 Iconic Artists Who Immortalized Themselves Through Famous Self-Portraits, accessed on Dec 7 2021, https://mymodernmet.com/famous-self-portraits/
Schiffrin, D. Narrative as Self-Portrait: Sociolinguistic Constructions of Identity. Language in Society. Vol. 25, No. 2 (1996), pp. 167-203