Animated GIFs Triumphant

If you can make it here…“, Jamie Beck, 2011

It’s been 84 years since talkies began their march towards dominance over silent film. But while 1.3 billion people in the U.S. bought a ticket for a motion picture with sound last year, I’d estimate that 3.3 billion people will watch a silent film this year. That’s based on just the numbers from Tumblr alone, where we can count 180 million page views a day in the U.S. If just one in twenty of those visits includes a silent film, and we add in other popular media-sharing communities, then it’s likely that Americans watch at least three times as many short-form silent films in a year as they do theatrical releases.

How can this be true? Due to the power and ubiquity of what may be the world’s most popular format for the moving image: The humble animated GIF image.

The facts about animated GIFs are stark. They only support a palette of 256 colors. No current browser lists support for animated GIF as a codec for the HTML5 tag. That omission is understandable, as GIF compression of animation isn’t particularly efficient. They even lived under an unfashionable cloud of patent uncertainty during the web’s formative years. And those are just some of the traits I love about the format.

Unexpected GIFs

FrownFrown“, redfox, 2011

GIF’s origins are modest. The Graphics Interchange Format was introduced by Compuserve in 1987 with a specification published by the late Larry Wood. By just two years later, GIF had grown popular enough that the specification was updated, with a fairly rudimentary ability to display multiple images bolted onto the specification. (The spec warned, “The Graphics Interchange Format is not intended as a platform for animation, even though it can be done in a limited way.”)

As the browser wars heated up, Netscape decided to embrace the primitive-but-fun animation capability of the image format, and made it part of their browser. The mechanisms for the animations aren’t exactly in the same realm as today’s high-powered compression systems that let Netflix stream movies to your iPhone. Instead, they’re closer to a flip book, giving artists and illustrators a simple way to flash a series of images in front of a viewer. And then GIF sort of lost its way for a while, stagnating in development as its compression algorithm was subject to a protracted lawsuit. Geocities became the definitive home for the first wave of GIF folk art, as captured today in sites like the Animated GIF Museum.

High GIF

While most museums of GIFs pay homage to their shlocky, tacky ubiquity in the pre-social era of the web, the format today has evolved into a transcendent, expressive medium. A completely different (though identically named) Animated GIF Museum touches on this with simple, elegant animations that show off the format’s versatility. Group-curated collections such as Looping GIFs and GIFs on MLKSHK show off the goofy fun that seems to go hand-in-hand with this file type. MTV’s O Music Awards actually presented an award for the category of Favorite Animated GIF. And just a few months ago, Denison University’s Mulberry Gallery did an entire exhibit called Graphics Interchange Format which showcased the breadth of GIF’s gifts.

Of course, I’ve got a dog in this fight when it comes to legitimizing the format. The sole, tenuous bit of artistic credibility that I’ve ever had comes from the Zidane World Cup Headbutt Animation Festival, a montage of animated GIFs which I assembled and set to the timeless strains of Yakety Sax. (I keep it classy.) Yes, I do realize that the video embedded here is from YouTube, not an animated GIF, but that was necessary to include the ha-has that only the Benny Hill Theme can provide. Rest assured, the original animation was assembled as a single, lengthy, palette-corrected animated GIF.

Yep, that work of art earned me the right to have my work displayed next to that of actual trained, talented artists. Such is the power of the GIF.

GIF Exchange

What’s more important than where GIF has been is where it’s going. As noted above, Tumblr alone has seen a renaissance of the GIF format, amplified by the boundless creativity of image manipulators on communities like 4Chan and B3ta. Jamie Beck’s GIF animations on From Me To You have been a Tumblr phenomenon, showing how truly elegant the format can be. If we don’t, remember me and three frames demonstrate the power of film through the lens of GIF’s delightful constraints, the former with a mesmerizing fluidity and the latter with a jerky intensity. Even beyond the capture or transcoding of other video works into GIF format, artists are starting to work with GIF on its own terms. Earlier this year, the New York Times illustrated a story with an animated GIF for the first time ever (not counting stories that were about creating GIFs), showing that this uniquely expressive format is truly coming into its own as a mainstream animation format.

GIF reaches perhaps its inevitable apotheosis with Physical GIF. Greg Borenstein and Scott Wayne Indiana’s brilliant Kickstarter project promises to turn animated GIFs into actual zoetropes you can display on your desk or coffee table. I saw a prototype of the idea a few months ago, and it left a lasting smile on my face. Go support the project!

And all of this, despite the tech industry’s decades-long ambivalence about the shortcomings of the format. Talk to any geek, and they’ll tell you why GIF’s color-handling sucks. They’ll point out knowingly that Photoshop treats animated GIF as a second-class format, and that the iMovies and Final Cuts of the world don’t even bother to consider GIF as a realistic output format. Browser makers don’t boast about their GIF performance, and the nerds who make formats don’t even consider GIF to be a video format because of its shortcomings and history as almost-accidentally animated imagery.

But to my eye, GIF is the most popular animation and short film format that’s ever existed. It works on smartphones in millions of people’s pockets, on giant displays in museums, in web browsers on a newspaper website. It finds liberation in constraints, in the same way that fewer characters in our tweets and texts freed us to communicate more liberally with one another. And it invites participation, in a medium that’s both fun and accessible, as the pop music of moving images, giving us animations that are totally disposable and completely timeless.