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Are Animated Gifs a Type of Cinema?

Are Animated Gifs a Type of Cinema?

Well, are they? I’m
inclined to argue that they are. Indeed, I’ve already done so, in two posts I
wrote a couple years ago elsewhere: “How Many Cinemas Are There?” and “Why Do You Need So Many Cinemas?” There, inspired
by comics scholar Scott McCloud’s ultra-lean definition of comics (“sequential
art”), I proposed that cinema be thought of simply as “moving images.” Making
that mental leap expands the cinema to include not just feature-length films
and shorts, but also television shows, music videos, YouTube videos, video
games, flash animations—and animated gifs. (I even argued that cinema should
include certain “non-electronic” forms, such as flip books, magic lanterns, and
shadow puppetry.) I won’t rehash that whole argument here; instead, I want to
look solely at animated gifs. Are they cinema?

Admittedly,
I don’t know anyone who is arguing that they aren’t. But I also don’t
know anyone (with one exception) who’s arguing that they are. Indeed, no
one seems overly concerned with the matter. But I think it makes sense to
examine the relationship between animated gifs and other forms of cinema, as
well as to try describing the format’s unique cinematic aesthetic. Here are a
dozen reasons why.

1.
They’re often taken from cinema, as people extract smaller moments from longer
films. Here’s a famous example:

Picard tommy gun

This
gif basically consists of two shots, roughly two-and-a-half seconds, taken from
Star Trek: First Contact (1996).

2.
If that’s all animated gifs were, then they would be truly derivative
works—very short video clips (with a reduced color palette). But animated gifs
can be used to create new works, by combining moments from different films. For
instance, you might often see those two shots in the Picard gif followed by a third:

picard-vs-chunk

Or:

picard-vs-brown

These
examples edge us closer to the world of video art, or earlier experimental
films that derived their effects from juxtaposing footage from different films.
These Picard gifs remind me of the moment in  Bruce Conner’s classic 1958
film A MOVIE where the submarine captain looks
through the periscope (4:17–4:19):

A MOVIE - periscope

.
. . to spy a pin-up model reclining on a bed (4:19–4:24):

A MOVIE - bikini

(You can watch A
MOVIE
here
, which is where I took these screen captures from.)

Both
A MOVIE and these animated gifs employ some common cinematic principles.
The cuts create an eyeline match, which make it appear as though the
characters are looking at one another, and obey the 180-degree
rule
(meaning that if you draw a straight line between their eyes,
our perspective stays to one side of it). (Incidentally, the juxtaposition in A
MOVIE
works better than the above images might suggest, because right
before the cut, the submarine captain is shown twisting the periscope from left
to right.)

I’ve
seen a different version of the Picard vs. Chunk gif:

Picard vs Chunk facing right

.
. . and I’d argue that it doesn’t work as well as the first one we considered:

picard-vs-chunk

.
. . which better matches the eyelines, and obeys the 180-degree rule.

This
suggests that animated gifs possess an aesthetic similar to cinema’s.

3.
Besides combining shots taken from different films, animated gifs can also
juxtapose different types of cinema, such as live-action and animation:

picard-vs-rabbit

.
. . or even live action and video games:

picard vs duck hunt

This
second example suggests that we might also consider video games a type of
cinema—though we need not get into that now.

4.
Gifs can also composite different types of footage within the same image.
Here’s a particularly notorious one that I’ve written about at the lit blog HTMLGIANT:

FreshPrince911

Here
we have two different pieces of television footage combined in a single image.
And leaving aside the (deliberately offensive) content, we can see another
potential for the form. Composite editing is by no means unique to gifs;
Georges Méliès discovered double exposures soon after filmmaking was
invented—see for instance Un homme de têtes, aka The Four Troublesome
Heads
(1898), viewable here. But gifs, being a natively digital format,
might more easily encourage such recombination. (Méliès is their milieu?)

The
Picard vs. Chunk gif above, in fact, contains composite editing. Here’s a screenshot
taken from the scene in The Goonies (1985) where Chunk originally
performed the Truffle Shuffle:

Truffle Shuffle (screen capture)

Whoever
made the gif removed Chunk from that setting, and placed him front of another.
I’ve spent more time than I care to admit scrutinizing scenes in The Goonies
and First Contact, and I still can’t tell where that second background
hails from. Here’s a capture of the shot in First Contact that follows
the close-up of Picard firing:

dying Borg (screen capture)

(Of
course the footage behind Chunk might not even have come from First Contact,
but some third film.)

Still
more work has been done on this gif. The bullet tracer effects have been added.
And we can now see why Chunk is facing right in that one gif—that’s the way he
was facing in the original shot. This suggests that the right-facing gif came
first, after which someone changed it by turning Chunk to face in the opposite
direction. (Since anyone who can view a gif can, in theory, also edit it, gifs
are arguably a wholly populist form of cinema.)

Look
again at the first Picard gif, at the very top of this article, and compare it
to the others. You’ll see that its first shot is different: it’s been extended
by rolling the footage backward, then forward. (In First Contact, Picard
moves only forward in that shot.) If we wanted to, we could now take that
extended footage of Picard and paste it into the left-facing Chunk gif.

5.
Another way that gifs differ from their sources is that they often reframe
shots—which is part of why it’s difficult to determine where Chunk is standing.
The shot has been whittled down to focus on just him. The shots of Picard
firing have also been narrowed; compare the gif with these screenshots:

Picard firing 1 (screen capture)

And:

Picard firing 2 (screen capture)

Because
animated gifs are lower resolution than film—not to mention often postage-stamp
sized—they benefit from focusing the viewer’s attention on a single central
image. Picard + Tommy gun = all that’s really needed.

This
might suggest that gifs have a different aesthetic than filmmaking, but I’d
argue it’s more a matter of desired effect. In First Contact, the focus
of the shots is certainly Picard’s attack on his Borg foes, but the scene
occurs within a richer environment. The scene takes place roughly an hour into
a film in which most of the action is set aboard the Enterprise, which is under
siege from the Borg. Picard lures two of those aliens onto the ship’s holodeck,
trapping them in a simulation of a hard-boiled detective novel. The movie needs
to portray a convincing-enough environment in order to keep its audience
immersed in the somewhat outlandish fantasy. Along the same lines, when
watching The Goonies, it’s important that viewers understand that Chunk
does the Truffle Shuffle outside a house in Astoria, Oregon.

But
the animated gifs we’ve been looking at aren’t concerned with that kind of
world-building, being much more concentrated on a narrower and more immediate
effect. Their makers probably wanted us to recognize the source material (they
took footage from very well-known films), but the focus is relocated to the
comic juxtapositions. Cutting out most of the background helps the viewer to
get the joke. Viewed in this light, I’m surprised the Picard/Chunk gif’s
original author bothered editing Chunk into a matching background. The other
gifs work fine without going to that degree of trouble. (Indeed, you might
argue that the shift in setting heightens the joke.

6.
Here we have a hint of a way in which gifs possess a different aesthetic than
feature-length movies, or at least operate differently given similar concerns.
Someone makes a gif where Picard seems to be shooting Chunk. Then someone makes
one where Picard seems to be shooting Doc Brown. What’s next? Well, someone
could make yet another gif where Picard seems to be shooting another popular
1980s movie character—but aren’t returns already starting to diminish? To keep
the joke alive, we need something unexpected. So someone makes a gif
where Picard seems to be shooting at a Tiny Tunes character. Or at the
ducks in Duck Hunt.

I
haven’t seen it myself, but I imagine someone’s made a gif where Picard appears
to be firing at some documentary footage—video taken from a real-life shooting.
Or even footage of the Twin Towers collapsing.

Makers
of full-length movies definitely have to work to one-up each other. But that
cycle might be accelerated in the world of gifs, where the impact is much more
immediate.

7.
Along these lines, we can see that animated gifs are often greatly concerned
with emphasis, by:

  • Isolating a particular moment;
  • Focusing on a single element within the shot;
  • Creating a startling juxtaposition (through either
    composite or montage editing).

Gifs
also tend to emphasize movement. When I told a friend that I was writing this
article, she argued that “animated gif” was redundant, because the only gifs
people care about are animated ones. I nonetheless decided to keep “animated”
because it is possible to make static gifs, and I don’t want to argue that
static gifs are cinema. (Cinema is moving images.)

But
my friend was right. Who wants to see a static gif? In fact, it seems to me
that the best gifs often involve a flurry of motion, or remain static
until a crucial moment, which usually comes at the end of the loop:

anigif_enhanced-buzz-8204-1355940729-1

And:

untitledhgvy

Gifs
select footage and emphasize it. They focus attention.

8.
That’s not all that animated gifs can do, however. Some are longer, and as such
closely resemble short films. For instance, here’s an animation that traces the development of the NYC
subway system
:

subwayhistory480

Once
again, I’m reminded of an existing film: Ray and Charles Eames short movie Atlas
(1976), which presents “A Sketch of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.” (You can watch it
here
.)

To
be sure, these are different works. The NYC subway gif lacks sound (music,
voice-over narration). But the presence of sound isn’t essential for cinema.
(The five-minute-long Eames film presents its animation twice, and the second
time it drops the narration.)

Animated
gifs arguably benefit from their silence, which becomes another way to focus
attention on visuals themselves.

9.
We’re gradually constructing a case that the value of gifs stems from their
poverty of resources—from the limitations inherent in the format. Along these
lines, gifs possess unique cinematic value due to their brevity.

The
earliest films, made by the Lumiere Bros. and Thomas Edison, usually ran at
least thirty seconds long. Since then, the movies have mostly gotten longer.
Now animated gifs are exploring another side of cinema—movies that run under
thirty seconds, and often under five. If they are cinema, then they rank among
the shortest movies ever made.

10.
Gifs also explore the opposite end of the spectrum: infinity.

While
some gifs present what amounts to a scene, others employ the form’s looping
quality to create an endless ongoing video. Here’s a famous example, taken from
a
mid-90s internet meme
:

DANCING_BABY_1_

The
gif version of this video forgoes the original meme’s accompanying music
(“Ooogachaka, ooga, ooga . . . “). But its dancing baby will dance forever

11.
All of this suggests that animated gifs have their own cinematic purpose. Hence
their effectiveness as erotic artworks: gif makers can distill crucial moments
from larger pornographic films, enabling people to watch them on repeat.

In
her recent Salon article, “Better Than Actual Porn!“, Tracy Clark-Flory
ponders whether pornographic animated gifs are more like short videos or longer
photographs. I’d argue that they exist on a spectrum between those two forms,
capable of moving more toward one side or the other. The above Picard gifs are
more like short videos. But the NYC subway gif and the dancing baby gif are
arguably more like enhanced photos. (The subway gif is like an enhanced
diagram.)

The
important point, however, is that animated gifs are novel—similar to, but not
exactly the same as movies as we’ve known them. They are, in other words, a new
form of cinema. (Clark-Flory comes to something of the same conclusion when she
writes that gifs are becoming an alternative form of pornography, but aren’t
replacing videos or photographs.)

12.
Cinematic viewing habits are changing: more and more movies are being watched
online. Folks still go to the cinema, of course, and they still rent DVDs. But
they also watch movies on their cell phones and laptops, which is where
animated gifs thrive. In this way they might be modern-day versions of the Kinetoscope
or Mutoscope:
a private form of cinema limited to a particular type of device (although it
probably won’t be long before gifs start popping up on electronic billboards).
This is yet another way in which gifs resemble the movies as we known them, and
yet diverge, providing a new incarnation of the familiar.

In
summary, animated gifs partake in the broader aesthetic of cinema, even as they
use their formal limitations to craft effects that we experience in
non-traditional film environments. I have no doubt that they will eventually
come to be regarded a unique form of movie-making, just as gallery-bound video
art eventually was, and that certain gifs will be singled out for their
aesthetic and historical import. Already I’d claim that there’s value in
preserving and teaching some of them, such as Picard vs. Chunk and the
Fresh Prince/9-11 one . . .

And
it probably also won’t be long before feature-length movies start borrowing
effects from gifs, the same way that the recent spate of “found footage” films—Paranormal Activity (2007), [Rec]
(2007), Cloverfield (2008), Chronicle (2012)—have drawn key
aspects of their aesthetic from YouTube. And while writing this I encountered
the only other argument I know of that animated gifs are a type of cinema: Twohundredfiftysixcolors, Eric
Fleischauer and Jason Lazarus’s feature-length compilation of 3000 gifs,
scheduled to screen on 18 April at
Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center
. (I’m planning to attend.)

Your
thoughts on all of this?

A.D Jameson is the author
of the prose collection
Amazing
Adult Fantasy
(Mutable Sound, 2011), in
which he tries to come to terms with having been raised on ’80s pop culture, and the novel
Giant
Slugs
(Lawrence
and Gibson
, 2011), an absurdist retelling of the Epic of
Gilgamesh. He’s taught
classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Lake Forest College,
DePaul University, Facets Multimedia, and
StoryStudio Chicago. He’s also the
nonfiction / reviews editor of the online journal
Requited. He recently
started the PhD program in Creative Writing at the University of Illinois at
Chicago. In his spare
time, he contributes to the group blogs
Big
Other
and HTMLGIANT. Follow him on Twitter at @adjameson.

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