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Are Animated Gifs a Type of Cinema?

Press Play By A.D. Jameson | Press Play April 17, 2013 at 8:35AM

Well, are they? Elsewhere, I've 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.
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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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