Most Internet users are aware of the recent rise of the animated GIF, an acronym that stands for “Graphics Interchange Format” (1). These silent moving images are composed of brief motion sequences referred to as “loops”, most often excerpted from classic cinema or popular culture, although original creations and home videos are common as well. Occasionally, still images, including photographs, paintings, and screengrabs are also used as source material for GIFs that undergo a transition to become moving images through layers of added motion via animation techniques. GIFs play on an endless loop, which results in a hypnotic quality that frequently renders it difficult to identify a linear progression of where their movements begin and end. Populating a wide range of online locations, animated GIFs are currently thriving on social media, while web platforms dedicated to facilitating their creation and providing electronic viewing galleries are also abundant (2). To my knowledge, animated GIFs have not yet been the subject of in depth exploration within the scope of visual studies or screendance, often limited to short articles in technology publications, though this will likely change within the near future. Far from exhaustive, my response to the rise of the animated GIF is an informal invitation to consider new forms of moving images and where they sit within the realm of screendance.
Reading GIFs as Screendance, or a Screendance Subgenre?
The prominence of animated GIFs online has led me to ponder how screendance scholarship may contribute to understanding the art of the GIF, and reciprocally how these moving images might nourish current dialogues within the screendance community. Indeed, approaching animated GIFs as works of screendance has been a natural response throughout my own exposure to this newly popularized image format, which is not surprising given that animated GIFs are characterized by their movement qualities. Like screendance, the multilayered nature of an animated GIF draws on diverse forms of film, photography, graphic design, technology, and choreography, among others, and varies widely according to the individual GIF in question.
Although some GIFs feature recognizable styles of dance (there is even an entire gallery dedicated to “dance GIFs” on the website GIPHY), the majority of GIFs are sourced from pre-existing narrative film or television sequences that have been mined for gestural and kinetic material outside the realm of what is commonly labeled “dance”. This dichotomy is a familiar one to screendance artists and scholars who are frequently confronted with the task of positioning themselves regarding how they define dance or the choreographic. In approaching GIFs as moving images that highlight kinesthetic possibilities, screendance artists and scholars should note the GIF’s capacity to form new micro compositions that become re-contextualized within a format that dictates specific movement and temporal qualities, further outlined below.
While most GIF makers do not identify as choreographers, filmmakers or even artists, the animated GIF holds interesting implications for the field of screendance, drawing on various currents in its recent scholarship. For example, any serious analysis of a GIF requires an interdisciplinary approach to the diverse media upon which its visual and kinetic material is built, similar to screendance writing that attempts to peel away the various layers of hybridity that form screendance’s multiple histories. Erin Branningan’s discussion of microchoreographies will certainly resonate with the detailed close-ups featured in many GIFs, images that rely on subtle shifts within close range of the body’s landscape. Recent research in screendance surrounding the concept of “found choreography” and the use of found footage, largely inspired by the release of Siobhan Davies and David Hinton’s All This Can Happen (2012), will also find rich material for consideration within the realm of the animated GIF and its application of diverse image sources. Similar to the use of sampling in music, the GIF may be said to briefly sample images of art in motion. With movement as its raison d’être, the animated GIF resonates strongly with Noël Carroll’s widely cited argument that moving images may be considered a moving picture dance in the extended sense “if the image component contains a significant amount of movement presented because it is interesting for its own sake”(3).
Specificity of the GIF – Expanded Choreography
Animated GIFs are featured on social media sites using the same size format as most still photographs, memes, and videos. Although their use of animated movement sets them apart from the former, they are also distinct from videos in that they do not (yet) feature sound, nor do they include buttons and time bars that must be manipulated to play the duration of their content (4). In contrast to videos, animated GIFs remain in constant motion, playing on an endless loop without any action required on the part of the viewer since their interface does not include a menu. As a result, viewers may happen upon a GIF unfolding at any particular moment during its evolution. The loop of the GIF’s short motion sequence, usually limited to two or three seconds at most, allows for a flexible relationship to when the process of spectatorship begins. This temporal distinction also results in another unique viewing feature: watching the entirety of a GIF’s content multiple times. In the instant that viewers turn their attention to a GIF online, in all likelihood they will see its repetition without even realizing that the material is being replayed. In other words, while the brain attempts to identify a GIF’s visual content and recognize some sort of context or logic in which to place the short-lived movement pattern that unfolds, the GIF’s looped format is already at work, creating a cycle of endless visual haiku.
For animated GIF sequences devoid of logical linear development, the only indication of when its movement cycle begins is a slight pop or ripple that may be visible in the image as a marker; the pop being the result of the loop that infinitely resets itself. Many GIF makers recognize this as a criterion for what designates a successful animated GIF, or as one experienced creator online explains to aspiring GIF makers: “The loop makes the GIF” (5). In the comments section beneath a GIF tutorial, a user inquires, “How can I tell if it’s a good loop?” One reply includes the following:
Can you tell me which frame sit[s at] the start and what is the end? No? Then it’s a good loop. The image has various jumps and movement that all could be the start or end…due to the movement and various poses it’s harder to tell (6).
In many ways, these temporal qualities find parallels within screendance discussions of choreographic editing practices and how movement compositions may be re-ordered through editing and post-production work, or even composed entirely from the editing station. However, the GIF not only reorients movement by extracting it from various source materials or animating an otherwise still image, its very viewing format is a constant variable according to when the image is encountered and for how long the viewer remains engaged with a particular GIF.
Image Purgatory or Visual Renaissance?
The animated GIF’s permanent status of looped play immediately recalls modern art’s interest in the serial and repetition. Like the modules of Brancusi’s Column of the Infinite or Endless Column (1918-1937), the GIF’s loop cycle can be broken down upon close examination, each repetition an integral aspect of its being. In this sense, it can be argued that the format corresponds to the modernist vision of fragmentation and repetition as tools to capture the world’s essence, with the GIF’s concentrated movement repetition revealing something vital in its state of infinite replay. Similarly, GIFs may be considered contemporary echoes of Etienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotography (literally “time photography”) and Eadweard Muybridge’s Motion Studies in an effort to fragment and separate movement events from a larger spatial and temporal context by reconstituting them into a standardized and recurring form. Animated GIFs may even be said to have their own equivalent of the much-discussed movement between frames of Muybridge and Marey’s visual experiments: the GIF’s pop or ripple that distinguishes its loop and serves as a reminder of the movement being depicted.
The subjects featured in animated GIFs appear to be trapped phantoms, destined to play out the same movement pattern without end, at least when read according to traditional linear logic. From this perspective, the temporality of suspension is an important motif to consider. Many GIFs feature a single movement that briefly hovers in suspension before rapidly repeating itself, inspiring a triptych response regarding movement and time that considers: the pre-suspension (How did the movement come to be suspended?), the duration of the suspension and its present form (the manner in which we experience the GIF), and what will come next (anticipating the order of the sequence and how the movement will be achieved, an imagining of possibilities). These steps feature striking parallels to Deleuze’s three basic time-images: recognition, recollection, and dream, all colliding at once within the frame of a single GIF. Deleuze’s “virtual” is associated with difference and the “actual” with that which repeats and stays the same. As such, GIFs may be approached from the perspective of Deleuze’s time-image, immersed in a dynamic web of past/future, time, context, relation and difference (7).
Once the GIF’s movement cycle is understood by the viewer, it seems pre-determined, never to pass beyond its sole motion sequence, hence the temptation to describe GIFs as incomplete or trapped in some sort of image purgatory that they are unable to escape. Extended use of suspension or weightlessness via post-production effects has long created a similar temporal riff for the moving image public. These include jumping movements that appear to magically linger in the air beyond the limits of what is physically possible, creating a sense of discomfort due to uncertainty and the need to project a subject’s linear future (When will the subject cease to be suspended? How will s/he move forward?) or lack of completion (What comes next? Why can’t the subject move beyond its current position?). But this same visual trickery can also delight. The awe inspired by pre-cinematic devices or Méliès’ early special effects resonates with the GIFs social media debut. For online viewers, the animated GIF elicited an almost supernatural enchantment and began to fill otherwise static pages with a new form of motion. It was as if, finally, the moving photographs that characterized the fantasy universe of Harry Potter had been made manifest. While history’s very first magic lantern slides depicted a series of Danses Macabres, animated GIFs may be considered a contemporary equivalent through the ghosts of images that delight us through constant and repeated movement.
Alternately, the GIF’s display format of instant looping may also be understood as a visual renaissance that inspires new image patterns and choreographic sequences through its cyclical format. In the Seinfeld GIF below, the gesture illustrated in the image not only utilizes pre-recorded footage, it creates a new composition through its playback loop. The GIF’s instantaneous repetition allows the main female subject to complete multiple steps, rather than the one turning rotation. The actors’ feet continue to patter and Elaine, at the door, continues to turn both ways repeatedly. GIFs thus carry the potential to develop new meaning, visual motifs and movement patterns that both draw on and depart from their inspiration. If the Italian Renaissance drew upon a rediscovery of classical Greece, one might consider the GIF as a rediscovery of silent cinema that has been reimagined and reframed through new perspectives and contemporary technology (8).
The Aesthetics of Fragments, or It is not necessary to say everything (Pushkin):
Artist Elle Muliarchyk writes of creating animated GIFs:
It’s a more organic and intuitive medium to relate an experience—more so than a photo or a video. Think of how we recollect memories: close your eyes and think of something from your past. You don’t see a frozen still image – you see GIFs! Even when we dream at night we see fragments of events that collectively create some kind of narrative, which we assemble into a story when we wake up. Even when we daydream we don’t watch a full-feature uninterrupted film in our heads – we think in fragments, often non-linear (9).
Fragments are often referenced throughout art history in relation to ruins, i.e. how fragments are experienced within their environments in terms of absence/presence, a line of inquiry that would certainly benefit the study of animated GIFs as moving fragments that are both stand-alone projects and inseparable from their broader context. Much like present-day visitors to historical ruins, many GIF viewers will never experience the entirety of the original film or artwork from which the majority of contemporary GIFs are constructed (10). In one analysis, linguistics scholar Jean Day refers to the fragment (both conceptually and linguistically) as both a gap and space replete with meaning that thematizes the partial (or partially absent) discourse, the relationship of part to whole, as a frontier (11). This nervous interplay between whole and part is even echoed in the hybrid nature of the GIF itself, situated somewhere between still image and video.
In his celebrated text, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin outlined how cinema’s use of the close-up (considered here as a fragment of the body) created new possibilities in appreciating the actor’s performance for the camera. This can be understood as both something entirely new and whole, as well as a piece extracted from a broader source. Similarly, one might wonder how the GIF’s sampled content through repeated viewings will alter our understanding and appreciation of the fragment to the whole in light of its new technological framework.
It would be a serious error to brush aside animated GIFs as devoid of artistic interest simply because they are ubiquitous on social media, or due to their short length (while many will seize this as further proof of the current generation’s short attention span, studies of the short form in art and literature have much to contribute to our understanding of the GIF), or because many GIFs began as humorous references to popular culture. Perhaps like Muybridge’s motion studies, animated GIFs have yet to benefit from the scrutiny of visual studies scholars because they are considered more of a technical innovation than an artistic matter (lest we forget an old debate exemplified by London’s International Exhibition of 1862 when arguments ensued over whether photographs should be displayed alongside machines, or paintings and sculpture). However, not only have GIFs brought about spectacular shifts in manipulating visual information and movement patterns that reach a widespread public, they continue to raise complex questions regarding image authorship, copyright laws, online curation and creation.
GIF search engines and reverse GIF search engines are already on the rise, but most animated GIFs remain uncredited, posted without the name of the GIF’s creator or any information regarding its source material (film title, director’s name, etc.). The website GIFFY often attempts to rectify this issue, but even their GIFs do not feature titles and authors when embedded on social media, the most common location for viewing and sharing animated GIFs. Beyond crediting the source material, one may also wonder about the individuals making the GIFs that animate our screens. A small handful of GIF creators have garnered a reputation and possess their own channels, or galleries, on GIFFY and similar websites. Their age, geographic location and training seem to vary widely, thanks in part to the relative ease with which one may construct a GIF due to online platforms and software (Adobe Photoshop, often used to create the flip book-like effect of GIFs through frame animation) that facilitate their creation.
Composed of original image compositions, found footage and more, I have designed the following list of GIF types based on various representations of movements commonly found in animated GIFs. This list is only intended as a starting point and will likely expand and evolve rapidly:
Fluid Movement GIF – A single frame featuring movement with no visible beginning or end, characterized by a constant state of motion without intervals (aside from the subtle pop of the GIF loop, often discernible).
Montage GIF – Several different shots, featuring different subjects or camera angles are patched together. If constructed from pre-existing moving images, these may follow the order in which they appear in the source material or they may propose an alternative order, changing the chronological relationship inherent within the original.
Bite-size Narrative GIF – The movement sequence proposes a gestural cycle with a clear beginning and end.
Metamorphosis GIF – Multiple still images are edited together creating a cycle of change from one to the next that brings movement to the GIF (or the same still image flashes to different colors), providing a constant source of movement on screen that is not inherent to the images featured, but rather to their transitions on screen.
Transformation GIF – The GIF’s brief instant of movement seeks to unveil a change from one state to another. In contrast to the Metamorphosis category, Transformation GIFs already feature movement and do not rely on the editing together of multiple images to create motion. They are, however, dependent upon the dichotomy of two alternating states.
Isolated Movement GIF – Motion occurs in only one section of the GIF, for example a static foreground with movement occurring in the background.
Text GIF – Images that relate a mood, a joke or stories through an actor’s silent mouthing of a line of text, often accompanied by expressive facial movements or other gestures. As GIFs do not feature sound, a subtitle is often superimposed on the GIF. Due to the use of text, these GIFs feature a clear beginning and end.
Collage GIF – The GIF is divided into multiple squares of images that may or may not reflect a compositional order that originates with an older source image(s).
Mashup GIF – Two or more images sources meet within the same GIF.
Supercut GIF – through multiple collage aspects allows for a comparison of two or more moving image sequences.
- A bitmap image format introduced as early as 1987 by CompuServe.
- See http://www.Giphy.com, http://gifcreator.me/, http://ezgif.com/maker, among others.
- Noël Carroll, “Toward a Definition of Moving Picture Dance”, reprinted in The International Journal of Screendance, volume I, 2010, p. 123.
- While videos on Facebook now launch a preview automatically, they do not display the entirety of their visual content or sound without manual adjustment.
- See: http://gizmodo.com/5941436/how-to-make-a-gif-in-five-easy-steps
- See Gilles Deleuze, L’Image-temps. Paris: Editions de minuit, 1985.
- In compressed form: short length (extracts) and smaller image size (online) in relation to their images’ original cinematic context. Not all GIFs are sourced from silent films, but one might consider the silent format of GIFs to signal a new interest in images that communicate without recorded sound.
- See: http://giphy.com/posts/artist-interview-elle-muliarchyk/
- Not because they don’t exist, but because they have been entirely recontextualized to the extent that it will not occur to many GIF viewers to reference their original source material.
- See http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/levy/day.html
Marisa C. Hayes is an interdisciplinary scholar, artist and curator. She is founding co-director of the International Video Dance Festival of Burgundy and regularly contributes to publications on screendance, film studies, and dance history. Her own screendance films have been exhibited or screened internationally at festivals, museums, and in galleries.