From the oogachaka baby to Nyan Cat, the graphics interchange format, better known as the GIF, has come a long way since the days of floppy discs.
The modern-day GIF was introduced to the world 25 years ago today by Steve Wilhite as a more versatile alternative to the JPEG, according to Alexander “Sandy” Trevor, the former chief technical officer of CompuServe.
“If you want lossless, compressed graphics, there is nothing better than GIF,” Trevor told the Daily Dot. “Yes, JPEG is better for photos, but you can tolerate loss in photos. And PNG has some benefits, but for most applications it is not worth the additional implementation hassle.”
Despite its adaptability and ease of use, the GIF became a pariah in the 1990s, due to its overuse on Web-hosting sites.
“I didn’t use them for years due to that association,” GIF artist Jason “shooper” Reed told the Daily Dot. “If you asked me in 1997, GIFs were god-awful clip-art in motion clustered on to a seizure-inducing GeoCities nightmare.”
Since then, everything has changed.
The GIF is now a format fit for museums and the lingua franca for people eager to express themselves with more than just an emoticon. GIFs have also gone mobile. Thanks to programs like 3Frames, Cinemagram and GIFShop, GIFs flood almost every social network imaginable. And that includes Tumblr, the bustling microblogging site that has helped transform the format into a true artistic medium with limitless potential.
“GIFs are likely making a comeback because not only is sharing them easier, but making them is so easy as well,” attested artist Lacey Micallef, better known on Tumblr as lulinternet. “Once someone learns how easy it is to make a YouTube rip GIF, they realize that they can start doing other things as well. When making something is almost as easy as sharing it with everyone, it’s naturally going to blow up.”
In celebration of the format’s 25th anniversary, the Daily Dot reached out to 19 GIF artists from across the Web to create special, commemorative animations for the occasion and to sound off on the future of GIF.
After creating Nyan Cat more than a year ago, Torres has become an Internet celebrity. His 8-bit animation has been remixed by hundreds of people and viewed more than 76 million times on YouTube. Nyan Cat won the Webby Award for 2012 Meme of the Year in May.
“GIFs are a fantastic way to share our thoughts, feelings or just entertaining pieces of life in a single, easy to share moving image.”
“They are the essence of digital folklore and the early Web, when making your own site and feeding collections of free graphics was a parallel process. They were made to be distributed, to become parts of the pages of others, manifesting that the WWW is about spirit not skills!
“In the vernacular Web, [GIFs] will get bigger and longer for some time, reaching the moment when they’ll be indistinguishable from YouTube videos. Then they will vanish from public attention to reappear in some time in their original form: Tiny loops on transparent background, ready to merge into a Web page.”
“GIFs have been a great way for me to make and show quick animations; especially under my account on Reddit, Animates_Everything. As an animator, the lack of sound in a GIF can be a hindrance, but it challenges me to think purely from a visual viewpoint.
“GIFs are going strong, probably stronger than ever with all the social media sites. The Internet moves so fast, that it’s easy to share an idea or joke or feeling visually with animated GIFs rather than written words. Plus it’s usually more entertaining.”
The fledgling imageboard Canvas is a safe-for-work site that allows users to remix images in exchange for colorful stickers. Joe “photocopier” Palfreyman is an 18-year-old 4chan transplant whose whale illustration and Nyan Cat GIF remix have become site favorites.
“Animated GIFs are so much more than a static image, even the shortest GIFs tell a story. With an animation I can fit everything into a small area, something impossible with any other medium. Without breaking a layout or filling up somebody’s whole screen any point can be communicated, from an epic tale to an amusing walk, motion and fluidity is exciting and makes the uninteresting eye-catching and inspiring. Timing can be perfected without guessing how long somebody takes to read something or move on in their viewing of an image. GIFs give the creator complete control.”
When it comes to cat GIFs, Pusheen rules the litter box. Animations of the little pudgy kitty being lazy, playing with the Nyan Cat, or just hanging out have collected hundreds of thousands of notes. What does the GIF mean to you?
“I’ve always assumed it meant Gorgeous Internet Feline!”
There’s no equation or theorem that can explain the monochromatic GIFs from Whte Bkgrnd. This mysterious Tumblr tag editor’s animations are geometric eye candy that would make any mathematician blush.
“I can’t think of anything else that has done as much for me, both good and bad, than GIFs. From meeting people by being able to make animated avatars and signatures for forums, to basically getting me my current residence, the format has ended up shaping my life the past four years.
“I really don’t think the format is going anywhere; it’s too ingrained in Internet culture. When you give someone the ability to deck out their corner of the Web, who doesn’t want to fill it up with greatest moving pictures you can find?”
Freelance illustrator Sarah Johnson humanizes the Dark Knight in Ordinary Batman, a spectacular GIF series featuring the caped crusader roasting marshmallows, drinking coffee, and watching TV.
“GIFs mean a new form of artistic expression for me. It’s a true combination of my love for art and animation. GIFs engage me more and they allow me to further express my stories and emotions in my artwork. I’m still waiting for a new name for this animated GIF artwork so it really feels like I’m on the edge of this new wave. (And also being born in ’87, I like to think we’re both in a prime age for success.)
“I still think GIFs are really just beginning to see their full potential. Mostly GIFs are used an emoticon but there’s a world of GIF illustrations, comics, photography, and art that is still in the process of becoming something bigger. Maybe they will take over Web design again and we’ll get sick of them like back in the ‘90s. I think with all the versatile uses we’re seeing, however, that the GIF is here to stay.”
Aside from Trevor or Wilhite, there are few people who know more about GIF history than artist Alan Butler. His illustration for its 25th anniversary is not only a tribute to Nyan Cat, it’s also a short history lesson on the GIF.
“The three Nyans are the mathematicians/computer scientists that developed the LZW compression (used for GIF, TIFF and PDF formats): Abraham Lempel, Jacob Ziv, and Terry Welch,” Butler told the Daily Dot.
“The three Nyan-computer scientists are chasing a rainbow/holographic LZW compression schematic through space, where the stars in the background are old Compuserve logos, the company that developed the GIF using LZW. … The Nyan rainbows are composed of their respective initials—Lempel, Ziv, Welch.”
It’s not everyday an artist reveals the secret behind his or her work. Sean Godsey, however, isn’t your average artist. About three months ago, Godsey pulled back the curtain on his beautiful GIF of actor Charlie Chaplin, and we haven’t been able to stop staring since.
“I think eventually the whole internet will be one GIF. Then the world.”
Too much junk food will certainly rot your teeth. Or if you’re Lacey “lulinternet” Micallef, it will make you famous. Micallef has filled her Tumblr with colorful GIFs of flying pizzas, tacos, and donuts that will have you licking your lips.
“The GIF is perfect for the quick, looping animations that I do and without them, I’d literally be nowhere in my ‘art career.’”
If you’ve ever woken in a cold sweat thanks to a Tumblr-induced nightmare, chances are you’ve seen some of Colin Raff’s GIFs. These things are scary awesome. His animations, which often feature violent images like a man shoving a round object through his head, are surreal and unnerving.
“It’s a frugal showcase for immoderate jigglings.”
“I appreciate the format’s versatility, having seen them used as Cinemagrams, deployed as ads, and used to devastating effect in forum flame wars. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a good animated GIF is worth 24,000 words per second. By that math, a 10-second GIF is equal to the word power of Moby Dick. If Melville read that he would weep, and I would post this in reply.”
The New York/New Jersey artist collective known as Mr. GIF burst onto the Tumblr scene in 2011 with topical animations for almost every occasion. Since then, they have collected thousands of notes and the group of guys—Seyran Dalipovski, Mark Portillo, and Jimmy Repeat (not his real last name)—have managed to grab the attention of Vice magazine and MTV.
“Full of high energy, they are the definition of ADHD,” Repeat said of GIFs.
“It’s the most fun and rewarding kind of art to create. An artform engineered to be shared. I love that it offers a challenge artistically and technically. In some ways I feel like it is some of the most pure forms of art, as its very easy to pass around, but also very hard to profit from. You can’t sell it, so in a way GIFs are kind of priceless.”
The most iconic scenes from vintage video games like Super Mario World or Excitebike live on in John “Brother Brian” McGregor’s GIFs.
“I create animations using pixelated elements from old school video games. The GIF format is ideal for this purpose because the material I’m pulling from is inherently low resolution and has a small color palette. Also, the look I go for is often bold, flashy, and eye catching. Since GIFs generally play automatically and load quickly they work great with that aesthetic.”
It’s nearly every child’s dream to travel into space and explore the cosmos. Richie Hull, the art director for Australia’s Popular Science magazine, will never get that chance, but through his surreal GIF animations, the heavens don’t seem that far away.
“I’m hoping we get GIFs with sound soon. Ideally, (on Tumblr) they’d play muted until you mouse over them, then the sound would play. That would open up a whole new can of memes! Not to mention creative possibilities … give it a .jif extension and I’m sold!”
“GIF is the most interesting format of my Tumblr generation. It is available to everyone who has got [a] computer. That makes it an integral part of modern Internet culture. For me, as an artist, it brings life to my creatures.
“I think that magazines and books will use GIFs as a common visual language. There will be more and more artists using GIFs as mediators between [the] world and themselves.”
“For me animated Gifs are a wonderful opportunity to experiment. easy to make, somehow limiting, recursive thinking… wonderful for visual poetry or circle poems. great for websites like Tumblr and you can view them on nearly any device (other than flash).”
GIF artist Clay Rodery studies every animation he creates. Over the last year, the DC Comics loyalist, DeviantArt contributor, and full-time illustrator has been amassing an impressive library of Batman-inspired GIFs that loop seamlessly.
“GIFs are an opportunity to make little films, tiny narratives. There’s much more attention given to the content of the image because there’s no possibility for sound. Something has to somehow compensate for that, so I suppose that’s why people tend to make such extreme images.”
The process of making a GIF can be a laborious one. But for Seattle-based artist Dain Fagerholm, it’s a labor of love that starts with a pen and ends with a jerky GIF.
“In the future, any surface material will be a potential display. The GIF format will be a very economic way to display any kind of visual information fast and cheap. Imagine a world covered with GIFS!”
Lorraine Murphy contributed reporting for this article. The Daily Dot would also like to thank Mr. GIF for creating a special masthead animation for the occasion.