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What the GIF?!

GIFs — Graphics Interchange Format images (pronounced ” jifs”) — have been slowly taking over the internet since the early 2000s. Though they were invented in 1987 for purely utilitarian purposes (for example, the infamous “Under Construction” GIF), their resurgence in popularity is due to their daily use by common bloggers to express opinions, ideas, […]

A Phenakistoscope disc titled Politeness.

GIFs — Graphics Interchange Format images (pronounced ” jifs”) — have been slowly taking over the internet since the early 2000s. Though they were invented in 1987 for purely utilitarian purposes (for example, the infamous “Under Construction” GIF), their resurgence in popularity is due to their daily use by common bloggers to express opinions, ideas, and emotion (check out the popular Tumblr blog What Should We Call Me).

For those of you who don’t know what GIFs are, they’re short, silent animations that play automatically when they appear on an Internet page. Anyone can make a GIF with a simple photo-editing program, but with the build-up of GIFs spreading around the web right now, most users are simply re-appropriating them from open-source websites like Giphy.

George Méliès, the first filmmaker to use special effects in film.

GIFs have become so popular that a pair of Italian filmmakers, Marco Calabrese and Alessandro Scali of Okkult Motion Pictures, invented the Giphoscope, a hand-powered machine resembling a Rolodex (yeah, look that up too!) that animates GIFs printed on paper. The Giphoscope appears to be a pretty simple decorative piece, but upon closer inspection, the image arrangement is quite complex. The device itself is not something that just anyone could manufacture, or even purchase at Okkult’s steep price of €300. Its invention however shows that there is some desire out there for tangible GIFs. Fortunately, the Giphoscope isn’t the first of its kind.

In fact, the origin of film and movies comes from devices of animation. The first of these was the Zoetrope, which was invented in China sometime around 180AD. It was later re-conceptualized in the 1800s right after the invention of the Phenakistoscope. Then there was the Praxinoscope, and of course the infamous flip book. These inventions led to the first animated projections and the first perforated film reels. Almost twenty years later, the Lumière brothers would screen La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière a Lyon, the first public film screening ever.

Edward Muybridge’s Horse In Motion proved in a Stanford study that there was a moment in a horse’s trot at which all hooves were off the ground.

Now, there’s the GIF: this strange little flickering image that seems more like magic than the internet itself. Why? Maybe because GIFs bring us back to the very beginning of the moving image. Or maybe it’s because the average attention span of a human is decreasing by 0.2 seconds every day (I made that statistic up. Who has time for — hey look, a GIF!). Perhaps it’s just because they keep us laughing when most million-dollar television shows and Hollywood movies don’t… For whatever reason, GIFs have found their place in the hearts of web-surfers across the worldwide net. I guess what we’re all wondering is: When did technology start getting accidentally nostalgic?

“Accidentally?”

From Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey