Saturday, April 06, 2013's 20 Best Animated GIF's

McKayla Maroney 2012 Olympics
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The Animated GIF: Still Looping After All These Years
By Clive Thompson 01.03.13 6:30 AM

Animated GIFs have become so huge. They’re everywhere. But why? On the surface, they’re pretty silly—a few frames of video, endlessly looping in time. There are GIFs of Star Trek‘s Picard facepalming, of Dwight from The Office dancing, of one penguin shoving another into the water. There’s Tom Cruise laughing, sports-play flameouts, tons of porn.

This is the sort of one-note joke that—like rickrolling or ermahgerd pics—normally fades after a few revolutions of the international meme cycle. But animated GIFs aren’t dying. They’re metastasizing: People festoon their Tumblrs with them, pass them around in email, and use them as Twitter avatars or signatures on discussion boards. Oxford Dictionaries even chose GIF as its USA Word of the Year for 2012. This is all the weirder considering that GIFs date back to the prebroadband late ’80s. As a medium, they’re quite old.

Ah, but it’s this ancient vintage that helps explain their true appeal. To really understand the value of animated GIFs, you have to go back even farther—to 1879 and Eadweard Muybridge’s “zoopraxiscope.”

Muybridge was a photographic pioneer who was obsessed with using photography to capture things that happen too fast for the human eye to see. In 1878, he famously showed what a horse looks like in full gallop by producing a series of timed pictures. Then he put them on a zoetropic wheel, spun it around, and produced a tiny looped video. It was the world’s first animated GIF.

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He showed it throughout the US and Europe, and crowds loved it. They were particularly fascinated by how the zoopraxiscope let them study a single movement over and over—dogs racing, a man executing a somersault, wild bulls charging. (“The rapid changing positions,” as the Nottingham Express enthused, “were most instructive.”) The zoopraxiscope captured evanescence, replaying tiny moments of everyday life so we could see them in a new way.

And this is precisely why animated GIFs are still popular today. In the age of YouTube and cameraphones and TiVo, we’re increasingly inundated with moving images. But the animated GIF lets us stop and ponder a single moment in the stream, to resee something that otherwise would zip by unnoticed.

Elspeth Reeve, a staff writer for the Atlantic Wire, is a huge fan of gymnastics but always had trouble explaining the artistry to her husband, because the movements flow by so quickly. So she’d show him animated GIFs of a particularly deft skill to point out hidden details. “My GIFs are a way to explain to him, ‘See how amazing this is?’” Reeve even reported on this summer’s Olympics for the Atlantic Wire website by producing dozens of GIFs that showcased brilliant, fleeting moves. It was mesmerizing.

She later used her GIF skillz for political commentary, by rapidly producing loops of debate moments—highlighting Joe Biden’s superenergetic facial expressions. Reeve even helped forensically settle an argument about Mitt Romney. He was accused of pulling out a cheat sheet in the first debate, but Reeve’s GIF of the movement (combined with photographs) proved it was just a handkerchief.

Ann Friedman, a columnist who has tracked GIF culture closely, thinks Tumblr users are evolving a rhetorical style for their usage. “I’ll go, Meryl Streep’s eye roll is the emotion I’m trying to convey here, and I’ll search for a GIF of that,” she says.

In a sense, the animated GIF illustrates what sharp viewers we’re becoming. Video used to be, as media critic Neil Postman worried, too slippery for analysis. But now that we have a simple tool—and grammar—for looping a half second of video, we’ve started watching with scholarly scrutiny. We’re looking for half seconds to excerpt.

One hundred and thirty years later, we’re still living in the age of Muybridge.


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