An Appreciation of the Animated GIF and Gif Shop

“Animated GIFs are the web’s vinyl records,” wrote Jamie Zawinski on Twitter a few months ago. It’s a sly but accurate observation. In the face of Flash and streaming video, the animated GIF, which has been around since the 1990s, has refused to fade away. It remains a ubiquitous part of Web culture and inspires countless memes amongst a new generation of Web users. While the underlying technology of the animated GIF hasn’t changed, artists continue to explore new approaches to the form, such as cinemagraphs and the recent animated GIF comics trend.

There are many reasons for the extended reign of the animated GIF, prime among them the form’s emphasis on cycles (or loops). Rhythmic repetition was a staple graphic technique of theatrical animation during the 1920s and 1930s before being cast aside in favor of more realistic approaches to movement. The inherent beauty of cycled movement, which was cheapened by limited TV animation in the 1960s, has enjoyed a creative rebirth with the advent of the animated GIF. The animated GIF is also a remarkably potent form, and combined with good timing, it can deliver a surprising punchline as funny as any comedian’s joke. The British animator Cyriak has perfected this type of animated GIF. Perhaps the underpinning reason for the endurance of the animated GIF is its utter simplicity: it has no sound, generally last less than 10 seconds, and require no technical knowledge to create, thanks to the abundance of gif-making websites.

This brings us around to the latest development in animated GIFs: a new iPhone app (also iPad/iPhone Touch compatible) called Gif Shop. Created by Daniel Savage and Matthew Archer, the app, which costs $1.99, streamlines the GIF making process on the iPhone, and makes it easier than ever for anybody to create their own animation. While it’s possible to make any kind of animation using Gif Shop, because of the app’s integration with the iPhone camera, it lends itself particularly to the pixilation stop-motion technique.

Here’s a quick demo of how it works:

Daniel Savage, the app’s co-creator, foresees a social media component to Gif Shop as well, and believes it can become to animation what Instagram is to photos. “The concept of simply creating animated GIFs,” he writes, “evolved into a service that enables our users to share animated GIFs across their networks with no concern for hosting and file size limitations other services may impose. Since the initial concept, Gif Shop is no longer the first of its kind, but we think there is one key factor the others have missed: simplicity. It is extremely important to us that we take the tedious act of making a GIF and make it as fun and intuitive as possible.”

It’s exciting to see the emergence of easy-to-use animation software for smartphones. These apps have the potential to make the act of animating as second-nature to the general public as taking a photograph. That’s a revolutionary concept, especially when one considers that fifty years ago, there were at best a few thousand people in the entire world who could animate. Most of the people using the Gif Shop app aren’t professional animators, but then again, most people who take photographs aren’t Cartier-Bresson. It hardly matters that every animated GIF be a masterpiece. The real victory is that as more and more people animate, appreciation and understanding for the art form will inevitably grow. That may end up yet being the greatest legacy of the animated GIF.