Animated Gifs are Cinematic, But They’re Much More Than Cinema

By  · Published on April 23rd, 2013

Over at IndieWire, A.D. Jameson has written a compelling article about whether or not GIFs (the bitmap image format known as Graphics Interchange Format) can be considered cinema. The piece is miles from a imminently clickable gimmick made to start an argument – Jameson’s case is intelligently and thoroughly argued, and he trots out everything from Bruce Conner’s A Movie to Charles and Ray Eames’s Atlas to make it.

While far from a heated question (as Jameson points out, the question of whether or not gifs are movies presumes an argument that does not, in fact, exist), it’s an important one. With something as seemingly simple and trivial as the gif, we can ask not only what something called cinema means in and for the 21st century, but also how moving image communication in the age of the Internet communicates in particularly cinematic terms.

So I offer something of a refutation, or perhaps a clarification: gifs are certainly cinematic, but they are considerably more than cinema.

The YouTube of 1910

Popular modes of moving-image distraction on the Internet present a rich paradox for the cinephile: it both signals cinema’s supposed end (the certain obsolescence of film stock, the portending irrelevance of movie theaters) as well as its humble beginnings. In regards to the latter, sites like YouTube are in some ways a personally-curated descendent of the earliest days of cinema, specifically the vaudeville act or the nickelodeon: the emphasis is on short-form, largely non-narrative, attractions-based entertainment.

Gifs address cinema’s roots, but in different ways from the short-form Internet video. As Jameson’s comparison of gifs to certain avant-garde titles demonstrates, gifs are a popular deployment of structural cinema, reducing the potential messages conveyed through images to the mechanics of image-making itself. Jameson situates gifs as cinema because they fall under the rubric of “moving images,” a decidedly broad understanding that places gifs as part of the same trajectory as the photographic experiments of Eadweard Muybridge: the emphasis is on the phenomenon of movement itself.

Perhaps if we say that cinema is not any series of images that are moving, but that cinema is about the movement of images itself (which can encompass anything from conventional linear storytelling to special effects spectacles to the avant-garde), then we can come to a more approximate understanding of precisely what gifs are doing that make them cinematic.

Animated gifs make the viewer/reader aware of the processional movement of images. The frame rate is visible and sound is absent, both of which foreground the fact that we’re witnessing the rapid juxtaposition of still images rather than movement itself, an illusion that cinema routinely hides so effectively. The fact that the same series of images is repeated over and again in the gif reiterates this point ad infinitum.

The Popular Experimental

Thus, Chris Marker’s La Jetee is a productive companion to the gif. Marker’s masterpiece essentially reduces cinema down to its bare elements: still images in succession, strung together with narrative components in order to give these images meaning in relation to one another. By stripping cinema of its movement (would the film’s sole eyeblink qualify La Jetee as cinema according to Jameson’s definition?), Marker’s film makes a case that it’s not necessarily the movement of successive images that constitute cinema, but their juxtaposition. It’s this juxtaposition that causes a general sense of “movement” more broadly – not the lie generated 24 frames per second, but the illusion of images as events moving forward in time, specifically in relation to prior images.

Marker’s film builds in several ways off the Kuleshov Experiment, Lev Kuleshov’s evaluation of images in relation to one another through montage. In the experiment, Kuleshov juxtaposed the same image of a man’s face next to other images (a bowl of soup, a dead child, a woman), and these successive visual associations caused audiences to read different emotions onto the same face (hunger, sorrow, and desire, respectively). The Kuleshov Experiment posited that meaning doesn’t reside in the image alone, but in the ways in which the image becomes contextualized: the logic of movement through juxtaposition, or the assumption that the first image has some meaningful relationship to a subsequent image.

In these terms, gifs do indeed operate cinematically. In the Picard vs. Chunk gif that Jameson revisits throughout his analysis, the punchline is delivered under the assumption that the reverse shot of Chunk exists in relation to the initial shot of Picard: two characters from two disparate narrative universes now co-exist in the same space through the assumptions we carry as conditioned filmgoers to the implied relation between successive images.

However, context is remarkably different in the gif than it is in the examples discussed above. Kuleshov filmed the bowl of food, just as Marker made photographs of the dystopian future of La Jetee. If either of these artists utilized pre-existing images, they aren’t recognizable to us as such now, nor is such a recognition necessary for them to get their respective points across.

By contrast, gifs operate based upon the assumption that a reader/viewer is broadly keyed into popular culture, into other moving images and ideas that exist well outside the scope of the “gif itself.”

A Medium By Any Other Name

Of course, using the existing stuff of culture to make something cinematic isn’t anything new. As Jameson points out, A Movie is made from existing footage – Conner’s inventiveness lies in his use of that footage, not his production of original images. Other experimental films, like George Landow’s Remedial Reading Comprehension, Ken Jacobs’s Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son, and the careers of Bill Morrison and Martin Arnold, operate through a deliberate manipulation of “found footage” so to speak. Martin Arnold’s* brilliantly clever Life Wastes Any Hardy works comparably to a gif: Arnold plays the footage forwards and backwards in a way that gains new, in this case subversive, meaning.

Plus, cinema has hardly ever been medium-specific. From its integrated origins into the vaudeville shows and World’s Fairs at the turn of the 20th century to early sound era films based upon radio plays to technologies that enable cinemagoing at home, cinema has never been an isolated medium.

That said, while gifs do demonstrate cinema’s fundamentals, there’s something notably medium-unspecific about them. Gifs can’t adequately be described through an exclusively cinematic framework. Take an incredibly provocative gif that Jameson spends a good amount of space on: Fresh Prince dancing atop a crumbling World Trade Center tower.

Neither image assembled in this juxtaposition can be sourced in cinema. Both come from television which, yes, also operates through moving images, but also has the unique ability to broadcast events immediately, which has no equivalent in cinema. That’s where/how this icon of the World Trade Center collapsing gains its media power – through the immediacy made possible through broadcasting. The repetitive cycle of this gif doesn’t point to the cinematic operations of juxtaposition as much as it illustrates the cyclical function of television: through the redeployment of once-live events time and again, we experience the shock of this gif once and, like a violent event in the 24-hour news cycle, we’re subjected to it on an endless loop. This tension between immediate ephemerality and the iconicity of images is unique to television, it has no equivalent in cinema, and this offensive gif is works in part as a result of that particular power.

This argument extends to the operation of gifs more broadly: they infer a viewer savvy in an array media formats, and their meaning is heavily dependant upon the way these disparate images are contextualized. One doesn’t need to be able to source all the images to “get” Conner’s A Movie, but one often has to understand a variety of textual elements to understand something as seemingly simple as a gif.

That’s why it’s important not only to analyze the gifs themselves, but where they come from. One gif tumblog that I’m a fan of is PhD Stress: the life of a queer grad student unfolded. As with any occupation-related gif tumblog, this one operates based upon assumptions that the viewer/reader can key into a variety of texts and structures of meaning: in this case, references to various authors, mentions of specific stages in academic career-making, and (of course) the particular media sources that the gifs come from, which (here) is most often television.

Of course, knowing the source isn’t always essential, but it’s certainly a helpful key into the community of understanding that the gif is playing towards. Arguably, unlike Hollywood, few gifs can speak to a mass audience. Contextual meaning in the gif is hardly exclusive to the movement of images.

When we think too deeply about gifs.

An extraordinary amount of knowledge is assumed even for a series of images that only lasts a few seconds. Take, for instance, the gif of Michael Shannon yelling (above). This appeared yesterday after Shannon’s hilarious spoken word performance of the instantly famous Delta Gamma sorority letter. Shannon is perhaps best-known for his movie roles, but knowing who Shannon is makes up only a small portion of the meaning of this gif, which also assumes knowledge of the sorority letter, the reputation of Funny or Die, et al. Even without the subtitles often used to accompany the ever-silent gif, one can imagine, perhaps even “hear,” Shannon’s voice exclaiming by viewing the moving images alone.

Gifs are certainly cinematic, but they’re hardly just cinema. I say this not because cinema is limiting, nor to suggest gifs are somehow more complex than cinema, but because gifs demonstrate, perhaps even more concisely than higher profile Internet events, the continued blurring of lines between previously distinct media platforms.

What’s your take?

*Correction: the author originally credited Alone: Life Wastes Andy Hardy to Bill Morrison. That film was made by Martin Arnold. Both are awesome, and you should seek out their work.