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Since that awkward phase, the GIF has experienced a renaissance. Brown, whose work in film, photography, cartoons, and design spans over 30 years, is a recent convert to GIF art. He learned how to make them only four months ago from his daughter, and has since made nearly 30 of them. “When I started making them, I came to realize this is essentially a very short animation,” Brown says. “The flourishing I’ve had with making GIFs has reintroduced me to basic animation because it’s essentially frame by frame construction.”

For illustrator James Kerr, who has been making them for two years, GIFs were his first foray into animation. After learning how to make short animated videos using Photoshop, a friend recommended that he turn them into animated GIFs in order to avoid pressing play. “I gave it a shot, and I fell in love with it almost immediately,” Kerr says.

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Though Kerr creates high-end GIFs featuring intricate animations, he acknowledges that one of the draws of the GIF form is the ease of creation. Video capture apps and other developments have made GIFs fairly easy to make and facilitated the proliferation of viral internet content.

“The GIFs that are out there for the most part [and that] most people see are Justin Bieber GIFs or GIFs from Harry Potter or cats,” Kerr says. “I think now people are more creative with it, more expressive with it, creating GIFs that are truly original pieces.”

James Kerr GIF
A Renaissance-inspired GIF by James Kerr.

Inventive GIFs such as Kerr’s blur the boundaries between the file format and traditional artistic media. Kerr’s work, which is showcased on his Tumblr, “Scorpion Dagger,” consists of digital collages made mostly from northern Renaissance and early Italian Renaissance paintings. But in spite of their motionless roots, these digital collages tell stories. One of Kerr’s GIFs features two horrified little girls looking at their drunk father, who lies under the Christmas tree, surrounded by beer bottles. All the figures are extracted from paintings; the father is from “The Last Judgment,” a triptych by German painter Hans Memling. “In that scene, he is very tortured,” Kerr says. “I thought it would be funny to throw him under the tree and make him a bad, drunk dad, and that was the reason he was being tortured.” The reference adds a layer of meaning to the collage, but it is Kerr’s carefully timed motion that gives the GIF a semblance of a narrative arc. The girls’ grief-stricken faces quiver to accentuate their horror. The Christmas lights on the tree flicker occasionally like a visual punch line.

By virtue of their shared file format, works like Kerr’s technically have more in common with clips of SpongeBob SquarePants dancing than they do with traditional collages or stories. But original GIFs expose how the medium lies at the intersection of multiple artistic media, from a philosophical standpoint if not from a technical one. “Essentially they are like visual haikus,” Brown says. “I think the word ‘semi-poem’ is accurate because you can make a whole mini concept in a short piece.”

SHORT AND SWEET

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