The First GIFs

Ein Essay von Baris Tandogan

We all know what GIFs are. Images that move at around 15-18 fps and convey some sort of message. You sometimes need to know the context to be able to understand or sometimes it is just your mom sending you cat GIFs (no my mom is not a cat lady). Today, I want to delve into how these GIFs came to be and in which format they were viewed before. I find GIFs to be the perfect medium for many tasks and I think they are overlooked. 

When you google ›history of GIFs‹, you get the Wikipedia page that explains the .gif-format and the history of that file. That is not the history that I want to write about here. My guess is that the original films were GIFs already: under a minute-long footage playing at 18 fps is basically how we differentiate GIFs from films nowadays. Of course, as the medium improved, cameras improved and the film became less likely to burn, get tangled, rip inside the camera (which was one of the main technical reasons for the length-limitation of film). You might think that those are not really that terrible sounding issues, but I have seen how fast film celluloid can catch into flames and with years of film loading experience I have seen how static electricity generates on film (Kodak 5234 duplicating stock can beautifully light up the darkness, leaving you with hundreds of meters of static exposed film). Going back to the first films; yes they were short and playing at lower framerates with a 4×3 ratio, but they were viewed on a curtain, and GIFs hardly ever escape the confinements of a 6-inch screen smartphone.

The form of GIF we know today did in fact not exist in such a mainstream way until the developments after the .gif-file-format but there was still GIF-style imagery that is produced without any digital technology and then compiled to be presented on digital media.

Now, how are cameras like the Nishika, Nimslo and the Reto3d related to GIFs? Simple. These cameras are one step ahead of the stereoscopic photography that has been popular for decades. Stereo cameras had two lenses that were taking two of the same photos side by side, and when you view the photos with a goggle or special glasses made for it, then you would see them as one three dimensional image (that is at least the rough idea). Even with very early folding large format cameras from the 19th century this method was used. These cameras from yesteryear are basically GIF-makers. They take 4 (3 in the case of Reto) images at the same time and then this image is perceived as a GIF (with again our modern-day smartphones). But how were they viewed before? One word answer: lenticularly. Lenticular imagery is the fancy name for those 3D-image-prints that were so common back in the day. You will probably remember lots of those from your childhood.

This absurdly cool form of imagery is the successor of numerous methods of viewing different perspectives in one picture. Similar versions of it have been around for over 400 years, but this is the final, most refined, simplified version of it. Lenticular printing of such images were, not surprisingly, very popular in the 1980s and survived until the digital age.

To me, these images are the closest you can get to early cinema with a single analog camera. It takes 16 (or 8, depending on the model) photos as a burst and then in post-production you combine them to match on top of each other and voilà, you have a GIF that has 16 frames. This camera was first made for golfers, as they swing the club at a high speed and it is not highly likely to catch the exact moment, where the golfer wants the photo to be like. Fuji came up with this simple point and shoot so the golfer could choose whichever he wants and use that photo. They did not assume that this camera would survive decades and become a cult item and they did not think that it would make what we call GIFs today. The concept for this camera is over a century old and was most famously used by Edward Muybridge. Fuji just simplified the concept and made it readily available for consumers.

Film, as we know it, was viewed in the celuloide-format up until about several years ago (it still is in some cinemas), so there was only the way of duplicating these images onto a filmstrip and viewing it with a projector. That was, of course, not very easy or common so these cameras were never very popular. Later, Lomography made many cameras that try to mimic what this one does and failed miserably due to underdeveloped mechanics.This camera that connects the modern GIF to the early cinema, is a very funny invention that was not even intended to be used like this. 120-130 years ago, both the GIFs out of this camera and images made with Boomerang or and other GIF-formats would be considered magical and probably a form of cinema. Nowadays, we still do like the images that are made with this or similar methods, relate to them, use them in our communication. One could argue that the techniques are different, but the images look similar. It is funny, how we came so far from those early days of people running away from the train coming on the screen and yet we still use very similar imagery in our daily lives.

The reason I chose this topic for this essay is because I find GIFs very immersive. Just with a couple of seconds of content they can drag you into their reality, trigger your preexisting knowledge about topics, your preferences, your emotions. That is what early cinema was all about. Some short romance, some fear, some daily life situation or fantasies and fairytales. Over a hundred years later, we experience this medium similarly but much more rapidly and in the context of a conversation. We have evolved in our interaction with moving images so much in over 100 years that we don’t only view it and get immersed into it, but we connect them to ourselves and let them represent our perspectives to others. The modern GIFs are very mature, but also lacking in many ways. We see the medium as reusable, unimportant and disposable. With this approach, we also distance ourselves from it while simultaneously letting it represent us in online media platforms. Maybe we do need to go back a couple of decades in our minds and be amazed by the moving pictures a little more again, spend time with it, enjoy it a little more. In a way, that is why the Nimslo and the Rensha are very popular tools nowadays. 

There are oceans of GIFs out there, so they are not very unique and people make their own GIFs and reconnect to the medium from the perspective of the maker. By doing so, the Rensha was rediscovered and in my opinion the GIF-format was connected to early forms of motion photography. In the early days of motion picture, the main idea was that the filmmaker shows others what he/she had seen and experienced from his own scope and that the audience can experience a more condensed/refined version of the original experience through a screen (curtain), and then reflect on the imagery and on the filmmaker. With GIFs and the making of GIFs, we are back to square one; it is just the camera and what is in front of it to be shown to an online audience, to have them experience a version of what we have experienced and then use this as a brick in the construct of us in their mind with their reflection on it. How it will further develop, is a question of time, but now, a century later, we are closer to the early days of motion pictures, than we have ever been until now, just in a very different way.