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GIFs and Goya

Posted on April 18, 2012 and read 3,486 times

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yv2lk GIFs and GoyaKevin Weir
Art Director / Flux Machinist


Every art form evolves.

Classic 18th century European paintings were stylistically and compositionally grounded in reality. The painters’ interpretations of the world, when transferred to canvas, still resembled their world. This realism wasn’t significantly challenged until guys like Francesco de Goya started messing around with dark, nightmarish stuff. His Black Paintings stood out from the work of his peers in both style and subject matter, and probably scared a lot of people.

Nowadays, galleries are filled with acclaimed painting masterpieces that cover a huge range of subjects in every style imaginable. Somewhere, someone has done a neocubist exploration of a bear holding a ham sandwich, painted in owl blood.

The story of the GIF is roughly the same. Only where 18th century paintings mirrored reality, the GIF has historically mirrored the Internet. The early Internet was defined by such classic animations as the flying dove, dancing flame, glittering rainbow, dancing baby and waving American flag. Internet historians would call this time the Angelfire Era.

The Internet has changed, but almost every GIF still reminds you that you’re online. Animations are replacing screenshots as a way to share funny bits from videos. This trend, combined with the accessibility and easy digestion of the GIF, has resulted in an explosion of situational GIF humor. There’s some artistry in this, but the vast majority of these GIFs are built for mass Internet consumption.

Recently, though, more artists are starting to create GIFs that don’t look like the Internet. Photography duo Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg are generally credited with inventing the “cinemegraph,” a style of GIF that animates a very subtle, natural motion in a photograph. There’s a Tumblr blog called “If we don’t, remember me” that uses a similar style to capture ethereal and beautiful moments in film. Animator Cyriak Harris creates bizarre GIFs from the depths of his imagination, reminding us that the GIF format is really nothing more than short form animation.

The GIF is an art form defined by its limitations. The animation needs to have a relatively small file size, or it will take too many seconds to load. This can be accomplished by lowering image quality, the frame size, or the number of frames. Additionally, the GIF’s looping format creates unique challenges and opportunities in displaying motion. Thus, the GIF is the perfect medium for capturing a single moment. A smile, a wink, a woman bursting into crows, a small bear emerging from the forehead of another bear and growing into a full sized bear that then opens its forehead to birth yet another bear. The moment, given infinite power and an indefinite display, will last forever.

In my project, the Flux Machine, I animate movement into old photographs from the Library of Congress archives. The results have been described as hilarious, creepy, dark, horrifying and nerdy.

Every week, the Library of Congress uploads about fifty new photographs to their Flickr account. Each photograph is a glimpse into a mysterious and speculative past of Czars and kings, boxers and baseball players, submarines and machine guns, soldiers and social circles. Flux Machine is a reinterpretation of this past through the lens of my imagination. Things tend to get weird/dark. I like to think that I’m bringing a little bit of Francesco Goya into the realm of GIFs.

For the most part, though, the project is just for fun. We live in an amazing time where it doesn’t take much expertise to transfer the weird stuff going on in your head onto a screen with moving images. It’s awesome how far you can go with a couple computer monitors and a decent handle on Photoshop.

I think that this type of creativity will always be a couple steps ahead of creativity in advertising. Making weird art in a new format for the sake of making weird art in a new format is a pretty pure process. This is probably a large part of why the banner ad is such a miserable, ugly medium. There hasn’t been much free artistic exploration in 250×250 pixel digital art. I’m predicting that as soon as artistic GIFs become more prevalent, we’re going to start seeing some banner ads that don’t look like banner ads.

If I were a creative director, I wouldn’t wait. I’d be hiring animators like Cyriak to design branded GIFs and releasing them through banner ads. Make something beautiful and/or weird. People will notice. Unless they’ve got adblock. But even then. If it’s cool enough, people would actually save them and share them. Have you ever seen someone (not in the industry) share a banner ad? This would change EVERYTHING slightly.

Painters in the 18th century could never have predicted the ways in which their art form has evolved. The same thing can be said for the GIF. Someone is out there right now, cranking out something different and brilliant. I hope it has something to do with bears.

  • Anonymous

    This is a wonderful use of a seemilgly limited size and space. Limits often get our imaginations going. I love what you are doing. Very inspiring!




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