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Origin of the minimalist animated gif?
July 7, 2011 10:14 AM   Subscribe

I am trying to figure out who (singularly or convergently) first came up with "cinegraphs", or just artfully subtle animated GIFs. Is there a known first instance of this? A known "wow, look what I came up with" post anywhere?
posted by everichon to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
Supposedly photog Jamie Beck and designer Kevin Burg. I don't know whether they had a blog post where they said, hey, lookit! but they're the originators.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:25 AM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


These guys claim to have invented what they call "cinemagraphs" which sounds like what you're asking about. (Apologies if I misunderstood the question).
posted by dolface at 10:25 AM on July 7, 2011


Here's the about from their site that gives some more history. Again, no "here's this new thing" moment.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:26 AM on July 7, 2011


Doy. "Cinemagraphs" are indeed what I refer to.
posted by everichon at 10:29 AM on July 7, 2011


The concept seems really similar to what was done in video/computer games (especially adventure games) in the late 80s and early 90s, so I don't think there was any single moment of inspiration for this.
posted by The Lamplighter at 10:56 AM on July 7, 2011


Also - before bandwidth and fast processors made video easy to transmit over the internet, there used to be porn "loops" that you could download that were kind of the same thing. Sometimes they were standalone executable files, sometimes they were .FLI files.
posted by The Lamplighter at 10:59 AM on July 7, 2011


I certainly think the current trend originated from If We Don't, Remember Me (yet to be bettered IMO), although From Me To You seems to have the lion's share of the current buzz.

But if you're looking for something more than that, then I think you'll find that it's a difficult thing. There isn't anything technologically separating an artful animated GIF from an unartful one. Where do we draw the line? I know I saw subtle animated GIFs back in the early 2000s, and I think I saw some pretty artful ones back in the 90s.

I think we'd have to pull apart what makes a "cinemagraph" (by the way, I really, really hate that name) to see what makes it different from another animated GIF. I'm going to scribble stuff down in no particular order:
  1. They utilise photographic imagery.
  2. The majority of the frame is static.
  3. They loop ad infinitum.
  4. They try to achieve a sense of poignancy/whimsy. Perhaps taking the idea of a stolen moment.
  5. They have a high fidelity - like a quality photograph or video.
  6. It must be aesthetically pleasing without the movement.
That's just what's popped into my head. Let's take that apart.
  1. They utilise photographic imagery. While this is true for all that I've seen, I don't think it's necessarily true. I think an animated scene could fit in perfectly. The closest I can find is this one from Futurama. Scenes from Wall-E, for example, could fit even better. I'm calling this one a no.
  2. The majority of the frame is static. This is universally true, but I don't believe it to be necessarily so. The sense of time standing still (see no. 4) is necessary. The slightly shaky camera in this GIF disqualifies it in my eyes. While I don't believe that this GIF of a slinky on an elevator counts, I don't think it's far off. Therefore, I think the qualifying factor is a locked-down camera. I'm giving this one a yes.
  3. They loop ad infinitum. This one is also universally true across the vast majority of all animated GIFs online. The movement must be simple and direct, the motions repeated as if mechanical or trancelike. The loop is necessary for that to sink in to the viewer. However, while I have yet to see an example un-looped, I would argue that it's not necessary. A motion from start to completion could communicate the same feeling to a viewer. However, due to the intrinsic display mechanism of the web and the technical limitations of an animated GIF (a lack of a Play button), it would require some thought. I'm calling this one a tentative no.
  4. They try to achieve a sense of poignancy/whimsy. Perhaps taking the idea of a stolen moment. This really seems to be the one thing pinning them down. There's a certain similarity to memories, playing over and over again in one's head. The focus sharpened to one defining characteristic of a scene. I don't think that they need to be specifically poignant or whimsical. There are plenty of examples that are joyful, or exuberant, or passionless etc. This meets most of the technical requirements, but is clearly not an example of the genre. Whereas this one is blatantly silly but happily fits in. The sense of a stolen moment is so strong in the nature of the cinemagraph that I struggle to think of one that doesn't fit that criteria. I'm calling this one a yes.
  5. They have a high fidelity - like a quality photograph or video. They certainly do, relative to GIFs as a whole. I would even say that they usually do, and I doubt they would work with quality that was notably poor. What is also universal is the reliance on high quality source material. I say yes to this one.
  6. It must be aesthetically pleasing without the movement. I think this is tied quite firmly to my 4th point. They are a moment in time, like a photograph, but with some of the physical action that creates the emotion of that moment.

So, that really boils down to a locked-down camera, a(n almost) frozen moment, and high quality. I'm no computer culture historian, and I haven't got the time or resources to do the serious digging that this study would require. So I'll do the next best thing, which is to continue wildly speculating. A locked-down camera is timeless. If anything, it's more timeless than anything else. The frozen moment has been a staple of photography since shutter speeds become fast enough to freeze motion. Bisson's Ascent Of Mont Blanc was taken in 1862, and captures a moment in time perfectly, albeit one that is not defined by a single specific physical motion.

So, that leaves the high quality. These images seem to be typically around 400-500KB. With the high-speed broadband that is increasingly common, that has become an incidental amount of data. 10 years ago, it would've been a ferocious bandwidth destroyer. would've been impractical for the majority of users. That alone explains why they've not been a popular form of art until recent times, and why animated GIFs in general have seen an explosion in usage in recent years.

So, that hasn't really been very useful. It is something that would bear further study, but not in hurried, frantic typing over a procrastination break. I think the rise, fall, and reemergence of the looped animated GIF is a fascinating one, and the rise of the "cinemagraph" will form an interesting part of that story. I hope to read it one day.
posted by Magnakai at 12:42 PM on July 7, 2011 [7 favorites]


The Lamplighter: "The concept seems really similar to what was done in video/computer games (especially adventure games) in the late 80s and early 90s, so I don't think there was any single moment of inspiration for this."

I think this is a good example of similar restrictions leading to similar conclusions. Before game developers could really afford having multiple frames of animation on a background, they would use code to cycle through colours on a certain area of pixels. Moving those pixels through a carefully defined palette could provide an excellent illusion of movement. Check out a phenomal example gallery of this art (originally by Lucasarts artist Mark J Ferrari) recreated using the HTML canvas by Joseph Huckaby.
posted by Magnakai at 12:51 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Those are great images, Magnakai. I wish I could find some actual moving backgrounds in odl adventure games but none are coming to mind.

I also think that this scene in La Jetee is probably part of the inspiration: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwPiQUH3iiE&feature=related
posted by The Lamplighter at 3:14 PM on July 7, 2011


The eye blink in La jetée? Not looped, but a kind of long form version from 1962. From wikipedia:

La jetée is constructed almost entirely from optically printed photographs playing out as a photomontage of varying pace. It contains only one brief shot originating on a motion-picture camera.
posted by freya_lamb at 4:08 PM on July 7, 2011


The eye blink shot is pretty striking and seems very similar to half of what's on "If We Don't, Remember Me", although you're right that it isn't a loop.
posted by The Lamplighter at 4:12 PM on July 7, 2011


I would never have made the La jetée connection--lovely.
posted by everichon at 8:18 AM on July 8, 2011


There is a hand-held, mechanical, carousel-like device that has slots for drawings, prints, photographs, or what have you, to be mounted facing inward.

You hold the central shaft in your hand, give the carousel a spin, and look through the slots between the drawings at the drawing opposite your eye.

The effect is just like a GIF. James Clerk Maxwell had one.
posted by jamjam at 8:31 AM on July 8, 2011


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