Are Animated GIFs Cinema?
Cinema & New Media Arts | On Apr 23, 2013
“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.
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 themovement 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.”