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GIF It Good: Unpacking the Tumblr GIF (Part One!)

Recently I had a paper published on Harry Potter GIF-sets, examining some of the work that GIFs----particularly tumblr GIFs----do to bridge the gaps between canon novels and their movie adaptations. Upset that a particular scene didn't make it into the film? No worries, fans can adapt footage and combine it with other visual texts the actors have been in, matching up those moments with dialogue from the book to give you your favorite event on a (smaller) screen. Desperate to relive a particular scene that's not already up on Youtube? Chances are it's floating around someone's blog. Really, really upset with how "Did you put your name in the Goblet of Fire, Harry?" got adapted?

Don't worry, we can fix that too.

However, there's still a wealth of research to be done on GIFs within fan communities, not just how they act as 'fix-it's for even the best of adaptations. Recently I've been fascinated by their use for aesthetic purposes, at least supposedly. Take, for example, this set by Suicidesquads:

On the surface the act of creating a set like this seems to be simply because... well, it's pretty. We live in the social media age of Instagram and Pinterest, where it's enjoyable to just scroll through an endless, high-def collection of beautiful imagery. Sunsets. Delicious food. Cute dogs. The world is on fire, folks, and I for one enjoy diving into some eye-candy every once in a while; of both the human and non-human variety.

But there's more at play here than just some pretty colors and costuming that you'll enjoy, then discard in a matter of seconds. These GIF-sets are fan-based and thus act to highlight a particular text, in this case Pride and Prejudice. Now I'm not sure what fool hasn't already seen Joe Wright's romantic masterpiece (he helped her into the carriage), but if that's the case this set does a pretty good job of giving you a sense of the film. No, it's not plot laden like a trailer would be, but there's still plenty of information available.

We can tell with a single glance that it's a romance. We can note the focus on Keira Knightley in half the GIFs, letting us know who our lead and emotional center is. There's also a focus on family, particularly in the moment where Lizzie steals the letter from her father and attends one of the community balls. Whether intentional or not, I appreciate how these GIFs contrast those of isolation: alone on the swing, seated by the window, walking the halls of the Pemberly mansion; which in turn are balanced by the moments of Lizzie and Darcy together. It's a fairly accurate sweep of the film's thematic core. We see the genre, the emphasis, the sort of mood we can expect from this story. Of course, I don't honestly expect anyone scrolling through their feed to give the set this sort of consideration. Any and all analysis is subconscious: a quick look that has you recognizing, "Oh hey, this is probably a movie I'd like."

And it's pretty. In fact, sometimes film and television GIF-sets are prettier than their actual sources, due to careful selection of scenes and plenty of filters. More than once I've been taken in by a set only to find, or recall, that the canon isn't nearly as gorgeous as this creator made it out to be. Which is cool. It's not as if these artists are lying in any way; there are no promises that this is representative of the original content. Like all fanworks, it's transformative while still maintaining the spirit of the canon. Others have written about the free advertising labor that fans provide (and more than one company has tried to capitalize on it), but few realize how influential seeing a well put together GIF-set can be in terms of whether or not we choose to pick up that show. Or re-watch that show. Or look for something else like that show because god, remember how good that was?

However, as we've already acknowledged, GIF-sets aren't advertisements and were never meant to overtly act as such. This means that each set carries the possibility of spoilers, like seeing that yes, Lizzie and Darcy will reach a point where they passionately kiss in front of a sunset----and we should discuss whether these "spoilers" really count as such given our genre expectations. Does anyone really expect that they won't end up together? Still, it's worth acknowledging that GIF-sets belong to a spoiler culture, where people will craft galleries focused on specific episodes, season finales, the top ten times this character suffered in the most angsty way possible; all of which are obviously drawing heavily from plot. Some sets like this one for Isle of Dogs pull----logically, given easy access to high-definition media-----from the trailer alone. (Trust me. I haven't seen the film yet, but I saw the trailer at least once a week, every week, for about three months straight.) Others, not so much. Even those sets without a clear purpose----often written out at the bottom of the post and linking to previous challenge fills----will have a quotation attached to them that can spoil endings, crucial dialogue, or simply the moral of the film; what you're "supposed" to take away from it. Our Pride and Prejudice GIF-set uses the much beloved quote, "I could more easily forgive his vanity had he not wounded mine. But no matter. I doubt we shall ever speak again," while countering Lizzie's words with the imagery. A set from Alien provides a more specific reading of the story:

You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? The perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility…I admire its purity. A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.

All of which is to say that these sets are often aimed at those who have already seen the work, a way of re-appreciating the artistry and honing in on what the GIF creator thought was most worth highlighting. If the set spoils someone, that's their fault. If it encourages them to watch the thing anyway, that's their gain.

There's even more to this act of re-appreciation though, or "re-watchability" as it's generally referred to. Normally this references a complex television show that has enough depth and detail to it that it can either a) only be fully understood through multiple viewings or b) holds a variety of appeal that encourages re-watching, even if you've already understood the plot. We live in a technological age that has slowly but surely allowed viewers to hone in on details normally lost in a single viewing. Gone are the scrambled attempts to take pictures and write summaries of the latest Star Trek episode because god only knows when you'll get to see it again. We got DVDs. TiVo. Streaming. Advancements that allow each individual to take their time, watching, pausing, and re-winding whatever moment catches their fancy. And GIF-sets are a part of this movement. Far, far shorter than a Youtube clip, they let us take the smallest moment in a story and watch it on an endless loop, providing time to appreciate every detail. Take these stunning images from Kiki's Delivery Service.

I'd argue that GIFs are the only true way to fully take in a creation like this: providing you with all the time in the world to enjoy each aspect without getting sidetracked by the story and without sacrificing the movement. GIFs allow us to enjoy the intricacies of the plants and the staggering amount of detail in that store. (Seriously. Holy shit.) They give us time to notice how drastically the drawing of Kiki's map differs from the drawing that creates her world, with one obviously meant to be more 'real' than the other. They can also be excellent tools for other artists, particularly animators. GIFs let us observe how Kiki's dress, hair, bow, and broom all move in different but complimentary directions. They let us break down the stylistic choice of a shiver running up and down a cat's body. It's not that we don't enjoy these things when we watch the film in its original run, only that GIFs give us the chance to pay attention to each aspect as an individual feature. I'd argue that this is especially important for animated works, where each addition is deliberately included but isn't always noticed by the viewer. At least until now.

Of course, there are downsides to this as well. Creators can't get away with mistakes like they once did, or hide inappropriate jokes quite as easily. It's great that we can now expect fans to pick up, catalogue, and share every single reference or parallel. That means we pick up on every single contradiction and plot hole though too. Creators now need to work under the assumption that fans will be scrutinizing their work frame by frame, often through GIF-sets. Because we will.

There's a number of other ways that GIFs are used: as reactions (obviously), to tell new stories (similar to fic), to draw parallels, to teach, to provide personal information in a succinct and relatable manner... and that's just the tip of the iceberg. As a prequel I'll leave you with a particular, recent favorite of mine deriving from Thor: Ragnarok. In a future post we can start unpacking GIFs intersections with the latest memes.



Image Credit

Pride and Prejudice:


Isle of Dogs:




Kiki's Delivery Service:



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