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Animated GIF: A Definition and Guide

Animated Gifs are a Wildly Popular Medium of Visual Expression


An animated GIF is a type of graphics file that creates a moving picture on a Web page. It consists of a bunch of individual images grouped together with information on timing, all compressed into a single file. The purpose is to create the impression of movement when the file is called up.

Each animated GIF looks like a super-short movie, but actually is a bunch of still images or single frames from a video, all combined seamlessly and displayed in a sequence. It looks a little like an old-time flip book that suggests movement when the pages are flipped.

They get their name from the fact that the animation file uses the "GIF" storage and compression format. GIF is an acronym standing for Graphics Interchange Format, which refers to the formula used to compress or shrink the file size in order to make it smaller for transmission over the Internet.

Animated GIF Technology Is Old

The technology that creates animated GIF files is complicated and dates to the 1980s. The most widely recognized animated GIF file standard is GIF89A, a specialized version of the regular GIF format.

The GIF89A format contains information on the timing of each image and creates an image-display-cycle for showing all the individual images sequentially, which is what creates the impression of movement or animation.

GIF animation isn't terribly high-tech; the images often appear grainy, jerky or both. Also, GIFs have a very limited color palette so they're not as photo-realistic as quality photos, much less high-definition video. But all the major web browsers support the animated GIF format, which has helped the these moving images go mainstream online.

Uses of the Animated GIF in Culture

The popularity of GIF animation has waxed and waned as more sophisticated animation technologies arose and as people continued to find more creative uses for the older, GIF-style moving picture files. GIF animation, first created in the late 1980s, enjoyed something of a renaissance in the first decade of the new century.

Animated GIFs often are used to repeat simple, funny moments --a couple of still frames combined to capture two or three seconds of action, like a facial expression or body gesture. It creates a kind of new, hybrid image format that lives somewhere in between still imagery and video, or true moving pictures. More sophisticated animation technologies typically live closer to the video end of the imagery spectrum, whereas GIF animation falls decidedly closer to the still end.

As the rise of image-sharing and video-sharing websites created a viral culture where people share funny and memorable imagery, the GIF file format enjoyed a renaissance in part because it's fairly easy to create simple, short animations using GIFs. People seem to enjoy seeing a funny moment repeated for a few short seconds. Lots of GIF libraries have arisen online for easier sharing of these new art forms.

The brevity of these animations -- a GIF animation typically lasts only a few seconds -- appears to be a trait that helps drive their "shareability" and thus popularity as people are willing to pass along something that doesn't consume much time. The GIF's brevity is in contrast to YouTube videos, which typically last a lot longer.

Another factor is file size. GIFs are highly compressed compared to other animation file formats such as Flash's .swf files, which take up huge amounts of disk space and take time to travel over the web.

History of the Animated GIF

GIF as a file format has its origins in the online service CompuServe, which publicly released the then-proprietary format in 1987.

In 2012, GIF as a verb was proclaimed the word of the year by the Oxford American Dictionary, which deemed that it not only was a popular noun, but had come into its own as a verb which means "to create a GIF file" containing a video or animation sequence.

Where to Find Animated GIFs

Locating animated GIFs to use for your projects is easy thanks to the rise of all kinds of online libraries showcasing examples of animations. Check out this guide to finding free animated GIFs.

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