Friday at PhilaMOCA, the Cinedelphia Film Festival will screen twohundredfiftysixcolors, an experimental feature made entirely of animated GIFs that traces the file format’s arc of increased complexity and pointed use since it was introduced in 1987.
Crafted from over 3,000 animated GIFs, twohundredfiftysixcolors is an expansive and revealing portrait of what has become a zeitgeist medium. Once used primarily as an Internet page signpost, the file type has evolved into an agile and ubiquitous tool for pop-cultural memes, self-expression, and artistic gestures. The film is a curated archive that functions as a historical document charting the GIF’s evolution, its connections to early cinema, and its contemporary cultural and aesthetic possibilities.
A prime example of the changing face of cinema and the surprising degree of entertainment that can result from modern archiving. Animals, anime, daredevils, drunks, this one is just as fun and crazy as it sounds.
In anticipation of this rare screening, Cinedelphia chatted with co-directors Eric Fleischauer and Jason Lazarus about the project.
Cinedelphia: So, we are really excited to have twohundredfiftysixcolors screening at the festival this Friday, can you talk a little bit about the inspiration for the project?
Eric Fleischauer: I think Jason and I both have our inspiration that, maybe started individually, but came together through conversations that we were having about animated gifs. Basically, I come from a background of film and video, and I’ve been working across different mediums within the moving image, and started to get really interested in the gif in terms of its relationship to film history. I started to notice that the gif had strong connections and similarities to early cinema and pre-cinema, and, you know, with all of this HD and technology floating around people are making beautiful hi-res movies and images but with the gif, there’s this sort of resurgence of low-res images that were very restricting and limiting and it made me think about pre-cinema stuff like the thaumatrope and zoetrope devices. They were individually viewed, and maybe had a sequence of 15 or so images. So the gif, to me, related to those types of formats and the more I thought about it, the more I thought it would be interesting to make that connection with a project. Jason, who has a background in photography, and I started to talk about bringing our different backgrounds and interests together to work on a project that explored the gif’s larger, cultural relationship to various mediums, artistic practices, and everyday democratic creativity.
Jason Lazarus: My teaching practice at the art institute allows for a lot of experimentation and some of my students were starting to respond to these conceptual prompts with animated gifs. So that’s where I started to think about the animated gif as a vessel for a knowing, fine art thinker to bend and push that format to be productive for them. I started to become curious about what might happen if you take animated gifs and start to accumulate them, by adding all of those microgestures into a more epic survey and investigation of what was possible with the format. I think one of the things I’ve always responded to was the simplicity of the format, and how elegant it can become when it’s used in a thoughtful way. So to me, it’s like one of the simplest hoops either you can have a student jump through, or you can jump through yourself. I was really interested in discovering, between Eric and I, our community here in Chicago, and then later with the public at large, what’s the huge continuum of responses that we could enjoy and try to stitch together for additional meaning.
C: In terms of stitching the gifs together, is there an organizing principle behind the film in terms of how it is constructed?
Jason: One thing I like to point out is, Eric and I had our own learning curve as we did the project. I think our understanding in the beginning was a more aerial point of view because we were looking at so many gifs all the time. We had a higher level of investment for a period of time, but the more we researched, the more we started to understand a whole other set of categories that were out there, and that started to make our understanding more textured and nuanced.
Eric: That was one of the biggest challenges. In the film there are around 3,000 different gifs, or files, animated gifs, and we, as Jason said, we were looking at thousands of these, and by way of research and our accumulation process, we started to notice different categories and genres and approaches that people were using. So we kind of responded to that by using it as a construction principle. We took some really obvious ones, such as “Cats,” “Pizza,” things like that, or geometry, “Circle,” “Square,” “Triangle,” things that are kind of tropes, maybe even cliches at this point, or you know, people that use MAYA, really sophisticated animation software to make really simple loops and things like that, but then as we kind of edited these together we started to expand our scope and think about like, “well, what would be the weirdest thing that someone would make a gif of,” or “what would be the most radical way that someone would activate this format.” And so we started to think about, for example, one of the sections we have is a section of 9-11 gifs. People who were not skilled makers were taking the animated gifs’ democratic platform and making nationalistic pride gifs that defame Bin Laden or breed patriotism and things like that. So we started to respond to these things that we would find online and weave them into this classification system that we were starting to construct.
Jason: And also at the same time, we would take a category and start to interpret it more poetically, so for example, architecture might start off as buildings, but then we would interpret that category to include more abstract representations, and so the stack of gifs in that bucket would start to complicate itself. That was another strategy we used which was to be more open about the way we took a framing device or a sorting device and you’ll see like throughout the movie, I would say on a general level the second half is dirtier in terms of the categories maybe being not as obvious. There’s a trajectory or a related way of thinking or looking, but it may be a little less identifiable.
C: So, I was able to look at the trailer, and probably the first or second thing I noticed was that there is no sound, which there isn’t any sound when you are just watching a gif, but was that always something you had in mind from the beginning, or was that a decision that came about along the way?
Eric: I think that because this project tries to create a historical document or archive, an impossible archive, that traces the trajectory of this file format and tries to represent it in a way that is its pure form but also put into a cinema context, we didn’t really want to muddy that up too much. We didn’t want to make it too easy for the viewer to be distracted by a soundtrack that would be like, “oh sure, right, an ambient soundtrack,” or like some Mogwai soundtrack. We entertained ideas of a soundtrack, but in the end we were really excited to be bold and present the gifs as they are experienced or as they exist online. And of course, people who are browsing are listening to music on their computer but that’s different. We appreciate the John Cage idea of silence, where silence doesn’t exist, silence is a concept influenced by your own surrounding, so what happens is the communal viewing experience generates the soundtrack. People are LOLing, or gasping at shocking things, or people are turning to their neighbor or friend and and being like, “have you seen that before, where is that from.” And the soundtrack becomes the group viewing situation and that to us is really exciting. It’s maybe a little bit challenging, I think, in 2014 to have a silent feature but we like that idea.
Jason: Well it’s also another strategy to put the project in communication with the roots of the moving image, right? So, it harkens to a silent film. It’s one way to manifest this deep history which we’re interested in, the context of the gif not only in what are contemporary memes but the history of film, and even pre-history. So it was a way to keep that circle strong and I think we were always pretty confident about how great and radical it would feel to have a long project that was silent. We were charged by that possibility, and I think we were thrilled when the audience response not only happened, but also the film seemed to be fine, and you adjust pretty quickly to the different format of the project. I find myself, even watching it for the umpteenth time not missing sound. On the other hand, it does ask that the project be consumed with a group of people. That’s really our ideal format for the project as opposed to it running on an infinite loop like in an institutional setting. We really wanted to ask for a high level commitment from the audience, because we thought with the research and collecting that we did, we wanted to put ourselves and the audience in a situation that asks, “can we reward the audience? Can a high level commitment extend both ways?” I think we found that it does.
Eric: At one screening someone was like, “oh, I would love to make a soundtrack for this!” And we were like that’s cool, that’s awesome, someone’s excited about making a soundtrack, but in the end, Jason and I were both resolutely agreed that it’s silent, it should stay silent. We’ve also been approached with an offer to screen it with a live score, and that never ended up happening, but I think Jason and I were both like that could be fun, like a one time only thing, that would be an interesting experiment that would change the movie.
Jason: The film is a year old at this point and I still feel like Eric and I are learning about what we made, and everytime it’s screened we have a different learning experience. The project continues to teach us, which, as artists, is what we want.
C: What do you guys think about the way the gif has exploded over the last few years, and what that says about us and how we communicate with each other through technology?
Eric: I think the timing of this movie could not have been better, and maybe it’s not a coincidence, maybe it’s the reason we were both simultaneously inspired and motivated and excited to tackle this huge project. I mean we worked on this project for over two years together before we had the final cut ready, and we were both overwhelmed by how much material there was to sift through, and how much material people kept sending us. I mean even to this day I get emails and people saying, “did you see this, did you see that?” It was kind of hard to put an end to it. We were editing until like a week before the premiere because we were like, “oh, we want to add this and that.” And you’re right the gif has become not only a file format but a communication dialect. People use it to communicate emotions, it’s like a sophisticated emogee or emoticon, it’s a paragraph condensed into a file, it’s so many things and it does speak to the internet generation or the internet, period. The way that data is dispersed, and posted and reposted, and reblogged and etc, etc.
Jason: The gif is the most embracing of file formats. At the same time, when you have someone who knows what they are doing with image editing software, the amount of skill or conceptual risk that can happen can still make its way into the gif and can redefine what is at stake. So for example, some makers avoid the rectangle as the shape of their gif, so, you know, things are happening at the edge, or outside of the frame coming in. Isn’t it Lorna Mills, Eric, who is like, always trying to challenge the classic ideas of framing? [Eric says “yes”] So just her practice with animating gifs is really phenominal because she’s highly invested in specific interrogation, which happens with the frame and certain subjects. Her practice alone is really fascinating and a great example of someone who is asking the gif, or demanding more of the gif because of the lines of inquiry that they have in their practice.
Eric: Back to the idea of the internet and the why the gif took off, it’s because the internet not only allows for the dispersion of the material, but it supplies the content for remix and generation and also instruction. It even embraces the idea of “deskilling,” of making it where people don’t even need to know how to make a gif with photoshop, they can just take something and upload it to a website that exists that will make the gif for them. So I think that it’s this place where it’s the most bare bones, nimble, ubiquitous and democratic way to make moving images. And there is still this idea of awe and “look, I made this moving image!” There’s something too that. To quote Tom Gunning and the article, The Cinema of Attraction, you know, it is just people seeing things move is just wonderful and mesmerizing, and that’s all it took, like “whoa,” and everything beyond that is butter.
C: Before we end, I just want to say it’s nice to hear you guys say “GIF” instead of “JIF,” because I’ve actually never heard anyone say it with the soft-G sound.
Jason: We’ve learned that both ways are, well, there’s a lot of takes that people have [laughing]. And we are way more open to people calling it with a soft “G” than we used to be because we did our homework and learned that that pronunciation was written in the original programming. But it’s great to see what people get mad at, and it’s kind of a funny thing to insist on one way of doing things when gifs themselves are invitations for all content.
Eric: It’s funny that you brought that up because when gif was the word of the year it was inducted into the Oxford American dictionary and they included both pronunciations. And actually, now the vernacular pronunciation overrode the wishes of the programmer, or inventor. So there is no one way, but there is a line in the sand that people draw and it’s funny to hear people debate it. In the film, there is a gif that addresses it.
Well, of course there is.