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Disney, Tumblr and the Ensuing GIF Sensation

GIFs (Graphic Interchange Format) have been around for a long, long time. When they were first introduced in 1987, they were initially used as a higher-rate form of data compression, as well as for more fun things like sprite animations in old video games. Now, they're everywhere. Any time over 2 minutes spent scrolling through a healthy Tumblr feed will likely turn up dozens of them and popular web-culture sites like BuzzFeed swear by them.

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What is the big deal though? Why is an image that plays a few frames' worth of looping animation so appealing? Well, internet culture being the reactionary phenomenon that it is, contests to find the most apt, amusing way to react to a thing can often get heated. If you turn up to that party with a GIF of Ron Swanson looking bemused, you're far more likely to win the comment battle than if you just roll out with a tawdry 'whut'. 

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Equally, taking a short snippet of a longer piece of footage can take it out of context and breathe a kind of peculiar second life into it. Equally equally, apply a bit of creative license and you can create some really fascinating artwork. Tumblr has long been the hub for all these variations and more, a fact which they've capitalised on with the addition of Tumblr TV.

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The feature allows users to more easily search for (and access a feed of) basically all the GIFs hosted on the site, as well as making them viewable in full-screen mode. It's basically just a more slick, streamlined way to access and view GIFs, but it shows the extent to which Tumblr are embracing one of their biggest draws. Certainly more appealing than people getting unreasonably angry about scenes from Harry Potter, anyway.

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Tumblr, while massive, still has a very insular user-base though and you can only get so far on Tumblr TV without an account before getting locked off, but there are more broad, innovative GIF sharing applications to be had. Most recently, Disney have unveiled their 'Disney Gif' app, a custom keyboard for iOS 8 which allows you to easily rustle up GIFs from Disney films and shows and message them to your contacts. The app comes outfitted with 200 of them at present with the promise of more coming out over time. That's still pretty limited even with that promise and plenty of third-party apps that make it easier to message GIFs found elsewhere already exist, but Disney are likely targeting a younger, less tech-savvy audience.

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Of course, finding the appropriate GIF for a given moment is only one side of the story. Increasingly, a market is developing for people who want to make them. If you have a reasonable understanding of Photoshop, making a GIF isn't too hard and beyond that there are a few free browser tools, but a few platforms have set out to make it even easier. A neat little app called Phhhoto meets that need beautifully.

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Originally marketed towards events promoters and enterprises, using an iPad which had been built into a portable photobooth, the app (and social media platform) takes 4 images and instantly knits them into a GIF. It's basic, but it integrates with other social media (especially Instagram) so easily that it's cornered its own market. It also adds another layer of possibilities for photographers who are up on their social media promotion. In the right environments, under the right lighting conditions, weird and wonderful optical illusions can be crafted. 

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There's an interesting nostalgic bent to the way GIFs have risen in popularity. For many, they were the format for the earliest internet memes, a relic of a time when online culture was only just growing into itself and certainly not something thought to have any artistic merit. More than that though, they are probably the most accurate, apt way to translate net-speak into body language, far more so than emojis. A still of a facial expression is far less effective than a moving image of one. The nostalgic appeal will wear off eventually, but GIFs are timeless, in their own way.

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Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop. Follow him @CallumAtSMF

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Disney, Tumblr and the Ensuing GIF Sensation Reviewed by Callum Davies on Tuesday, June 30, 2015 Rating: 5

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