One afternoon two years ago, Eric Fleischauer, a filmmaker, and Jason Lazarus, a photographer, met for coffee. Gradually the conversation turned to one of their shared obsessions: GIFs, the infinitely looping minimovies ubiquitous on the Internet. Given their jobs, they were particularly interested in where GIFs came from and what they were becoming.
“It’s the paradox of cinema that every ‘moving picture’ is comprised entirely of still pictures,” Fleischauer says. What would GIFs look like, the two of them wondered, if you removed them from their natural habitat and transplanted them to the cinema, projected onto a big screen, maybe even in 16-millimeter? A project began to take shape. Now, after two years of work—most of it on weekends, in between a myriad of other projects (Lazarus currently has a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, for instance)—the pair debut Twohundredfiftysixcolors, a 97-minute film containing 3,000 GIFs and named after the number of colors in the GIF palette.
One of the great appeals of the GIF format, at least to Fleischauer and Lazarus, is how democratic it is.
“We live in a hypermedia culture,” says Fleischauer, whose work has been displayed at the MCA and Art Basel Miami and who teaches, along with Lazarus, at the School of the Art Institute. “Everyone is making, producing, and disseminating media. I just made a Vine movie on my way over here. There’s an explosion of access to all sorts of things. The moving image is continuing to encroach on the still image as the primary pictorial content for ‘media’ outlets.”
“The file format starts to be a blender of culture,” Lazarus adds.
“People are starting to express themselves,” Fleischauer continues. “They’re finding out what their voice is. There’s something satisfying about producing something. And there’s something fascinating about the level of authorship that can happen via appropriation, for example, with someone simply choosing three frames from an entire film to create a fascinating infinite loop.”
He mentions a famous GIF of Orson Welles clapping, taken from Citizen Kane: “Someone was detail-oriented enough to find that perfect loop. A range of skill starts to emerge. That makes it really interesting.”
Twohundredfiftysixcolors is a cavalcade of GIFs from all over the Internet, ranging from primitive-looking Under Construction signs from the early days of personal Web pages to clips from movies and TV shows to (naturally) cats. Fleischauer also wanted to explore GIFs’ historical lineage, which, it turns out, reaches to the 17th century—see for instance the thaumatrope, a piece of cardboard mounted on a stick with a different image on each side, such as a cage and a canary. When you spin the cardboard around, the two images blend, so the canary appears to be trapped in the cage.
Lazarus and Fleischauer spent the first six months of the project collecting GIFs. They solicited contributions from their friends and students and through social media and then spent some time scouring the Internet on their own. The most challenging part of the project was assembling the clips in a way that made sense—and so their audience didn’t mind sitting and watching for an hour and a half.
Some groupings made sense—cats, pizza—but others required more consideration. The filmmakers were still adding and rearranging GIFs as recently as two weeks ago.
“There was so much juicy GIF-ness,” Fleischauer marvels. “The real moment comes when we get to create a collision through a montage or editing. You take a banal GIF, but then you pair it with something else and it takes on a whole new meaning.”
Lazarus describes the effect they were striving for as “orchestral.” “It’s a unique piling-on of content,” he says. “How long will a GIF burn in your memory? How far apart can we have two GIFs that relate to each other? We have one six minutes into the movie and another at the end. The goal is to challenge the viewer’s intellect. It’s not a test of their endurance. There will be lots of connections and a number of salient points that emerge.”
Fleischauer and Lazarus debuted a shorter version of the film last summer at the ACRE Residency, an artists’ cooperative in Steuben, Wisconsin. The test screening was 72 minutes, about 25 minutes shorter than the current incarnation.
“We were curious about the length the film could or should have,” Lazarus explains. “We were excited that no one complained. Because it’s silent, the audience reaction becomes part of the content. The first few minutes are about setting the pace and establishing a long view of the contexts that inform the animated GIF. You have to wrap your head around how big the movie is. As a viewing experience, it’s really unique.”
Originally, Fleischauer and Lazarus had hoped to record Twohundredfiftysixcolors on celluloid, to connect it more explicitly with the history of cinema and to be able to store it in a more stable, off-line medium. But that proved too costly, so Twohundredfiftysixcolors exists only on videotape—for now. The filmmakers are still scheming to transfer it to 16-millimeter.
The most important question, though: Is “GIF” pronounced with a hard or soft “g”?
“There’s something embedded in the code that says the pronunciation is ‘jif,'” says Lazarus, although both he and Fleischauer rebelliously use the hard “g”. “Toward the end of the film, we have a peanut butter jar spinning with the word ‘GIF’ on it. We’re getting at the thing. There’s the surface reading and then there’s art history and cross-referencing. That’s why film is so fun.”