The movie GIFs that keep on giving

Arguably the most common way in which we communicate about – and through – movies nowadays is via GIFs. Often those looped clips that serve as stand-ins for language-based communications are lifted from films and television shows. Homer Simpson backing into the bushes, DiCaprio’s Gatsby offering a toast: such GIFs are testament to the cultural firepower of these characters. But in other cases the precise cinematic origins of the GIFs have been forgotten (and, frankly, have become irrelevant) in the intense maelstrom that is their online use.


This video essay by Leigh Singer traces some of the most used GIFs back to their roots. There are some surprises here, such as when the GIF of a diabolically smiling Jack Nicholson turns out to have been lifted from a trailer, not from the full feature film. But Singer does a lot more than mere detective work in this video essay for Little White Lies. He addresses how these short snippets are decontextualized from their origins and then recontextualized by the user in a “personal, playful and public performance”. Singer is generous in his judgement, stressing the creativity and sense of humor that users show in producing and selecting GIFs. The creation of cinematic GIFs can even be seen as an act of curation, through which more sophisticated users put lesser known films in the eternally looping limelight of a GIF, Singer argues.


Most of the time, these GIFs are just shorthand for expressions of approval or disapproval. But one might even argue that in some cases the use of cinematic GIFs is an embryonic form of a video essay: the appropriation of audiovisual content to call attention to its specific affective qualities, or to comment on a broader cultural or societal phenomenon.