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The best GIF ever: Reanimator Lab reinvents the web’s favorite format

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You can watch it loop a dozen times and still notice new things

The Reanimator Lab
The Reanimator Lab

Welcome to the avant-garde of the GIF revival. It's called the Reanimator Lab, most recently on display at the Museum of the Moving Image.

To work, it needs a crowd of people and an animation, like this rotating buckyball. From there, the three-person Reanimator team breaks the clip into a string of frames, then sets up the frames on screens so any aspiring artists in the crowd can trace over them. "It works best with sharp lines and enough motion in the frame for it to make sense," according to Jason Eppink, the programmer of the group. Once all the frames are traced over, they're photographed and a PHP script collects them into a single GIF, ready to be projected above the party or dropped onto Tumblr. The result looks like this (the original is below):


Even among the recent glut of GIFs, this is something new, a clever combination of smart tech and analog messiness. The basic shape holds constant, but everything else changes from frame to frame. Like most great GIFs, you can watch it loop a dozen times and still notice new things. One frame is bare-bones pencil. Another is a technicolor array of magic markers. A third draws the molecular hubs as smiley faces, but the animation moves so fast you can barely see them. Pausing on a single frame, you can see that someone has written "Mandible Jones, Bitch!" in one of the negative spaces. One cannot say why. Now that the party is over, perhaps we'll never know.

This is something new, a clever combination of smart tech and analog messiness

The technique is similar to rotoscoping — a 94-year-old process for tracing animation over film cells — but Eppink says the team was more inspired by web projects like The Johnny Cash project, which made a video from hundreds of different drawings sourced from around the world. In the Reanimator's case, that chaos is confined to a single room. More importantly, the finished product is whittled down to a bite-size GIF that's easier to spread through the web, instead of a more unwieldy video. "A friend of mine described it as text message vs. voicemail," Eppink said, describing his preference for GIFs over YouTube clips. "There's an immediacy. You don't have to click play or do anything else."

If you've got the right gadget, you can also hang it on the wall. So far, the reanimated GIFs only live on the project's official Tumblr and in the occasional party projector screen, but for their next show, at the Roy Wilkins Recreation Center on December 17, the team purchased Sungale CA 700 digital picture frames, a discontinued model pulled off Amazon for $30 a pop. Each one will house its own GIF (converted to a looped AVI for compatibility's sake), and be hung on the wall like a painting.

As assistant curator at the Museum of the Moving Image, Eppink has experience hanging GIFs on gallery walls. The surprise so far has been how long the average attention span turns out to be.

"You can spend very little time and get what you need out of it, or you can spend a lot of time with it and dive deeper," Eppink says. "What's interesting is the transition from 'oh, aha, I see what's going on' to 'I'm still looking at this 30 seconds later.'"

A reanimated version of Eadweard Muybridge's Horse in Motion (1878), slowed for clarity.