Visual storytelling through animated gifs and Vine

NPR’s Plan­et Mon­ey recent­ly ran an arti­cle on glass recy­cling, How A Used Bot­tle Becomes A New Bot­tle, In 6 Gifs. The Gif part is what intrigued me. A “gif” is a tightly-compressed image for­mat file that web design­ers leaned on a lot back in the days of low band­width. It’s espe­cial­ly good for designs with a few dis­creet col­ors, such as cor­po­rate logos or sim­ple car­toons. It also sup­ports a kind of prim­i­tive ani­ma­tion that was com­plete­ly overused in the late 90s to give web­pages fly­ing uni­corns and spin­ning globes.

Ani­mat­ed gifs have grown up. They make up half the posts on Tum­blr. They are often derived from fun­ny scenes in movies and come with humor­ous cap­tions. The Plan­et Mon­ey piece uses them for sto­ry­telling: text is illus­trat­ed by six gifs show­ing dif­fer­ent parts of the recy­cling process. The move­ment helps tell the sto­ry – indeed most of the shots would be visu­al­ly unin­ter­est­ing if they were sta­t­ic.

The short loops reminds me of Vine, the six-second video ser­vice from Twit­ter which I’ve used a lot for sil­ly kid antics. They can also tell a sim­ple sto­ry (they’re par­tic­u­lar­ly well suit­ed to repet­i­tive kid antics: up the steps, down the slide, up the steps, down the slide, up…).

In my work with Friends Jour­nal I’ve done some 7 – 12 minute video inter­views with off-site authors using Google Hang­outs, which essen­tial­ly just records the video con­ver­sa­tion. It’s fine for what we use it for, but the qual­i­ty depends a lot on the equip­ment on the oth­er end. If the band­width is low or the web­cam poor qual­i­ty, it will show, and there are few options for post-production edit­ing. But hon­est­ly, this is why I use Hang­outs: a short web-only inter­view won’t turn into a week­long project.

Pro­duc­ing high-quality video requires con­trol­ling all of the equip­ment, shoot­ing ten times more footage than you think you’ll need, and then hours of work con­dens­ing and edit­ing it down to a sto­ry. And after all this it’s pos­si­ble you’ll end up with some­thing that doesn’t get many views. Few Youtube users actu­al­ly watch videos all the way through to the end, drift­ing away to oth­er inter­net dis­trac­tions in the first few min­utes.

I like the com­bi­na­tion of the sim­ple short video clips (whether Vine or ani­mat­ed gif) wed­ded to words. My last post here was the very light-weight sto­ry about a sum­mer after­noon project. Yes­ter­day, I tried again, shoot­ing a short ani­mat­ed gif of Tibetan monks vis­it­ing a local meet­ing­house. I don’t think it real­ly worked. They’re con­struct­ing a sand man­dala grain-by-grain. The small move­ments of their fun­nel sticks as sand drops is so small that a reg­u­lar sta­t­ic pho­to would suf­fice. But I’ll keep exper­i­ment­ing with the form.