by Emília Fort
Trailing the origin of a GIF implies pulling all sorts of never ending strings, as does trying to figure out the story of this format: we could hop between its introduction by CompuServe in 1987 until the apparition of Cool Spot, 7Up’s mascot, created in the same year and maybe one of the first commercial illustrations converted to GIF, and go through the phonetic debate of whether we should pronounce the G in GIF as we do in guitar, or as we do in Givenchy. It’s often said that the survival of these sons of the World Wide Web owes much to Netscape Navigator, the browser which, despite having been defeated by Internet Explorer in the mid 90s, first incorporated animated loops. It’s also been argued that it was Eadweard Muybrige who actually created the first GIF in 1879 with his Zoopraxiscope, although this comparison with the analogic world seems somewhat puzzling.
I was investigating about the origin of GIFs (and of one I liked in particular and wanted to write about) when, as it often happens in these virtual trails, I came across an oasis that instantly made me leave all my research aside: I discovered a character deserving his very own Wikipedia entry and decided to talk about one of his creations dating back from early World Wide Web times.
The amusing and rookie Cool Spot en GIF, next to
the commercial brand it represents.
I’m talking about Charles (Chuck) F. Poynter. This U.S Air Force veteran, born in 1937 in Arkansas and who died in the same place in 2001, was responsible for the creation, in his spare time, of a handful of GIFs in the first days of the WWW. His web page was last updated on July 8th, 1999 at 09:40:29 PM and, by the way, it’s also been said that his position in the First Browser War was in favour of Netscape. Since then, technology has made major progressions, but Chuck’s Large Pegasus (pegasus1.gif, as it appears when you download the file) seems to me as touching as it is eloquent.
In general, and at a sensory level in particular, we could all agree in the fact that one of the biggest pleasures for GIFs users derives from their endless loop nature: the least we can notice their beginning and end, the more effective their hypnotic power. Without a doubt, this is not the case with Large Pegasus. This GIF describes a very concrete and easy-to-read action -the arrival and departure of a winged horse- through a perfect 38-image sequence that we can understand the first time around (maybe that comparison with the Zoopraxiscope might not be so farfetched after all, although it’s not my will to discuss here about the Movement-Image).
Be it as it may, what I like about Large Pegasus is that its framing is not only reduced to the frame imposed by its own format. Even though it might seem strange talking about framing when dealing with an illustration lacking any kind of background, for us it becomes quite evident since it acts as an active and necessary limiting element marking the action and internal timing of the GIF. Chuck’s Pegasus comes from the top left corner of the screen and reaches the bottom right one. In the same way as a model walking on the catwalk, it stops there, and elegantly turns around to go back where it came from, but on the opposite direction. Or, what’s the same, it moves infinitely along the limits of the frame justifying its presence.
The decision, whether conscious or unconscious, of eliminating the suggestion of the existence of anything out of the frame is what seems to me the most adorable thing about Poynter’s GIF. Everything is self-contained within Large Pegasus. Its content is the very action or movement, and there’s no need for a context, or questions to be asked. I find Large Pegasus‘ eloquence really comforting; its expression is simple but forceful, and even if its tempo is slow and not up to our current expectations, it’s still persuasive. Moreover, the close attention to detail -its colours, its accurate shadows- makes it a lovely GIF.
Truth is that, looking at his legacy, it all points towards the hypothesis that our friend in Arkansas knew exactly what he was doing. His experiments with format offer a wide range of possibilities, and Large Pegasus is only one of many.
Apart from his hit Dancing Girl, his GIFs go from very basic animations of an anthropomorphic lizard having a drink at a bar, to WWII planes, to Morphs of a girl turning into a frog or of a policeman (Eagle Police) turning into an eagle. Charles F. Poynter created true exercises in style, and not only did his work contribute to the production of the first generation of GIFs, but also to the building of the whole WWW, which is now our home. On the News section of his web page it can still be read an entry where he said: “My first love is computer programming and computer graphics. I am retired and can pursue these hobbies at my leisure. If you have similar interest E-Mail me at the address at the end of this page or click here firstname.lastname@example.org, I would like to hear from you.” It could be argued that Large Pegasus is a result if generosity, love and dedication. In short, of the best things in life.