One of my favorite things about creating looping GIFs is that they’re a relatively simple way to showcase your design and illustration skills. Plus, they don’t require a ton of production time, they’re fun to make, and they’re a great method for economizing the animation process. So much win.
As an illustrator, animator, and animation director, I’ve become more and more involved in creating looping GIFs, both for personal and commercial use, over the last few years. So, since I’m frequently asked about my process, I’d like to share what I’ve learned about designing a “successful” looping GIF.
Start with a story
For me, this is the most challenging step. I try to come up with an idea that will be funny and engaging, but also simple to understand. And, of course, it’s got to work as a looping GIF.
As an example, let’s talk about my Game Of Thrones GIFs project. I created a GIF for each episode in season 6, and the challenge was to take scenes—often very violent ones—and turn them into cute GIFs that function as a TL;DR version of the episode.
Below, check out 3 GIFs that represent 3 cruel scenes. The animations, colorful and cute, lighten up the anything-but-cute original scenes.
Below, watch a 15-second GIF that combines 3-4 mini-loops that create a meaningful story. The “net” animation is around 5-6 seconds, so by telling a story through loops I can also save myself some work.
Keep it simple
A minimalistic approach during the design stage will give you more freedom in the animation stage. As a general rule of thumb: the simpler and cleaner the design, the easier the animation will be. A complex design contains many details, shades, etc. that you’ll need to pay close attention to in every frame. So just keep things simple.
I like to employ basic geometric shapes and flat color schemes. I also avoid unnecessary details like fingers and toes, and I use simple strokes for hands and legs—it’s much easier to animate than a detailed arm with shades, variable thickness, and anatomic accuracy. Simple strokes as limbs allow you to stretch them, squeeze them, and play with them almost like spaghetti—and they still keep their original thickness.
Within these limitations, I can play with exaggerating some features to add humor, distinct style, and visual interest: a huge body with a tiny face, extremely thick arms or very long and thin arms, etc. I also find that the animation of simple characters is more graceful and expressive.
To explain what I mean, here’s a GIF of the talented Simone Biles. Look closely and you can see that the character is designed with only basic elements: simple strokes as limbs, a thicker stroke as the body, and 2 perfect circles as the head and hair. That’s it!
And with that basic design, I can play much more easily than if it were built in a realistic, more detailed way. All those crazy flips would be challenging to execute if the design weren’t simple.
Loops must be perfect
Since it’s automatically played over and over again, looping GIFs need to be perfect—otherwise flaws are easy to spot, not to mention distracting. So pay a lot of attention to details. Give extra attention to every frame of your animation to ensure the loop turns out seamless. I aspire to create a smooth animation, and sometimes I use classic animation to make small adjustments like hair flapping or limb movements (simple design comes in handy here, too). Since in most cases looping GIFs are short, it’s worth the effort.
To make the animation work as a loop, the first thing I do is create the first and the last frames so that they’re combined smoothly with one another. Then I move on to creating the body of the animation.
When creating looping GIFs, try to add in elements of delight that will surprise viewers.
Include mini-effects. For example, add stars to shining objects, whooshes for super fast movement of limbs, and small clouds of dust when something heavy hits the ground.
Exaggerate a movement. For example, separate the head from the body when the character gets punched.
Choose your color palette wisely. A GIF is limited to 256 colors, so a gradient might get pixelated.
If you liked this, don’t miss our post on cinemagraphs, the latest evolution of the animated GIF.