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What is an Animated GIF?

Brad Cole
Brad Cole

An animated GIF is a popular type of digital image. As the name implies, animated GIFs are images in the GIF file format that appear to move or change. Animated GIFs are often used for banner ads, in place of much larger full motion video files, and as interesting accents to homepages.

Animated GIFs use the Graphics Interchange Format (GIF). Due to the standards of this format, an animated GIF must use an 8-bit palette. That palette size results in only having 256 colors available for the image, but also means that most GIF images take up much less memory than images in other formats.

Man holding computer
Man holding computer

An animated GIF works in the same way as traditional cartoon animation. The image file actually has multiple images stored inside of it, called frames. The frames are displayed in order, and can give the appearance of motion in the same way an animated cartoon does. An animated GIF can appear to be anything from an animated cartoon character to a rotating banner ad, depending on how fast the frames are displayed. Most web browsers even display animated GIFs as repeating images, so the animation never has to be seen stopping.

Animated GIFs can be created using a number of different programs. Ulead® System’s GIF Animator is an older program, but is one of the most popular and also considered one of the easiest to use. Photoshop® Elements (PE) can be used to make an animated GIF, and has the advantage that PE’s layers can be set to act as GIF frames. In truth, almost any program that can create a GIF can also create an animated GIF, but how well the animation can be controlled varies from program to program.

The compression algorithm used for GIF images was patented in the mid-1980s. The patent was owned by Unisys Corporation by 1986. They eventually began to charge various types of licensing fees for its use. In 2003, the primary U.S. patent expired. The patents in most other countries followed in 2004. The basic compression algorithm can now be used without needing to pay royalties because of this.

There are various alternatives to the GIF image format. Interlacing can be used in the Portable Network Graphics (PNG) format to create very basic animations, though the offshoot Multiple-image Network Graphics (MNG) format must be used for true animation. The Joint Photographic Experts Group (JPEG or JPG) format is also commonly used for images, but does not support animation.

Discussion Comments


How do you use GIF art? I know how to find it but how do you actually make it move?


@letsheartit - It’s interesting that you speak of home movies. I’ve used animated GIF clipart as a quick and easy way to add cartoons to my home movies. It’s actually quite easy.

I split up my animated GIF images into individual frames. Then, I import them into a vector image editing program that I have. The software has a “trace bitmap” feature. It traces all the GIF images and converts them to vector format.

In this format, they can be stretched and re-sized to fill the whole screen, with no loss of resolution. I then put the pictures back together to create a custom vector animation and upload the cartoon videos into my video editing program and back onto tape.

Since there are so many libraries of GIF clipart available on the Internet, I have a large resource at my disposal to create just about whatever I want.


Making an animated GIF is very much like making a short cartoon. You just pick your series of images and use a program to link them together so they appear to be moving.

When I want to make an animated GIF I use a combination of Adobe Photoshop Elements and the free online animated GIF creator. First, I get my series of images finished up in Photoshop, then I upload them in order to one of the free sites online. At the end you can just download your finished GIF.

Usually I make animated GIFs out of images from my favorite TV shows as it is easy to find the material to work with. Plus it can be fun to make animated GIF Christmas icons when the season rolls around.


In my opinion the homemade animated GIF occupies the same pop culture space that the funny home video did in the early '90s - they are a popular way to distribute a humorous or amazing piece of short video. There are now whole websites devoted to showcasing GIF animation submitted by fans.

My favorite animated GIFs are the ones that take popular Internet memes and make them into animated GIF images. The quirkier and cuter the better for me. Though, I must admit, some of the GIFs that have been made have been done in poor taste. But with so many free animated GIF programs out there, it's no wonder there are so many people making absolutely anything they want.

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