How Mr. GIF Turned the Business of GIFs Into an Actual Business
By now, you know the story of the GIF: looped animation file born in the '80s, rendered doofy in the '90s via waving-flag and "under construction" cartoons, revived in the late aughts, and now we've reached the point of "GIF or it didn't happen" saturation. The Graphics Interchange Format is the perfect delivery system for our era, offering up reactions, enhanced emojis and image macros, or even actual news, all in a package simple enough for your grandmother to throw into an email.
While the GIF has grown up from its cheesy Web 1.0 relic status, the format is still seen as more of a cheap thrill than real art. But online creatives Mark Portillo and Jimmy Twoballs (not his real name, duh) of Mr. GIF are changing that. Mark and Jimmy weren't the first to realize the GIF could be made highbrow, but the duo may have been the first to actually get paid to prove it, thanks to some good timing while working a day job at MTV a few years ago. Soon after, they were tapped for the Grammys, collaborated with IMG Models, spent an alcohol-fueled day with Anthony Bourdain, and failed to convince James Cameron of the GIF's power.
And now, the Washington Post has named Mr. GIF one of the smartest GIF accounts on Twitter, and rather improbably, corporations are seeking out the duo to take this once-shunned format and current lingua franca of Tumblr to make lasting statements. The latest firm to come calling was TransAmerica, and if insurance companies are embracing the power of the GIF, you know it's a stable bet.
ANTENNA spoke to Jimmy and visited Mr. GIF at their warehouse headquarters in — where else? — Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to find out how they went from making GIFs as a work time-waster to getting on a cash-for-GIFs grind.
Any authoritative discussion of GIFs must begin thusly: Is it giff or jif?
Whatever you say is fine, we're not gonna hate. We do it say it wrong I guess, since the inventor of the GIF [Steve Wilhite] said it's a soft G.
Have you guys ever met him?
We did! We crashed the Webbies afterparty and he was there, so we got a picture with him. It's crazy, I don't know if he fully realizes how much that single file format is changing a whole generation. If he does appreciate it, he's quiet about it.
So what would you say is your occupation, or job title?
I guess a creative, a graphic designer, then start from there. Rather than saying just a GIF artist — because GIFs are just an element, we do motion graphics stuff, too. But GIFs are more fun.
How many GIFs have you churned out under the Mr. GIF moniker?
Oh, I dunno. Over three years, we've probably made more than a thousand. We’re doing more professional stuff now, so we put more time into it. But when I had a day job, I'd do maybe a GIF a day, just because my job was so boring.
So how did you turn a boredom-killer into a viable business?
When we started, there were three of us, but now it's just Mark and me. We went to school together, then Mark went into advertising, I got a job at MTV and later he came on as a freelancer. We'd take cigarette breaks and realized we should combine our Tumblrs just to have shit up all the time. We wrote and animated a comic and started throwing it up there. This was all about four years ago, when we were working at MTV Geek, and at some point we thought it would be cool to incorporate animated GIFs into that. So we said, "Yo, we’ll make some GIFs for you.” And MTV was like, “Uh, whatever, just do what you wanna do. You have our blessing.” So we just made a couple and Daily Dot picked up on it, shocked that the GIF said "paid designers." We didn’t really get paid for that, but we just rolled with it.
You became the in-house GIF guys.
Right, and that inspired us to think, how can design apply to the GIF, what can we do with the GIF to make it bigger than it is? Branching out to photography, branching out to graphic design, logo design, font design, it’s still really green. You could really just do whatever you want to do and it’s kind of new. You could do a watercolor GIF and it would be the first one. Might not be the best but at least it's new.
When did you realize this could actually be your day job?
Once we got this TransAmerica job — well, I don't think we could even do this campaign while holding down another job. We have to do a road trip, while doing other shoots. So that was the moment, yeah. We went on LegalZoom and realized, "Oh my god, we have to be an LLC!" That's us growing up as a company, realizing we have to do our own paperwork for this shit now!
When companies enlist your services for marketing or advertising, does it seem to be working?
Ehh, I don’t know! Look, if 30 people are sharing it, technically it's working, budget-wise. We worked with Evian for the US Open and we shot maybe 15 GIFs there, but Evian liked one of them so much that they put it in the Spider-Man movie, it’s in the background in Times Square.
Do you get royalties for that?
No, we didn’t know any better!
You also did the MTV Movie Awards, you’ve worked with models, bands, celebs. Who's been the coolest?
Big Boi was really cool because he took us to an interview and a couple shows, so it was awesome to be backstage with him making internet art. Jimmy Fallon was cool because they were super warm there. It's usually the best when they’re down with GIFs. We’ve had times when we were like, “Hey, you wanna shoot a GIF?” and people have no idea what you're talking about and you have to explain it, and then their PR person is like, “Eh, no.” It was funny, at Fallon, James Cameron was the guest and he didn’t want any 3D photos taken, so we're trying to explain to him how cool GIFs are. I just think he didn’t really get it.
I know! Also, working with [Anthony] Bourdain was really cool. We went backstage at Great GoogaMooga and hung out with him, while Morimoto's making sushi. Everyone's drinking beers, we got shitfaced with the Big Gay Ice Cream guys. Nobody said, "Hey you can't shoot this," so we shot around 30 GIFs, almost too much. But we got that great one of Bourdain giving the finger.
... And then an insurance company comes knocking. How did this Transform Tomorrow collab come about?
TransAmerica came to us maybe five months ago and said, “We just want to make cool stuff,” and I was like, "Uh, you sure?” And the dude was adamant, so we made an agreement and decided to create a Tumblr for them. So they had the tagline "Transform Tomorrow," and from there we thought "road trip," because it's right there in the TransAmerica name, so why not travel the country?
We’re planning on going out this month to meet people and show how the country is changing. Like when we go to Detroit, we wanna talk about how the art scene is up and coming — not so much what the past was but more where the future is. We also want to hit Austin, New Orleans — because it's fun, we don’t know what subject we’re gonna talk about there yet! We'll figure it out along the way, and that’ll make the best work.
How the hell did you get them to approve the video you made announcing the project?
I don’t think they had seen it yet, it only has like 60 views! Every project we work on, I just go on fiverr, you ever see that website? You pay five bucks and they do a video testimonial. You get to write the script and everything. The quality is definitely low, but sometimes that's an addition.
Do you have a staff, or is it just the two of you?
If we get busy, we hire freelancers. We’re trying to collab more with kids on Tumblr. It just makes more sense, you work with them, they have their social networks... The thing with the kids is that they don’t really value themselves. Which is good for us when we’re hiring people, but, that’s what's weird with the internet. Kids are 18 and have a crazy following so they’re already their own design agency.
What were you doing at that age?
I always drew, I always was an artist, but that was before GIFs were really a thing, and I used Flash and made SWFs and shit like that. Or I used to make GIFs for AIM. Do you remember those AIM buddies, the little yellow dude getting murdered? Those were so good, some really creative ones.
Any advice for aspiring internet graphic designers?
I would recommend going into code. GIF is already getting super saturated, so think of the next hottest thing. Is it Vine? Vine is kind of saturated, it's getting discovered. But don’t dwell on the file format, it's the art of the moving image. Think of experiences, and the artform of repeating images, images that have a clean loop, that are moving in some way that catch the eye. That’s the future.
What's the future for Mr. GIF?
I wanna branch out. I know we're called Mr. GIF, but I wanna do more than that. Direct videos, even Instagram videos. I want to be like a creative version of Donny Deutsch. I came up in advertising... In a way, we are kind of ad guys. We're making stuff people like, and then we're partnering with corporate clients to do the same thing.
And looking back — do you have a favorite GIF that you’ve done?
I did a guy farting. That’s high art.
Mr. GIF portraits by Luke Tedaldi