It’s fitting that the winner of the world’s first film festival for GIFs—or, excuse me, “short-form content”—doesn’t exactly consider herself a cineaste. “I love short-form. I’ve never taken a liking to movies all that much, honestly,” said Ani Acopian, a 24-year-old freelance director whose 14-second clip, “Washed Up,” took top honors at the Giphy Film Fest in New York on Thursday night. Acopian studied some film at Wesleyan, but, prior to the advent of social media, “the things that have been so inspiring and have shaped my taste, I think, have been music videos and commercials,” she said.
Giphy, the company that put together the festival, is a searchable online source for animated GIFs, the kind you can use to add personality to your emails and text messages. But naturally, it wants to be more than that too. The film festival preceded the company’s announcement on Friday that it’s launching a new video platform that it hopes will be a destination for short-form content—it’s already live and showcasing the film festival’s finalists. Like social media giants Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram, Giphy has designs to figure out how to get in on the online-video-content payday that these companies expect to arrive any day now.
The festival was a bid to stretch the meaning of GIF. (Don’t worry, the gift bag made the requisite “GIF”-vs.-“JIF” pronunciation joke via a pair of socks for each guest that featured both spellings on respective feet.) Again, this wasn’t a festival of GIFs but of short-form content and “the growing micro-entertainment industry.” Giphy’s panel of judges, made up of artists, comedians, and influencers, whittled more than 900 film submissions down to 118 finalists in categories that included narrative, animated, stop-motion, experimental, and “wild card.” Giphy set the upper length limit at 18 seconds per video, resulting in an unusually zippy program, made all the more so thanks to the hosting talents of comedians Kate Berlant and John Early. “This is a huge night for me, as someone who kind of grew up watching the Giphys,” Berlant said at the beginning of the evening, acknowledging the historic-ish nature of the event.
For those of us who think of Giphy as a purveyor of GIF-ified clips from reality TV and movies millennials grew up watching, the company was more than happy to wield the festival entries as a way to correct that notion. The selected clips ranged from funny to serious, lo-fi to beautifully rendered, in marked contrast to the pixelated jankiness of the typical GIF. Some even had their own credits. Some—most—had sound. Because, again, these weren’t really GIFs; they were something related but not synonymous. The common understanding of a GIF—a low-quality clip that can contain a few seconds of animation—is not really what a GIF actually is: It’s really just a file format that gained popularity on the web, lately, partly as a nostalgic throwback to the early days of the internet. Though the format has had an astounding and sustained resurgence on social media, Giphy’s instinct to expand its purview is smart. Short-form video can do much more than the GIF can. And coming on the heels of the announcement of the impending arrival of Byte, widely considered a follow-up to the late, lamented 6-second video app Vine, audiences have been proven to have an appetite for short-form content. Whether or not users will be able to think of Giphy, which pretty much has GIF right there in its name, as a go-to source for such content is another question.
When Berlant and Early announced Acopian as the event’s winner, they handed her a tiny check for $10,000 (“in the spirit of short-form content”) and an oddly shaped trophy that mimicked Giphy’s logo. Acopian was quick to mention that right after college she had interviewed to work at the company—and been rejected. “But it all works out,” she said later. Since then, she has earned money, in addition to directing videos for brands and agencies, as a “professional Snapchatter,” she said, and she is now at work on her first music video.
Acopian’s winning entry in some ways embodies Giphy’s new ambitions for short-form. Shot via drone in Iceland, it’s footage of a figure in yellow—Acopian herself, she told me—literally being washed up by a giant wave. It’s beautiful, haunting even, but I can also totally imagine sending it to someone with the caption “It me.” She said she made it with a friend, Cody Guilfoyle, and already had the clip when she heard about the Giphy contest. “It was one of the videos on my page that got the largest reaction, and also the one I personally liked the most,” she said, so she had an inkling that it was something special.
“I think it’s more abstract than the traditional GIF,” she said of her film. “When you think of a GIF, you think of a clip from a TV show that’s pulled, like a 3-second clip, but beyond just pulling things from pop culture and animating things, I think GIFs can also be taken from films and taken from just life in general. Giphy I think is really cool as not only a communication tool but a place you go for inspiration.” Spoken like a true role model for microentertainers, and their benefactors, everywhere.