Animation Using The .gif Format

[To be clear, I use the term "format" to mean the type of code used to record the information. I use "file" to mean the storage of the format.]

Invented by CompuServe, the Graphic Interface Format was designed to show simple animation. There was once a patent problem with the format. The patent has expired, and is no longer an issue.

All web browsers can view a .gif file. The .gif animation can be repeated forever or set to a specific number. Aside from that, it is like a cartoon. Some web browsers allow the user to not show animation.

(In Internet Explorer click on Tools>Internet Options>Advanced and there is a check box for "Play animations in webpages.")

The .gif file is limited to 256 colors per frame. Just as in cartoon animation, it takes several frames to make animation.

There are programs specifically made for creating .gif images and .gif animation. Three examples for the PC are:

  • GIF Construction Set Professional
  • Xara3D
  • Ulead GIF Animator

Microsoft GIF Animator has been discontinued. You can still find it as a free download at and it works on Windows Vista.

While most drawing programs and photo editors will save an image as a .gif file, not all programs can make .gif animation. Those that do make .gif animation include a program to put the separate images together into a .gif file.

Two PC programs that include a .gif animation program are PhotoShop and Paint Shop Pro.

There is a FREE photo editor for the PC that has a .gif animator called Photobie. You can find it on in their Windows section.

Some of programs --such as Paint Shop Pro, which I use--include transition effects. You make the first frame and the end frame. Choose the effect. It does the rest.

Otherwise you make a .gif like a cartoon. You draw an image (or use a photo). Make a copy to use for the second frame. Make a slight change in the second frame. Do this for about 10 to 30 frames. The set of frames are imported to the animator which will combine them into an animation file. You can usually control how long each frame is shown. Typically the first frame and the last frame are shown the longest with each frame in between is shown for as little as 1/100th of a second. More typically at 1/10th of a second.

The animated example with this article used three frames and is about 30K in size. The sparkles on the lettering are done with a specific brush setting in Paint Shop Pro.

[GIF Animation Example]

Typically, .gif animation is used for advertising. On many web pages you will see a banner ad that has animation. There is a standard for this. The banners are 480 pixels across and 60 pixels vertical. The example with this article uses those dimensions. There is a size standard also, but no one seems to be following it. The more frames you have, the larger the size of the file.

The .gif animation is useful for short clips of action. For cartoons of longer time it would take too much memory to load the entire file. A better alternative would be .avi format file and make a short movie. Flash animation would also work. Flash is an expensive process and is has a more complicated learning process. The color palette of .gif is too small to support a slide show of photographs.

The .gif file is often used for small graphics on web pages. It makes for small files and loads quickly. This format is great for clip art.

There are other animation formats. There is .mng which is like a .gif file with more colors, but not fully supported by all browsers and hosts. The Animated Cursor is .ani format. (Remember the spinning hourglass?) The .avi format can support an actual movie.

About the Author: 

John Pilge is a photographer in Northern California.