The Quest for the Animated GIF Ebook

Once upon a time, I embarked on a crazy adventure to create a fully GIF animated ebook version of Maren Uthaug’s graphic novel The Bright Side. This is the story of the process and what I learned on my way.

Seeing the Potential

As the e-book production manager at the publishing house Lindhardt og Ringhof, my job is to decide the optimal format for digitization of the books. One day the graphic novel Den lyse side (the Danish title for The Bright Side) by Maren Uthaug landed on my table. I started flipping through it, trying to figure out which digital format would suit this particular publication.

My inner dialog went something like this:
Flip Flip Flip.

“Unusual page size … so it needs to be a fixed layout EPUB”.
Flip Flip Flip.
“Hmmm, there is something more to be gained here.”
Flip Flip Flip.
“Hahaha, some of the drawings almost come alive when I flip … like a flip book.”
Flip Flip Flip.
“Oh, my! We have to animate this book. It would be awesome!”

And thus the idea of an animated version sprung from the book itself, and my mind swiftly started working on elaborating the concept.

The Prototype

Developing the prototype I went through a couple of animation techniques before I found the one that fit the feel of a “flip book”. It had to be simple and fit the Uthaug’s drawing style, and animated GIFs would be ideal for this purpose.

I strung a prototype together from the pages that had inspired me and ran down the yellow brick road of the collaboration to show the concept to the editor, Sune de Souza Schmidt-Madsen. He jumped on board the quest right away and we then pitched it to the author and convinced her of the project as well … and off we went on our journey.

The 7 pages I used to create the prototype. At the end of this article, you can see the final animated GIF.

The Level of Animation

Next up we had to figure out, how animated the animations should be.

The cheapest and easiest version would be a very simple form, where only the pages, which already created the flip book effect, were animated. Each animation in this scenario would only be made of the preexisting material without having to add additional frames.

But my rough prototype had already shown us the limitations of the simple approach, and we quickly realized that this form was not ideal. We had to animate the entire book to create a truly animated GIF universe. And the animations had to be more complicated than a few frames to capture the life that was within the characters.

Can We Afford it?

Now that we were set on creating a more complicated version, we had to figure out the financial side of the project. So we contacted a graphic designer to get a price for the animation job.

And that was when the project was almost canceled!

Enhanced e-books are not (yet) a lucrative format, and the production cost would be astronomical compared to the estimated income.

But I was too hooked on the project just to see it disappear. So I offered to make the animated GIFs myself. And thus I commenced on a real fool hearted passion project, where I animated like a madman in the evenings. It was an exciting and challenging work and seeing Uthaug’s characters come to life brought me much joy and lots of laughter.

Looking back at the process it is clear that the estimated cost would have been exceeded many times over. The GIFs were in no way done in the first, second or third attempt due to three significant challenges, which I call:

1) The Goldilocks Situation

2) The “Do I Need to Repeat Myself” Situation

3) The “Don’t Go Bovie on Me” Situation.

Challenge 1: The Goldilocks Situation

From the prototype, we already knew, that a version, which only used the frames provided by the original material, would be too crude. Choosing a few of the most central animations, I started experimenting with the level of detail in the movement that should be added to the characters.

It became a real Goldilocks situation. Too many details and we cried, “This animation is too animated!” – As in that, the characters moved too realistic compared to the spirit of Uthaug’s drawings. Too little and we yelled, “This animation is too crude!” – As in that the animations looked unfinished or became comical in a way that took the focus away from the plot. So I went back and forth until I finally found the level of detail where we all could say, “This animation is just right!”

Challenge 2: Do I Need to Repeat Myself?

 

The next challenge was how the GIFs should behave. Should they play only once? Repeat three times and stop? Or play forever?

Some of the GIFs had a circular plot where it was optimal to let them repeat indefinitely. But other had limitations. For example in one, a fish dies in the last few frames, and if it repeated without any hint to the recurrence, it would suddenly be alive again. And furthermore, when would the viewer know it was time to turn the page?

The idea of no repeat was quickly discarded since the reader would have to flip back and forth to restart the GIF if they did not catch the gif in the first run. We then tried with a three times loop, to give the GIFs a definitive ending. But some GIFs were too long for this approach. We sought to apply the timing, which fitted each GIF the best, but this made it impossible for the reader to figure out the book’s “system.”

In the end, we realized that they all had to repeat forever. To ensure that the reader knew where the ending was, we added a “the-GIF-is-about-to-loop” icon. Finding the right icon was another laborious process, but in the end, we found a simple animated arrow to be the best solution. The arrow gives a clear message, and at the same time, it is not too distracting from the GIFs themselves. For the shortest GIFs, we let the GIFs repeat multiple times before the arrow appear, based on the approximate time it takes a reader to get a full understanding of the animation.

Challenge 3: Don’t Go Bovie on Me

The biggest challenge with the project was to find the right balance to ensure that the e-book still felt as literature. In the first version, I only combined a few pages into GIFs at the time. This approach gave the book a fragmented feel to it. We, therefore, decided to merge multiple GIFs into longer GIFs so an entire “story” could be told in a single GIF. This approach, however, made it feel more like a “Bovie” – my nickname for a movie placed in a book.

Finding the correct balance for each GIF was puzzling. It was a long process based on looking for the right timing for the plot (especially with regards to the jokes) and on various explorations splitting GIFs up and merging them again in different ways.

The Curveball – Let’s Go Global

When the e-book was almost finished, and the publication date was set in stone, we got another crazy idea. Why not publish it in English and make it available in all iBooks Stores as well? And why not publish it simultaneously with the Danish release?

With only a few months to get it all together, we rushed to create the English version. Thanks to the translator Misha Hoekstra’s quick reaction time and to some more late nights on my part we succeeded. In October 2015, we could proudly present both the Danish and English version of the e-book at the same time.

Presenting the ebook at the Danish book festival Vild med ord together with the author Maren Uthaug and the editor Sune de Souza Schmidt-Madsen.

The Conclusion

After almost a year and about 50 hours of animation work, the quest was over, and we had finally managed to get our passion project GIF book out on the market. I honestly think it is a brilliant product … well, of course, I do, since I made it. But hear me out. It is an enhanced e-book based on a great graphic novel with an excellent plot. The animated GIFs have given life to the characters in a way that supports the content without distorting it. And personally I think that the format has given the story an extra dimension, and I hope others will think so too and say, “This animated ebook is just right!” The entire adventure was exciting and a great learning experience. And sometimes in the evening, I miss seeing characters come to life frame by frame.

And now there is only left to show you a few examples of the animated GIFs:

The Quest for the Animated GIF Ebook by Maria Michelsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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