I first came across Jim Curran, aka Slim Jim Studios, thanks to a GIF of a rhino smashing through a series of coloured walls (a sort of animalistic homage to that famous Levi’s advert). I was hypnotised by it, and happily lost myself down a rabbit hole of the weird and wonderful GIFs he posts on his Twitter feed.
An intoxicating mix of technical skill and silly subject matter, James’ GIFs pop with bright colours and surreal scenes that linger long in the memory. As a designer, animator and illustrator he has many strings to his bow, but his GIFs in particular have become a big online hit.
James only began experimenting with GIFs as part of a tribute to the Beastie Boys. “I first started making them as part of a project for the first anniversary of MCA’s death,” he explains. “I created a series of icons representing things from 35 different Beastie Boys tracks, which I sold as prints for charity. I turned each of the 105 icons into a short looping GIF that I posted to Tumblr and they became quite popular, so I started to play around with what else I could do with the GIF format and it developed from there.”
That is something of an understatement. James has been commissioned to create GIFs for a whole host of big brands, been offered a job by Steven Spielberg for an unofficial Tintin animation he made and received acclaim from lots of media outlets. Artnet for example praised the way his GIFs “build anticipation for the loop’s completion,” but James actually believes his creative approach plays with repetition in a different way.
“I generally try to create GIFs which tell a story that goes on forever, instead of one that completes and then loops back to start. If there isn’t an obvious loop point then you never feel like the animation has finished, so you keep watching for longer than you otherwise would.”
As brands have come to understand online content in a more nuanced way, he has found his services increasingly in demand. In 2014 he made a GIF for Axe’s Super Bowl campaign which became a viral sensation, and since then the commissions have poured in.
“The AXE project was the first time that I’d created GIFs for a brand and since then I’ve worked with many others like Vitaminwater, Lucozade, Jolly Rancher and Nike. I think brands are becoming more interested in GIFs and short looping content in general.
“For whatever reason, brands seem more open to allowing creators to be more creative with GIFs than they would be with more conventional content. So I’m often allowed to more or less do whatever I want, which I enjoy.”
Between commissions, he pushes his GIFs into new territories, honing his techniques and developing his approach to storytelling. For his GIFathons, he makes a GIF a day for an entire month inspired by a certain city (so far he has taken on New York and LA). “Making a GIF every day isn’t very difficult, but with the latest one in Los Angeles I tried to push myself to make more complicated animations with a bit more variety.
“Maybe the most challenging thing is accepting that you can only do so much in a day, so you need to limit your imagination to a certain point.”
And unsurprisingly for such a polished practitioner, other people are keen to learn from James too. Earlier this year he hosted an online GIF-making tutorial for Adobe, which has been watched nearly 60,000 times. Was he not worried that he would give away some of the secrets of his success?
“Not really, as I kept it quite vague and didn’t really show anything that people shouldn’t already know if they have a basic knowledge of After Effects,” he says.
“Making a good GIF is more about having an understanding of basic animation principles, a sense of rhythm, and being able to think of an idea. I didn’t really cover any of that in the tutorial and I’m still learning all of those things myself after over 10 years of animating!”