Ivan Dixon has created content for everyone from Adult Swim to Warner Brothers as one-half of Australian animation team Rubber House. The success he's seen as the father of some the most shared dancing GIFs of 2014, however, rivals the prominence of his professional cartoons. The lovingly low-res GIF animations Dixon posts to his Pug-of-War Tumblr have drawn a cult following since their debut in November 2013, and are a testament to both Dixon's animation aptitude and the internet's penchant for virulent shareability (Dixon's September 10 Robin Williams GIF has already amassed nearly 6,000 notes).
We talked to Ivan Dixon about what it's like when your work becomes an internet sensation:
The Creators Project: So, where did the idea for bouncin' GIFs come from?
Ivan Dixon: I guess it was a creative outlet that was pretty unambitious—I can take a pop culture icon or character and bust it out in a few minutes. It’s like an internet cheat to get attention.
Were you surprised by how well they took off?
It was interesting because it wasn’t like the TV characters were really popular, it was just random animals. A cow jumping up and down or a mountain goat got 12,000 likes. I guess that kind of tapped into the internet’s love of mountain goats, but the cow didn’t make any sense to me. I wasn’t surprised that the characters were popular, it’s kind of a cynical attempt to get to get known on Tumblr.
What do you think made them stand out among the millions of GIFs on Reddit and Tumblr?
They’re so simplified—32 by 32 pixels; there’s only so much information you can put in. That’s the challenge, to try and get something recognizable in that small space. It’s fun to see things we all recognize represented in a minimalistic way.
Who is the GIF champion of the internet at the moment?
Melbourne-based 2D animator Neil Sanders is king of the GIFS.
Given the success of Rubber House, is it strange to get this much attention for smaller works?
Any attention is good attention. If seeing a piece of my pixel art gets people looking at my 2D studio work, that can’t be bad. It sometimes feels like I’m wearing two hats, though. I’ll post an illustration or a comic that took me days to complete, and it will get fewer likes than a throwaway piece of pixel art that took 20 minutes.
Do you have a favorite GIF?
I liked the Seinfeld series. I chose early outfits like classic Elaine: hair big on top and curly and long at the back. That’s my the favorite Elaine, with the vests and the skirt and leather satchel.
I do actually like the mountain goat as well, I want to do something with that like make a game.
GIFs are having such a weird cultural movement. People are obsessed with them.
GIFs are really accessible—take clips from a TV show with subtitles or comments, turn it into something new. It’s simple, if you’re scrolling through Tumblr and something moves it stands out from the illustrations or photography.
How do you feel about people trying to make them higher art?
I’ve seen [cases where' they take a series of photos and isolate just one aspect of the movement. I think it’s fun and makes you stop and appreciate it. Whilst you know it’s photography, it still feels like it has a relationship with animation. I think people appreciating and thinking about animation is a good thing.
Doesn't attempting to make it art kind of defeat the spirit, though?
GIFs are this throwaway thing, or they can be a beautifully handcrafted piece of art. The medium doesn’t really define if it’s good or not. There’re a lot of memes that are pretty thrown together but some people love that.
I guess it kind of started with memes, now GIFs. What do you think will be next?
I’d say GIFs that will play on all devices, through news feeds and different social media, then maybe kids will get sick of it and move onto something else. GIFs were really tacky when the internet started, or they were really cool and then got tacky about two or three years later, and now they’re cool again. It’s good to go through cycles.
Do you say “gif” or “jif”?
GIF. I don’t think there any right or wrong way to say it. It’s usually typed, only recently you’d say it out loud. Like PNG there’s no pronunciation—you could say G.I.F., though that would be tedious.
Do you have a 'white whale' gif you haven’t made yet?
I don’t know, I take requests on Tumblr and people send in ideas. Most of the time it’s just their favorite characters and sometimes it’s something weird like a unicorn with sunglasses.
What is the weirdest one you’ve got, apart from a "Deal With It" unicorn?
Sometimes people send in photos. I’ve got photos of people dressed up as mice. That was kind of weird.
How long does it take you to make one?
I set out to design it first, I keep it real simple so usually about 20 minutes.
What do you make them with?
I use a specific program Graphic Scale, it’s a Japanese software especially designed for pixels.
Watching them is strangely therapeutic. Are they relaxing to make?
It’s really relaxing. I can start and finish a piece in one sitting, upload it and feel immediately gratified when people start liking it. It’s pretty unambitious—I just want to make something that moves in six frames.
Its crazy, they’re so basic but also totally recognizable.
When I was first starting I did myself and my co-director and we didn’t even have eyes. Once I put the two dots in they felt like a person you could relate to. You can kind of get away with the least amount of details you can and still have it feel like that character.
Is 2014 a good time to be an animator?
Definitely. The internet means artists from all over the world can maintain clients in different countries and make a living doing what they love. It also means international artist communities have developed—I’ve never felt more connected to a broad pool of talented artists from all over the world.
How has the internet and platforms like Tumblr affected animation?
Tumblr makes it easy to share art with fans and other artists. I’d say 99 percent of Tumblr is re-blog sites and teenagers making memes, so you feel a special buzz when you stumble onto an artist making cool work. Although I don’t hate re-bloggers, they’re obviously important for spreading the word about good stuff. I just prefer to follow artists.
If you could cast any person in one of your animations who would it be?
I think Danielle Brooks, who plays Taystee on Orange Is the New Black, and Zosia Mamet, who plays Shoshanna on Girls, would both make hilarious animated characters. It would be a buzz to work with someone like Jason Alexander who adds so much nuance to his performance.
If you could hang with any animation in real life who would it be?
I would go back in time to the 1930-40’s and hang out with Fleischer's Popeye. I think he’d be a cool guy so long as you don’t mess with Olive.
To view more of Ivan Dixon's jumpin' GIF creations, visit him on Tumblr.