There are a lot of gifs on the Internet. So many, in fact, that "gif" became Oxford Dictionary's 2012 word of the year.
But things move fast on the Internet. Gifs were cool two years ago. If they wanted to stay relevant, they had to evolve.
Enter "Behind the gifs." Take your favorite gif and imagine the story behind it. Now illustrate it and write dialogue that explains it.
AC Stuart has mastered this particular art form. Actually, he's mastered a lot of art-related things: He's a professional illustrator who does freelance work in Columbus, Ohio. When he's not creating moving masterpieces, he draws for sites like CollegeHumor. About six months ago, Stuart—who goes by noobtheloser on Tumblr and Twitter—saw the original "Behind the gif" post: An explanation for why a man knocked over a gigantic bowl of Cheetos.
It was made by a Tumblr user named pizza-omelette. Fusion reached out to pizza-omelette to ask how they thought of it, to which they replied, "You’re not getting me on a phone over something like 'the Cheetos comic'"—though they did agree to answer questions via Tumblr message. (Their response has been lightly edited.)
"I just made (the Cheetos comic) on a whim like 80 percent of everything on my Tumblr. (I’m sure I was avoiding work or something.)," pizza-omelette wrote. "Those infomercial gifs were also going around like crazy at the time. I saw that one and thought: 'Oh man, that guy probability spent time opening bags and preparing that huge snack thinking to himself, I can totally eat all this. I bet he even called someone to brag about it. All the while with a depressed look on his face.'"
And so a meme was born. Stuart liked the idea and decided to make his own: A backstory for a turtle with a dream.
"I had never done anything that got more than 10,000 notes," Stuart told Fusion. "With that one, I went to sleep and woke up and it had 20,000."
At the time, he was unaware that a subreddit had just been born for this particular genre: r/behindthegifs. The earlier examples were a little more rudimentary than what Stuart does—he spends upwards of 2-3 hours working on some of the longer comics.
His professional background elevated the medium, and now he's one of the preeminent "Behind the gif" artists on the Internet. You can find his work on Tumblr and reddit, as well as imgur and just about every viral image site out there. He said his goofy cartoons have gotten more attention than anything else he's ever worked on.
Now, when he's looking for inspiration for something new to draw, he turns to his cache of gifs.
"I love doing (behind the gif cartoons) just because it's such an easy prompt," Stuart said. "I could spend hours and hours trying to think of a good idea, but if I look through my giant folder of gifs and see something (to draw)… it's almost kind of cheating."
Obviously, putting stuff on Tumblr doesn’t pay much. But Stuart says he gets a different kind of reward out of it. Drawing is therapeutic for him, and apparently, for lots of his readers too.
"People send me dozens of messages every day about how much they enjoy (my work)," Stuart said. "I'll be thinking about something in my life or that I'm going through and sneak messages about that into what I'm drawing. People will pick up on that and tell me that it meant something to them."
And what about the inevitable dark side of Internet fame?
"Even my hate mail is strangely charming," Stuart mused. "People put a lot of work into them."