easy gif tutorial for Mac

This is a pretty easy tutorial for an alternative method of making HQ gifs on a Mac quickly and without losing any quality. It also includes a gif sharpening trick that would be useful on PCs.

*Summer 2012 update: Perian, the important program for this method, has stopped updating. It still works perfectly fine for me and I have yet to have any problems with this method, but if anyone does, please let me know! I’m poking around to see if there are any other easy, free alternatives just in case this method stops working. If you know of anything similar (basically any combination of programs on a Mac that will allow quickly exporting small mov clips from mkv video), please let me know so I can look into it!*

Okay, so this is designed as an alternative method for Macs because KMPlayer only works on PC, so I’ve searched for a simple solution for ages and finally found it. Unfortunately this plugin (Perian) doesn’t work on PCs, so this method will actually only work on Macs. However if you have a PC this isn’t completely useless to you, skip to step 7 for a really easy method of sharpening gifs.

Here’s a quick explanation of why I make gifs this way. You don’t have to read it, and it will make more sense if you have already experimented with making gifs, but it does explain things.

Photoshop has a really great feature called Import Video Frames to Layers, which basically means you put a video into Photoshop and it makes the frames for you. This is a thousand times easier than taking the caps yourself. But you want to try and make gifs from 720p video, which is usually in mkv form. This tutorial works for any quality video but I really encourage using 720p, it will make your gifs look so much prettier. (Sidenote: check out this photoset for the difference between 480p and 720p. The first two gifs are made from 480p, the second from 720p. It’s a pretty noticeable difference, and that’s why sticking to HQ video is your best bet.) Photoshop only recognizes Quicktime format videos, and mkv isn’t one of those. And for that matter, even though technically avi (which is usually 480p video) is a Quicktime format, those videos are most often formatted with codecs that Photoshop can’t recognize, so it won’t import those either. Mov formats are pretty much the only thing it seems to consistently be able to import, so that’s what we want to get to.

So if you want to use this feature, your only option is reformatting the video, which takes forever and often means you lose quality. And it doesn’t make sense to reformat an entire video anyways since what you need to make gifs is just short clips. VLC player has a transcoding feature that allows you to cut clips of video and put them into a different format, but I find it doesn’t work well with mkv video. Quicktime has a GREAT feature for exporting small clips of video without losing quality, but again, mkv videos can’t be opened in Quicktime, and avi only can be if you have Quicktime Pro. Until I finally found the solution to this! That solution is Perian, which is a plugin that allows you to open most video formats in Quicktime. So we’re going to use the export feature of Quicktime to make the clips for gifs and then the import frames feature of Photoshop to make the actual gif.

To sum up, this is what you need:

  • Photoshop CS3, CS4, or CS5. I use CS5.
  • Quicktime Player X (just the regular version that comes with your Mac if you have OS Snow Leopard or Lion, the app symbol is a gray Q with a blue center). This does not work with Quicktime Player 7, because for some reason they decided to make a lot of the features only available on Quicktime Pro for that version.
  • Perian, a completely free and safe Quicktime plugin
  • your video, preferably 720p mkv, but this is also useful for avi (480p). When I download clips from Youtube or Vimeo to make gifs out of I use Clipgrab and save them as mp4 in the highest quality available.
  • optional: VLC player- I usually watch the video in VLC and have it open in Quicktime at the same time, so when I get to a part I want to make a gif out of I switch to Quicktime, export that clip, and then go back to VLC without losing my spot. But that’s just because I’m kind of weirdly pathological.

This probably all sounds really complicated, but trust me when you get to the gif making it is really simple. This is kind of long but only because I tried to be as in depth as necessary. So let’s get started.

1. Download and install Perian. You can do so here, it’s free and I promise that it’s completely safe.

2. Open your video in Quicktime. Just drag the video onto the Quicktime icon and if Perian is installed it will open. It may take a minute or so for the file to actually open, especially if it’s long, but let it load for a bit and I promise it will open. If a message pops up telling you to use Quicktime 7 instead, right click the file, go to Open With —> Perian - Open in QT Player. Unfortunately if your file is over 2 GB it may not open in Quicktime X, and you may have to download Quicktime 7 Pro instead if you really want to gif that file. (Edit: I do now have Quicktime 7 Pro and have been using it to make gifs of large files, if you plan on doing the same the process is slightly different and I’d be happy to help you out with it - just message me and I will explain.) 

3. Trim (in Quicktime) the clip you want to make into a gif. This is where watching the video in VLC can be helpful, because the longer the video is the trickier it is to get the right clip and you can look at the time markers in VLC and go by that. You can go to Edit —> Trim, or just press Command T. You should get something that looks like this. Now move the yellow markers to the clip that you want and click Trim. It may take a little playing with this to get the right clip. It’s okay to have a little bit of the scenes around the one you actually want (and sometimes necessary to get the whole thing) but try and trim it to a relatively small size.

4. Export the clip. Go to File —> Export. You should get a window that looks like this. It’s really important that you change the format, otherwise it won’t export in mov form and Photoshop won’t be able to read it. Change it to 720p (or 480p if that’s the highest quality you can get) like this. Then export the clip. A little dialog box will pop up while it exports and then it should disappear when it’s done. Make sure it shows the file ending in .mov, if it doesn’t then you didn’t change the format properly. Once you’re done you can press Command Z to go back to the original video if you want to make more than one gif out of it.

5. Import the clip into Photoshop. Open up Photoshop and go to File —> Import —> Video Frames to Layers. (Side note: if you ever get a message that says you need to switch to the 32-bit version of Photoshop to do this, all you need to do is go to your Applications folder, select Adobe Photoshop, press Command I, and check the option that says Open in 32-bit mode.) Change “Range to Import” from From Beginning to End to Selected Range Only. Hold down the shift key and move the slider to get the clip that you want. Check the Limit to Every “x” Frames box and change the number. For very small or short clips I use 2 or 3 frames, or 4 or 5 for longer clips. This is what it all should look like.

6. Edit your gif. There are many ways you can do this, this tutorial isn’t really going to focus on that. If you want it to be 500 px wide for Tumblr, you should really aim for it to be under 15 frames (or use a static background, but I’m not going to get into that) and consider cropping the height to something like 250 or 200 px. You should have a box that looks like this. If you don’t, go to Window —> Animation and it should pop up. You need to select all the frames and change the delay speed by clicking the small arrow under the frame like this. I usually use .15 or .2 depending on what the gif requires. Now you can add layers to alter the gif by going to Layer —> New Adjustment Layer or Layer —> New Fill Layer. I usually do a Curves layer to lighten things up, a Vibrance layer, Selective Color to bring out any colors that I want, and then go from there to color the gif which is generally different each time.

7. Sharpen the gif. This actually makes a huge difference in quality so it’s really important that you do it, but it’s kind of a pain in the butt. You can sharpen each layer separately by selecting the frame, selecting the layer, and then going to Filter —> Sharpen —> Sharpen. Or you can use this easier method, but it’s optional. Either way I recommend sharpening before you size the gif down, because it will be better quality. Every time you size down the gif you will lose quality. If you would rather do it frame by frame (which could be easier if you are just starting gifs because it’s easier to change the file size later on) that’s perfectly fine and in that case just do that, skip the rest of this, and move on to saving the gif.

Update: I’m taking out this part because I made a whole separate tutorial for sharpening that explains it much better. You check that out here.

8. Save your gif. Go to File —> Save for Web and Devices. You can also play your gif here to see how it looks. The most important thing though is that your gif be under 1MB so that it will play on Tumblr. If you save it with a size over that, it won’t play. The size is shown in the bottom left of this window. If it’s only slightly over, you may be able to get it under by saving it with less colors (which you can alter manually, so instead of going straight from 256 to 128 try options in between and see what you can get), or by saving it with a different setting (Diffusion tends to be a slightly smaller size than Pattern). If it’s way over 1MB you need to consider going back and removing some frames or maybe cropping it to a shorter height. This is how my window looks, which are my preferred settings because this gif was under 1MB without me having to fiddle with it.

9. Post on Tumblr! Post your gif, tag it so that people will see it, and keep experimenting with Photoshop. This tutorial is kind of cobbled together from the many other tutorials I’ve read, from my own experiments in Photoshop, and from stumbling across Perian in a blog post from 2008 by sheer luck. It’s the method that works best and easiest for me, but you’ll be able to figure out if it does for you or not. My ask box is always open for any questions that you have. I’d also recommend checking out fuckyeahresources, they’re great for Photoshop tips.

This is my final gif:

For reference, the unsharpened version of the exact same gif. Sharpening is important.

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