World’s greatest GIF-maker works 100 hours a week in job that goes on and on and on

World’s greatest GIF-maker works 100 hours a week in job that goes on and on and on

October 23, 2013 – 1:14PM

Sarah Lyall


“I’m very committed to this, but also I’m always in the house … I am not able to do many other things”: Tim Burke can record from 28 sources at once. Photo: Will Vragovic/The New York Times

At 2:44 pm on a recent Sunday, Tim Burke took a moment from monitoring several NFL games for the sports website Deadspin to post something that had nothing to do with football: a smidgen of a clip from an English rugby match he also happened to be following. He stitched together still-frame images captured from the broadcast into a short, continuous loop that showed a player built like a cement mixer strong-arming an opponent to the ground by the unfortunate man’s throat. The GIF, or Graphics Interchange Format, showed a vivid moment, the kind that has become standard currency for online sports journalism. That Burke had time to produce a GIF reflects the vacuum-cleaner-like way he approaches his job. The sports editor over at the website Buzzfeed, Ben Mathis-Lilley, could only observe in awe.“It’s hard enough to watch one or two games at once and to actually get the stuff people think is great,” he said.

“It’s hard enough to monitor all the American sports. But Tim is so good at coming up with stuff from all around the world, and from sports like minor league hockey, that no one else is watching.”

Burke, 35, is known among sports journalists for his ability to capture the moment – whether as a still, a video clip or in his favoured format, a GIF – better, faster, more frequently and from more sports events than just about anyone.

How he does it is a matter of wonder.

He works from home in St. Petersburg, Florida, where his colleagues call his work space the “Burkeputer”, for its seamless integration of man and machine. It is less an office than an organism: a flashing, beeping, glowing, thrumming assault of screens, wires, remotes, tuners, phones, receivers, computers and general electronic effluvia wrapped around a person (“the monitor situation up there is insane,” said Burke’s wife, Lynn Hurtak.). Burke sits here alone in the dark day after day, for about 100 hours a week, watching dozens of sports events simultaneously.

“My job is to know at all times what’s happening in every game,” Burke said in a recent interview in the Burkeputer.

Some of his 10 functioning monitors are programmed to split into eight or more mini-screens, and he can record from 28 sources at once. This time of year, he is watching a lot of football.

On October 6, he watched the New Orleans Saints vs. the Chicago Bears; the Philadelphia Eagles vs. the New York Giants; the New England Patriots vs. the Cincinnati Bengals; the Baltimore Ravens vs. the Miami Dolphins – a dozen NFL games in all – as well as two Major League Baseball games, four Premier League soccer matches and a ragtag assortment of other events, starting at 10 am and finishing at 2 am the next day.

“I am not able to do many other things,” Burke said of his life in general.

To people who follow US sports news, Burke is known as the person who helped unmask Manti T’eo’s fake dead girlfriend. But it is his particular talent for GIFs – which he posts on Deadspin, Twitter and his own website, 30FPS – for which he is known. Not only are his GIFs considered to be of high quality but also he seems to have a sixth sense for identifying the exact moments to capture.

“He’s made GIFs the standard for sports highlights,” Mathis-Lilley said.

GIFs, which are a compressed image file format, were invented in 1987. In the past decade, the animated GIF has become popular. Burke has figured out a way to use them in the service of sports reporting.

“It has to be small, it has to be shared quickly, you want it on Twitter and Tumblr, and he’s great at realising which moments are best for it, which tiny slices are indicative of something larger,” Mathis-Lilley said.

Burke also posts elegant screen captures, and some video, though he tends to use it sparingly and only in situations that lend themselves to it, such as the last, rollercoaster day of the English Premier League season earlier this year, or the idiocy of some journalists, as he saw it, reporting on the hunt for a suspect after the Boston Marathon bombing. Video is problematic, though, because most platforms will not support the new technology he likes, and because the NFL periodically issues stern letters to Deadspin’s editors ordering them to take things down.

The league has not made much of a fuss over the animated GIFs, which are perfect at capturing instances of embarrassment and absurdity – a baseball player tumbles over a fence, ESPN’s football score box shows one team leading another by 975 points; a spectator swears; or a football player mows down another before the play starts.

The charm of animated GIFs is in the content – those clumsy moments captured, and repeated again and again. Unlike videos, which provide a smooth stream of action, a GIF is like a digital flipbook, a choppy rendering that adds to the silliness of what happened in real time.

Video requires the viewer to actively start it, “whereas a GIF adds itself forcefully,” Burke explained.

“It’s an art object,” he said. “You’re taking this little moment and making it exist in perpetuity, because it constantly loops.”

Burke explained that a GIF of a fumble by Bears running back Matt Forte would show him “fumbling repeatedly, which increases the impact of the fumble”.

He added: “A lot of stuff I do here – nobody’s done this stuff. How did I learn to do it? I messed around with stuff until I found something that worked.”

To start his day, Burke first organises his desk. He organises the games he wants to watch on the various monitors. He makes sure three bottles are filled with water so that he will not have to leave the room on the account of thirst. He keeps track of Twitter feeds, Deadspin and breaking news on a monitor he has specially programmed so that he can keep abreast of things.

One of his computers has nine hard drives, which he uses to store the data that he has amassed.

He builds his computers himself, “out of components,” he says vaguely.

He starts watching. He fiddles with his monitors. He finds his moments, converts them to GIFs, video snippets and screen capture stills, and feeds them to his colleagues or posts them himself. Since he joined Twitter in 2008, he has written more than 56,000 Twitter posts.

“He’s so encyclopaedic,” Mathis-Lilley said. “If you can get something that Tim didn’t pick up, it’s a triumphant moment, kind of like beating the eye in the sky.”

Alone with his equipment, Burke mutters to himself, to his screens and to his colleagues, who cannot hear what he is saying but whose incessant instant messages irritate him, each message announcing itself to the room with the opening tenor guitar chords from Neko Case’s Stinging Velvet.

“Those are intrusions into my personal workflow,” he said.

Watching the St. Louis Rams vs. the Jacksonville Jaguars, he spots a GIF-able moment.

“I’m doing a GIF of,” he starts to explain, and then gets distracted by something happening in the Bengals game. “Andy Dalton, what are you doing!” he said.

He picks up where he left off, an “interception in the red zone.”

Eventually, Burke’s wife, Hurtak, comes in to gauge his lunchtime mood.

“When do I want lunch?” Burke asks. “Whenever you want lunch is fine.”

Hummus is mentioned.

“That’s right, hummus,” he says. “Thank you. Where did that interception go?”

This is the way things go in Burke-world. Hurtak, 36, who edits reports for nonprofits and is working on a book about venture philanthropy in Uganda, tries to remain calm.

“I’ve done a lot of personal growth this past year,” she said.

When Hurtak met Burke at a party about six years ago, he was 20 kilograms lighter; a professor of communications and speech who lectured on media theory; and was working on his dissertation on feminist theory and poker, which he has not finished.

At the same time, he was posting screen captures and clips on the free-for-all website 4chan and on Twitter. His contributions attracted the attention of the website SportsGrid, where he worked for a time, and finally of Deadspin, which hired him about two years ago.

“It totally changed the site,” said Tommy Craggs, Deadspin’s editor-in-chief. “He was finding stuff quickly and getting it up fast.”

He mentioned the startling second in the Super Bowl last year when the singer MIA suddenly gave the crowd the finger.

It was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment. “Everybody thought, ‘Wait – did that happen?'” Craggs said. “And then there it was on Deadspin.”

The more Burke works, the more Hurtak spends time by herself or with friends. She and Burke play shuffleboard together one evening a week, and they take the 12th day of every month off – they got married on December 12, 2012.

They usually eat together, go out to a Tampa Bay Rays games, and enjoy gardening. Burke’s specialty is growing exotic peppers, and he is partial to his Tabasco-pepper plant. Otherwise, she said, “he doesn’t have time to do anything.”

“I’m very committed to this,” Burke said of his job, “but also I’m always in the house.”

Back at the Burkeputer, Burke notices something that excites him in the Jaguars-Rams game: the broadcaster is showing a picture of a player over the words “Player Name”.

“That’s a problem – his name is not Player Name,” Burke says. “We call this a chyron fail because it was a fail in the chyron,” or the lower explanatory graphics on the screen. Burke first used the term in 2009 when Fox displayed a shot of Tim Tebow but identified him as Khalil El-Amin.

Burke recognises that his job can seem less serious than it might be, but he said he is performing a kind of meta-criticism that is an extension of his old job teaching media theory.

“I’m engaging in the media in a more hands-on way,” he said. “I’m observing through the lens of how I watch it. I know about how the media works, as well as being self-aware that I’m also a member of the media.”

His GIFs’ very inanity makes them profound, in a way, he said.

“This is going to sound really pretentious if I give any more value to it, but there’s a reason people like seeing these things,” he said. “I think mundane is human, and we’re capturing people being human, and any time we can make someone feel smarter – even if it’s vis-à-vis someone else being stupid – that’s something that appeals to people. People like to feel smart.”

New York Times

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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