Collage by Maggie Thrash.

Greetings, Earthlings! In this edition of Tech Trek, we’re making our own animations and gifs, plus getting our minds blown by a documentary on particle physics. Follow us!

Explore: Free Animation Software

Are you moved by animated movies like Moana? Spirited away by features like Spirited Away? Do you look at the work of gif artists and dream of a glorious future in which you, too, are able to bring illustrations to life? Or maybe you just think it’d be cool to create a cute little animated clip? Good news! You can be an animator today, and you don’t need expensive software to get started.

The open-source programs GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) and Pencil2D are free to download. It’s 100 percent legal to use them, copy them, or transform the source code in any way you’d like. You won’t be able to create advanced, Pixar-level films with this software—both GIMP and Pencil2D are fairly basic—but you can make simple animations that are fun and surprisingly satisfying to watch over and over again. Here’s a quick look at what each has to offer.

GIMP (Mac OS X, Microsoft Windows, Linux)

GIMP isn’t actually an animation program: It’s a raster graphics editor similar to Photoshop. You can use it to do most of the things you’d use Photoshop for, like crop photos, retouch images, make Jeff Goldblum collages—the basics. And like Photoshop, GIMP has an animation function.

Animation in GIMP is essentially like creating a digital flip book (this is also true for Pencil2D). You’ll draw an image on one layer, then another image on the next layer, and so on until you’ve created a sequence. Selecting “Animation” from the menu bar, then clicking “Playback,” will turn the layers into an animated clip. What’s nice about this program is that you can easily save your work as a GIF, which means that you can post your animation to your favorite internet haunts or send it in a text message without having to use an outside program to convert the file.

However, because GIMP is primarily an image editor, the drawing and animation tools aren’t that sophisticated. There really aren’t shape tools, so you you won’t be able to instantly create a perfect polygon or ellipse the way you might in Adobe programs like Photoshop, Illustrator, or Animate (formerly known as Flash). This being said, you can still create some pretty impressive animations with it if you take the time to master the tools.

I made this gif in minutes without having used the program before (click the image if the gif loads slowly):

Not too shabby!

Pencil2D (Mac OS X, Microsoft Windows, Linux)

As the Pencil2D website says, this program “allows you to create traditional hand-drawn animation using both bitmap and vector graphics.” Because this software was specifically intended to be used for animation, the interface and tools are more conducive to creating animated clips than GIMP.

Here you’ll make your animations by adding frames to a timeline. The program creates the illusion of motion in the spaces between those frames—the images look as though they’re smoothly transitioning from one point to the next. This is called key-framing. Sequencing your frames together is a cinch with an onion skin feature, which allows you to see more than one frame at the same time. You’ll know exactly how you should move the next image in the sequence.

The one problem I found with Pencil2D is that your files can’t be saved as .gif or .mov files. To view your animation outside the program, you’ll have to convert the file with another program, but it’s a small price to pay for this user-friendly tool. Here’s what I came up with after some quick experimentation:

Pretty cool! Check out the Pencil2D Tumblr tag and you’ll get a glimpse at what this program is capable of doing.

GIMP and Pencil2D are solid introductory programs that’ll help you get you comfortable with the basic principles of animation before moving on to more sophisticated software, if you choose to. Either way, the power of animation- and gif-making is yours. —Amber Humphrey

Movie of the Month: Particle Fever (2013)

You’ve probably heard of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN—it’s that ginormous machine built to smash protons together in Switzerland. In recent years, there have been a lot of rumors that CERN’s experiments could create a black hole and swallow the universe, but don’t freak out. There is scant evidence that this would ever happen. Described by one scientist as “a five-story Swiss watch,” the LHC was designed to mimic the Big Bang so that scientists can study the origins of the universe. The questions that CERN scientists hope to answer are basic but huge: Why is the universe so big? Do we live in a universe or a multiverse? (The multiverse theory is the idea that other universes exist where the laws of physics differ in bizarre ways–for example, a universe where gravity doesn’t exist, or where one plus one equals eight). Particle Fever is a mind-bending documentary that takes you behind the scenes of the LHC, where scientists from all over the world have come together to do the collider’s one massive experiment: search for a particle called the Higgs boson, aka “the God Particle.” It’s the particle that may hold all matter together and give other particles mass, meaning that it also creates atoms, molecules, and, ultimately, entire planets.

The LHC is funded by more than 22 governments, with scientists from many different countries. Its purpose is not military or commercial. It’s science for the sake of science, knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Many people wonder why the search for a theoretical particle is worth spending billions of dollars when there are more urgent problems to solve in the world. But the movie asserts that scientific discoveries are deeply important even when it’s uncertain what their practical applications will be. A great example is radio waves: When radio waves were discovered in the late 1800s, there was no practical use for them yet because radios didn’t exist. Radios were invented to harness this new knowledge, and boom—the era of mass communication began. Who knows what scientists will be able to invent with the knowledge the LHC reveals?

Particle Fever is exciting, illuminating, and totally mind-bending. It’s also a powerful testament to the passion of scientists. It’s fun to see them getting really amped about their work, particularly when scientists are so often portrayed as stiff or boring. I could probably talk about this documentary for 100 hours. It’s a must-see for anyone who enjoys exploring existential questions (Who are we? What is life?) and anyone who believes that knowledge can save us all. —Maggie Thrash ♦