CSS filters, GIFs, and performance
Or, how to persist in not learning Photoshop
A few months ago, I blatantly ripped off Charlie Gleason’s idea. His presentation at MelbJS featured greyscale, full-screen, animated GIFs (of his own face, among other things) behind the text on many slides. I discovered that he’d painstakingly edited and optimised each GIF in Photoshop so it looked good behind the text on each slide.
I wanted to do the same thing, but without all that work.
This post is about some of the things I learned along the way.
GIFs are Awesome
If you’re trying to convey an emotion in a presentation, it’s hard to beat a well-chosen GIF. Alternatively, if you’re procrastinating instead of writing your presentation, searching for the perfect GIF will distract you for hours. It’s a win-win.
Most GIFs out there are poor-quality, badly optimised and jarring when looped. But not all. Blogs like If We Don’t, Remember Me and Tech Noir prove just what’s possible with the format, capturing the feeling of a particular scene from a film in a way no static image can (note: All Movie Gifs has a great list of film GIFs, but of usually far lower quality). So the lesson is, good GIFs are out there: find them!
CSS Filters + Fullscreen GIFs are Slow
I’m not sure if that headline will surprise anyone. But it turns out, trying to render 4MB of image data in a file format defined in 1989, then stretch it over the millions of pixels in your display, then apply a Working Draft CSS Filter spec that’s only supported in Webkit browsers, and even then only recently, you’re in for a bad time.
How bad? This bad. Maximise this and feel the slowness. Jump into Timeline mode and watch that 60fps (and even the 30fps) target sail past:
Blur is the culprit, and it hates pixels
After a bunch of experimentation, and with a variety of GIFs, the real problem was using the blur filter, which is a shame since that’s quite a useful one if you’re trying to make a background out of a GIF. So we have a problem.
But this, like all CSS problems, can be solved with MOAR CSS!
A magical conflagration of transforms and filters
I honestly don’t know if this is a “good idea”, but it solves this particular problem. My reasoning goes like this:
- The GIF isn’t very big, dimensions-wise
- Scaling up the image takes work
- Applying the filter takes work proportional to the number of pixels
- Why not apply the filter first?
It turns out that that’s indeed possible, and using CSS transforms we can scale up the image using the GPU, which gives us a reasonable performance boost.
Firstly, we make the background element smaller, say 20% of the viewport, rather than filling the full width:
Then, we apply the background like we did before:
background-position: 50% 50%;
Then we apply the filter and scale the image up to fit:
-webkit-filter: blur(2px) grayscale(0.8) brightness(0.8);
-webkit-transform-origin: top left;
And then we’re done:
At first glance, it looks like we only sped things up by 40% (160ms/frame down to 100ms), but this is actually a 10fps GIF, so Chrome is just waiting until the next GIF frame is ready. All our painting, blurring and scaling is actually happening in the first 30ms.
Hooray for GPUs!