Volume 1, Issue 25: Practicality

Last Wednesday, Cydnii Wilde Harris and I had the opportunity to chat with students at the University of Massachusetts — Boston about video essays. We were invited by Sarah Hamblin, who is teaching a course on film criticism and asked us to discuss our work and how we got interested in the form. And then on Thursday, I was invited by Ian Garwood to join Grace Lee and Ian Robertson on a panel about audiovisual criticism at the University of Glasgow. It was a real honor to be asked and, needles to say, a fun week!

This was not the first time I’ve been invited to speak with students, but I must admit that I am still not entirely comfortable with the idea. After all, it’s only been a year and half since I was an undergraduate myself! But nonetheless, I always have a ton of fun and learn a lot from the visits. Both groups asked so many thoughtful questions and each time we had to cut off our conversation due to time. Students, as many of you know, are just as interested in — and excited by — the form as ever.

Both Sarah and Ian asked that we discuss not only our approach to making video essays, but also the more practical side of video essay production: what skills can one develop beyond critical analysis? How does one parlay those skills into a job and/or freelance opportunities? And, in my case, how does one start a podcast and build an audience? Here are some of the thoughts I shared, and a few that I had afterwards:

The practical aspect of learning how to create video essays is an interesting one. In my own experience, it is one of the main draws for students who decide to enroll in a course on audiovisual criticism, whether for personal and/or professional reasons. I know many people who placed “Adobe Premiere” under the skills section of their resume shortly after completing the video essay course at Middlebury, myself included. I suppose this is one of the advantages to adding a course on AV criticism to a department’s offerings: promote an innovative and exciting new form of study in the Humanities AND satisfy the academy’s obsession with evaluating the merits of a course on how well it does or does not train students with the skills necessary to feed the capitalist machine. Yay! But more seriously, I suppose this is one of the benefits of teaching the video essay.

There’s also a sad reality: you’re probably not going to make a living as a video essayist. Not a single one of the past guests on The Video Essay Podcast (I don’t think) is a full-time video essayist. They all have day jobs, whether it be as academics, video editors, or podcast hosts. Even those who are professional film critics often write and/or teach in addition to their videographic pursuits. So I guess it’s a good thing that, if one is particularly passionate about video editing, there is other work out there to be found.

But all this talk of practicality got me thinking about impracticality (Or what society deems to be practical and impractical. Don’t make me start quoting Oscar Wilde. Would you be surprised to know I was an English student focused on British Drama before switching over to Film? I guess a story for another day.) It goes without saying, but taking a course in audiovisual criticism is not like taking a course in, say, personal finance or basic computer coding. Rather, it is a course that blends technical skills with critical inquiry and artistic practice. In other words, there is a poetic element to video essay making that cannot be taught even by the most accomplished practitioner of Adobe Premiere.

Let me put it another way: in high school, I made money by working as a freelance videographer. I filmed town meetings, high school basketball games, school board meetings, and other events. I even landed a sweet deal with the local Pop Warner Football program and spent many Sundays filming games. I stood in this old wooden shed on stilts and filmed the games on a camera I “borrowed” from school and once got stung by a bee. It hurt like hell. I often had to edit the footage myself, and grew comfortable enough with Final Cut Pro that my friends and I would often ask our teachers if we could make short videos in lieu of class presentations or written essays. The videos weren’t great, but the editing was good enough for me to parlay that skill into a fun homework assignment and some extra cash.

And yet, when I enrolled in a video essay course for the first time, I was still nervous because I had never before used an editing software to produce a piece of true creative work. I knew that videographic criticism demands something more than knowledge of the basic functions of an editing software. In fact, as we have often discussed on the podcast, many video essays benefit from the creator’s inexperience with editing or programs that make the image sleek like After Effects. “Good” editing does not equal a “good” video essay. Plus, most video essayists work with films they love and/or admire. I know I do. And so, there is that added weight of wanting to do the work justice: what if Hitchcock were to come back to life and watch my video essays?! What would he think? I think this might be why, in part, I have mostly refrained from creating video essays using the work of living directors. (Not that I think they would be likely to watch, but you never know!)

(Side note: This is a theme that has come up on past episodes of The Video Essay Podcast. Nelson Carvajal discussed receiving a copyright takedown notice onVimeo from Vincent Gallo, and both Catherine Grant and Chloé Galibert-Laîné talked about working with the films of living directors who they have personally met. Chloé even interviewed Penny Lane as part of her film, Watching The Pain of Others.)

There’s also this question of intimacy and videographic criticism, something that I am trying to explore as part of my my new project Rio Bravo Diary, (which you can follow here and read more about here). When I first began making video essays I feared — and in some ways still fear — that intimacy. I knew that enrolling in a video essay course meant that I would have to spend long nights in the editing suite at Middlebury, playing around with Adobe Premiere and getting to know the ins and out of whatever film(s) I would choose to analyze. I couldn’t have put this into words at the time, but I think the thing I feared most was finally reckoning with the fact that, as a new student new to Film & Media Culture (the department at Middlebury), I did not yet have any real understanding of film language. Videographic criticism pushed me to finally confront that reality and, for the first time, allowed me to truly understand how a film is constructed and communicates with us. (For more on video essay pedagogy, I encourage you to listen to my conversation with my former teachers, Jason Mittell and Christian Keathley.)

As I told at least one of the groups I spoke with last week, that understanding of film language I gained from producing videographic criticism made me a better spectator, and thus a better writer and student. Sometimes when I set out to write a piece of written criticism I begin by thinking about how I would approach the subject as a video essay. It is my firm believe, as I told the students, and this should not come as a surprise to anybody, that every student who is interested in Film and/or TV criticism (and probably other forms of media too) should, at some point, if possible, take a course in videographic criticism. It will make you a better writer not only because you will better understand a media object(s), but your entire field of study. And thus, we are brought back to our original topic: practicality!

When you learn how to make video essays, you become equipped with a kind of Swiss Army knife; an array of skills that leave you with some options:

  • parlay video editing skills into another job

  • sharpen your writing and critical analysis skills

  • actually make video essays!

I know I’m missing others but these seem, to me, to be the main three. And, of course, they’re not mutually exclusive! And that’s what I tried to tell the students at UMASS and Glasgow. Did I succeed? If you’re a student there and you’re reading this, let me know. At the very least, this is what I walked away from those conversations thinking about. I have some more thoughts on this subject that I’ll share probably next week, but since this newsletter needs to finally be sent out into the world, I think that’s enough for now. See ya soon!

Episode 20. Nelson Carvajal — The Video Essay Podcast

Nelson Carvajal is a two-time Webby award nominated video artist and television producer. Nelson is also the founder of the website Free Cinema Now. We discuss his video essay/mashup, "If Pride Rock Could Talk" and a supercut by Nicolas Longinotti, "Martin Scorsese: Hands." Watch and listen here.

News & Notes

I need your help curating this section!! Have something that should be featured? Email me: willdigravio@gmail.com

  • The eagerly awaited issue of The Cine-Files on “The Scholarly Video Essay” debuted last week. The issue’s content will be rolled out over the next couple of weeks, but the first part of the issue is here: a collection of video essays entitled, “Once Upon a Screen: Screen Traumas and Cinephilic Hauntings.” The collection, curated by Ariel Avissar and Evelyn Kreutzer, features nine video essays by some of the leading practitioners of the form. The collection also features an introductory text by Ariel and Evelyn, and a “response” by Christian Keathley. Read and watch here.

    • Not long after the collection was released, Tara Judah wrote a column on the videos for Ubiquarian. Read here!

  • Students at American University, under the supervision of Jeff Middents, have produced a set of video essays as part of “The Contemporary World Cinema Project.” This is the fourth year Middents’s students have completed this project. This year’s collection features ten video essays that aim to answer the question: what is world cinema today? Watch and learn more here.

  • The latest episode of the Modern Media Podcast features a conversation with Jason Mittell about videographic criticism. A must-listen!

  • Learning on Screen is hosting a launch event for their great new resource, “Introductory Guide to Video Essays” on December 14. Join us here.

  • Kendahl Cruver, who runs “A Classic Movie Blog,” wrote a reflection on creating a video essay for our event, “The Journeys of Cary Grant: An Audiovisual Celebration.” Read here.

  • Two experimental video essays by Ben Creech — “SELF & other Early Works: the siskel cut” and “CICERO//MT GREENWOOD (1966/2016)” — will be screening online for free at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Watch here.

  • Scout Tafoya’s video essay series for RogerEbert.com, “the Unloved,” turned seven-years-old this month. Happy birthday, Scout! Watch the latest video here.

  • From Luís Azevedo: “No, in My Room | A desktop documentary on the making of a video essay

  • “The Language of the Essay Film”, an event hosted at this year’s Open City Documentary Festival, is now available on Vimeo. The session is hosted by Laura Rascaroli and speakers include Amel Alzakout, Khaled Abdulwahed, Kevin B. Lee, Chloé Galibert-Laîné, and Iva Radivojevic. Watch here.

  • Philip Brubaker is teaching an online class on how to make video essays! The cost of the class is $60. 80% of the proceeds will be donated to Fair Fight, the Georgia-based voting rights organization founded by Stacey Abrams. The class is part of an effort organized by Rachel Deane to raise money in the lead up to the U.S. Senate races in Georgia on January 5th. Learn more here.

  • David Verdeure (aks Filmscalpel) put together an epic and absolutely essential thread of some of the year’s best videographic work. Check it out, here.

  • And finally, I’ve been meaning to give a shoutout to this must-follow Twitter account for awhile. I think the account speaks for itself, literally:

    Student Spotlight: Mel Sangyi Zhao

    Each week, the newsletter will aim to feature a video essay made by a student(s) along with a short Q&A. Is there a student(s) or former student(s) of yours you would like to see highlighted? Email willdigravio@gmail.com. Most students have been nominated by their teachers, so please don’t be shy about emailing!

Mel Sangyi Zhao created this video under the supervision of Chloé Galibert Laîné at California Institute of the Arts.

I had to watch your video a few times in order to really process everything that was happening and what you were analyzing. You don't hold the viewer's hand during the video - you throw us right into your life and the situation you explore. Could you discuss this in medias res-style approach and how it informs the piece? Did you consider adding more context?

I think the "throwing" the viewer into the my life approach mainly comes from the context of production. It was done during the one week workshop with Chloé Galibert-Laîné. I didn't have much time to make a piece of work regarding the media I was exploring, in this case, "the black person question mark" emoji face. Therefore I decided to go with my guts and try to present a reflexion/reaction that is very immediate and raw. I did imagine people would look at the piece and then do the Google research by themselves to get more context. That being said, as a Chinese, I tend to rebel against providing TOO MUCH context for the Western audience. This is a digression but I think by doing so we reproduce the cultural inequality where "we" have to make the extra effort for our work to be understood by "them" (western audience). I come from a fictional narrative cinema practice and I guess I have a habit of "throwing the viewer" into a situation (interesting one I hope) and providing just enough information to, hopefully, keep them engaged. Though I'm not sure it's the best way to approach a video essay. I hope you didn't find the context too hard to understand haha.

No not at all! I loved how you threw the viewer right into the situation. I actually think in a lot of video essays there is too much hand-holding, so I really enjoyed your approach, and it definitely has me rethinking a lot about the ways we often create video essays. And your video certainly pushes the boundaries of what a video essay can be, which is very exciting! How did you come up with the idea for this video? What led you to the hybrid desktop documentary/in-person interview approach? 

So the exercise we got from Chloé was to examine a piece of media that we found funny but developed a more complex feeling to it with time. The first thing I thought of was this meme. And after the first session of the workshop, I was smoking on the balcony with my friend/roommate Alex, and we had a conversation about it. So the interview you saw in the video is actually a re-enactment of that first conversation in a way. Then during the workshop I saw two of Chloé's desktop films which really blew my mind. There is a great sense of intimacy just watching another person's computer screen, the google suggestions as you type in the box (as we know it won't suggest the same thing to everyone), the way they arrange their desktop, the picture they choose to be their wallpaper etc. I wanted to make this examination a very personal one. Alex and I have already engaged in conversations about race and politics so I felt very comfortable interviewing him and trusted him that he would be sincere and honest with me.

Please tell us more about your friend Alex. How did you approach Alex about making this video? Did Alex play any other role than what we see on screen? What did Alex think of your final video?

Well Alex and I are both film directing students at CalArts. We worked together at school and now with COVID we often help each other out with small shooting projects without even asking questions. So the filming was very casual, just a moment in the day. I guess it's the beauty of community haha. Alex is also the only black American student in our program (more context for you). He and another student drafted an open letter to the school about how they think the school can better support the black community. And for his own film, he started an indiegogo campaign where part of the money will go to the Relief and Resilience Fund. And above all he is a very smart and talented young artist. [Learn more about Alex and his work here.]

What did you learn from the video? What is your main takeaway? What do you hope others learn? 

My main takeaway I guess is: just be a decent human being and treat each other like so. It sounds simplistic but I think that's why Alex's answer was so beautiful: just have more black friends. That is how we could fight racism in our personal lives by really being friends with each other, loving and knowing each other as human beings. What I hope other's would get is that friendship should be this amazing thing where you can allow yourself to be honest and engage in difficult conversations.

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