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Volume 1, Issue 31: Fran Lebowitz
Why My Video About Fran Is Not a Video Essay
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In last week’s newsletter, I quoted Fran Lebowitz. I’m not sure when I first discovered Fran, but I think it must have been in high school when, as I wrote in my essay introducing “Rio Bravo Diary,” I spent hours and hours on YouTube catching up on the TV shows, comedy specials, political debates, and other fun stuff that preceded my birth.
Back in March 2020, the day before an election night here in the United States known as Super Tuesday, before the coronavirus forced the U.S. and U.K., where I was living, into quarantine, I made a video tribute to Fran’s hatred of Michael Bloomberg, who many pundits (now laughably) thought may pull ahead in the Democratic Primary. Here it is:
Since the release of Pretend It’s a City, the video has grown in popularity and now has more than 10,000 views. Proof that the YouTube algorithm is alive and well.
Anyway, after quoting Fran in last week’s newsletter, I figured it would be fun to use the video as a way to think about videographic criticism and, more specifically, to answer the question, Why is my video about Fran Lebowitz NOT a video essay/videographic criticism? (Note: I use these terms interchangeably throughout this post but definitions do vary.)
First, let’s think about why this video could be considered a video essay: It has a thesis: “Fran Lebowitz hates Michael Bloomberg.” It has a supporting argument: clips drawn from a collection of interviews that show Fran does, in fact, not approve of the former mayor. The video editing is dynamic. This is not to say that the editing is good or bad, but that it is deliberate. I didn’t need to intercut the video in the way that I did. And the editing, I think, strengthens the thesis by giving it more of a punch.
If we had to categorize this video, we might place it in the genre of supercut. There are competing definitions of the supercut. The first is a video that collects every example of something. Like, for example, LJ Frezza’s “Nothing,” which collects every shot from Seinfeld with no people. The second is a video like kogonada’s “Eyes of Hitchcock,” which curates a number of shots around a single theme. Of course, this video does not collect every shot of eyes in Hitchcock, but instead uses a collection of shots with eyes to examine how they function in Hitchcock’s work. Does my video collect every instance of Fran criticizing Michael Bloomberg? No. Instead, it collects several examples to show how Fran’s hatred of Bloomberg functions within her oeuvre of hatreds.
So, is this a video essay/videographic criticism? Absolutely not! Or, at least not how I think most would define videographic criticism. The question of what is/is not a video essay is a question that has been discussed by countless video essayists and is, as I’ve said before, perhaps the main question behind The Video Essay Podcast. This is my way of saying that not only cannot I not define a video essay, I’m not going to attempt it here! But, that’s not going to stop me from saying this video is definitely not a video essay. Why?
This is a question Cydnii Wilde Harris, Kevin B. Lee and I ran into often while curating the Black Lives Matter Video Essay Playlist. If you’re not familiar with the playlist, it’s divided into five categories: video essays, videographic criticism/scholarship, journalism/YouTube explainers, video art, and social media. These categories are, by design, loosely-defined and simultaneously clarify and challenge what a video essay is and can be. Our definition of video essay for the project was “an audiovisual work that critically reappropriates existing works of film and media. … works that use media to think critically about media.” This language is inspired by the Middlebury school of videographic criticism developed by Christian Keathley and Jason Mittell, who define videographic criticism as “creating videos that serve an analytic or critical purpose, exploring and presenting ideas about films and moving images via sounds and images themselves.”
If you scroll to the bottom of the playlist, you’ll see a sixth section dedicated to “other work.” This section is comprised mostly of videos that did not meet our definition of videographic criticism/video essay, and some that did meet that definition but, for whatever reason, fell outside the purview of the playlist. We did not originally plan to include this section as part of the playlist, but as more and more submissions came in, we realized that we should not just leave those recommendations buried in our email inboxes.
The section is also useful because I think one of the best ways to understand videographic criticism is to understand what it is not. Included in the section are documentaries, news reports, and video lectures that reappropriate footage but do not serve the “analytic or critical purpose” in the way outlined above. This is not a judgement on the quality of the work, but instead a way to make clear that a work with reappropriated footage does not equal videographic criticism. If it did, then almost every documentary and news report would fall under the umbrella of videographic criticism! To be videographic criticism, the creator must, to again borrow a phrase from Keathley, create an argument by “using the same tools that constitute their objects of study: moving images and sounds.” In other words, do more than simply illustrate a topic or thesis through moving images and sounds. The latter is what I do in my video about Fran. Just because my video is more fun and entertaining than a written article about Fran’s hatred of Bloomberg does not mean it’s videographic criticism! Though perhaps fun should be a criterion for this work!
In the latest issue of The Cine-Files, Allison de Fren has an article dedicated to the supercut as it relates to videographic criticism and scholarship. de Fren writes, “In the supercut, extraction is both process and output, a method for discerning and demonstrating deep patterns within and across film/media texts.” This, of course, is clearly the thing that my video lacks. I do not critically engage with the moving images I appropriate, but instead aggregate moving images in a way that is more similar to a montage found in a documentary than criticism. Speaking of which …
As I was finishing up this essay, Kevin B. Lee tagged me in a tweet:
What do you think? I think from this blog post you know where I stand. Though I have to say, I think the video from January 6th is a little more important than mine on Fran. But just a little.
Student Spotlight: Queline Meadows
Is there a student(s) or former student(s) of yours you would like to see highlighted? Email email@example.com.
Queline Meadows is a student at Ithaca College, whose YouTube channel is kikikrazed.
The video does a great job in providing an introduction to "Film TikTok" while also making clear that the community/genre of TikTok is constantly evolving and changing. How did you strike this balance? Have you seen any new evolutions in Film TikTok since you created the video?
I tried to make it clear from the beginning that each person’s experience of TikTok will be different, and that I was trying to convey my own view as opposed to making any overarching statements about the entire community. I also situated Film TikTok alongside other pockets of online film culture, as well as film history in general. I don’t think I ever made a conscious effort to strike a balance between past, present, and future. It just happened naturally as I spent months on Film TikTok and began to notice certain patterns emerging and evolving. Since making the video I’ve noticed a lot more self-aware content on Film TikTok, similar to the user @stepheniemeyersbaby, who I discuss at one point. It seems like more people are taking advantage of TikTok sounds and our associations with them to make their arguments. I’ve also noticed that the name “FilmTok” has started to gain popularity over “Film TikTok.” As someone who had to say the latter almost 40 times in my voiceover, I absolutely welcome this simpler name!
If I can someday create a video that is half as well edited as yours, I will be very happy! What is your workflow like? Do you sketch things out, create a diagram? What programs did you use to create the video
I use a website called Milanote to plan my videos. Milanote lets you create “boards'' with notes, images, links, and so on. I created a board for “The Rise of Film TikTok” and added to it over the course of a month or so as I began to map out what exactly I wanted to say. I collected TikToks, tweets about Film TikTok, links to helpful video essays, and more. The next thing I did was create the thumbnail. I usually do thumbnails first as a way to establish the aesthetic of the video. For this one, I decided to stick to only the colors from the TikTok logo. I also created a template to use whenever I showed a TikTok on screen, with the username, caption, tags, and sound title (all using Sofia Pro, which is one of the fonts that the app uses). For the actual script, I had already picked out most of the TikToks that I wanted to refer to, so I was able to shape my writing around that. The script consisted of two columns: one for the voiceover, and one for any notes. I used the notes column to plan out what I was going to show at certain moments, like a piece of text or a certain TikTok. During the entire planning and writing process, I tried to pay equal attention to what is seen and what is heard, and the format of the script helped me do that.
The video was edited in Premiere with a few clips done in After Effects. I chose the music beforehand so I could match the pace of the editing to it. I also tried to make sure there was movement on screen at all times. The main reason that everything looks so smooth is that almost every bit of movement follows the animation principle of slow in and slow out. In Premiere, this is done by selecting the two keyframes at the start and end of a movement, right-clicking, and selecting both “Ease In” and “Ease Out” under the Temporal Interpolation menu. In After Effects, just select the keyframes and press F9. After that, you can fine-tune it to your liking. It’s a small change that goes a long way. Many of the editing tricks in my essay were things that I came across unintentionally while messing around in Premiere.
Most of the past students featured in this newsletter created their video essays as part of a course. You (I assume) did not. How do you balance creating video essays for your YouTube channel with your other coursework, and how do the two influence one another?
Correct, this video essay was made as a personal project. The only time I’ve ever made a video essay as part of a course was in high school. It's actually part of the IB Film assessment, although they don’t call it a video essay. Otherwise, my YouTube videos are separate. My coursework tends to help with the videos, though. For example, this essay features a clip from Chuck Workman’s Precious Images, which I watched in one of my film courses. I’m actually taking a course dedicated to making video essays this semester so I’m excited to see how that will impact my work outside of school. If I turned one of my regular college papers into a video essay, I don’t think anyone would watch it. With my video essays, I always keep the audience in mind and try to consider what people would actually enjoy watching. I struggle a lot with balancing my coursework and making video essays, which is why there are large gaps between each upload. One thing that has helped is breaking it up into smaller chunks to work on each day instead of trying to tackle the entire video all together.
I know I'm not alone in being excited for your next video(s)! I'm curious, as someone with a relatively new YouTube channel, how are you approaching growing your page? Does that shape the form and content of the videos you create? And what advice would you give to someone who may want to start a channel of their own.
When I upload my videos to YouTube, I obviously want people to watch them and keep watching them all the way through, so that definitely affects my content and form. In terms of content, I tend to gravitate toward more popular works, or at least approach the subject from an angle that makes it easy for anyone to understand. My target audience is basically my high school self: someone who doesn’t know a lot about film but wants to learn all that they can. In terms of form, I put a lot of effort into the editing, especially in the first 30 seconds. Most of my videos begin with some sort of direct address, whether I’m asking the viewers a question or appealing to a common experience. Both of these things help me grab the viewer’s attention right away.
I definitely don’t rely on YouTube alone to get my videos out. I always share them on other platforms like Reddit, Twitter, and Discord. Twitter has been the most helpful so far. I’m sure my followers are sick of it by now, but every now and then I’ll retweet my video when it's relevant. The vast majority of my views have come from other Twitter users tweeting about the essay on their own—so if you ever see a video essay you like, be sure to let everyone know! It helps the creator a lot. For people who want to start a YouTube channel, I recommend learning how to effectively share your essays on other platforms. So many amazing essayists remain undiscovered because nobody can find their videos. The subreddit r/videoessay is a good place to start. My most important tip, however, is to CAPTION YOUR VIDEO ESSAYS! If you have a script typed out, you can paste it into the Video Subtitles section of YouTube Studio and it will automatically sync it to your voiceover. Even if you find you have to go back in and adjust the timing, it’s not the end of the world. That tiny amount of effort will allow more people to enjoy what you’ve created.
Notes From Readers
One of the goals of this newsletter, and in particular the blog-style essay at the beginning, is to start a conversation! If you have thoughts on what is featured in this newsletter, please shoot me an email. Thanks to Oswald Iten for allowing part of his email to be republished below!
In Response to “Issue 30: Raging Psycho”
I've just read your notes on mashups and a few things resonated with me!
One of the more important things you bring up right in the beginning is the fact that we don't necessarily want to draw a direct, absolute connection between the two films in question. By coincidence, last night I finalized my reconfigured dialogue between Safe and The Neon Demon.
Those in particular are two films that have long been tethered to each other in my mind for a long time. Yet I am pretty sure any connection is purely coincidental. Nevertheless, treating them as if they were one was a rewarding experience and - at least for me personally - revealed new knowledge about them.
All the best,
Episode 23. The Listeners & Learning on Screen’s Video Essay Guide
Last year, listeners of The Video Essay Podcast were assigned the five videographic exercises developed for the Scholarship in Sound & Image Workshop as "homework." Listeners made more than 60 videos as a response to the homework assignments. Episode 23 features audio reflections from eight listeners who created videographic exercises: Jemma Saunders, Cormac Donnelly, Roberto Carlos Ortiz, Charlotte Crofts, Alan O'Leary, Ben Creech, Max Tohline, and Ariel Avissar. Will also talks with Dr. Estrella Sendra, an academic based at the University of London and the University of Southampton, and Bartolomeo Meletti, the Education and Research Executive of Learning on Screen. Estrella and Bart are the team behind the "Introductory Guide to Video Essays," a brilliant new resource published by Learning on Screen.
News & Notes
Check out this exciting call for applications for the Essay Film Studio at the vnLab of Łódź Film School.
The latest issue of The Cine-Files, co-edited by Tracy Cox-Stanton and Allison de Fren. Check out this essential collection of writings and videos from some of the form's leading scholars and practitioners.
The latest issue of Media Practice and Education, edited by Catherine Fowler and Sean Redmond, is dedicated to “The Audio-visual Essay as Creative Practice in Teaching and Research: Theories, Methods, Case Studies.” Read here.
B-Film: The Birmingham Centre for Film Studies is running an online workshop on 24 February for students and scholars interested in using video essays as part of their research. More here.
Some news : “Cinedigm has acquired Fandor, a 10-year-old streaming home for independent films, and plans to update and expand its offerings with a goal of acquiring millions of subscribers.”
An article on the brilliant new video essay research project led by Johannes Binotto. And check out this panel featuring Catherine Grant, Ruth Baettig, and Johannes Binotto, moderated by Hannes Brühwiler.
Tecmerin. Journal of Audiovisual Essays has put out a call for video essays as part of the 7th issue. The deadline is March 15. More here.