Volume 1, Issue 5: What is What?

Desktop Cinema, Collaboration, and Miyazaki

As I’ve mentioned in past newsletters, my hope is that this intro essay will function as a kind of blog post with random thoughts that will hopefully spark conversation! This week’s essay is a brief follow-up to last week’s post about video essays on Letterboxd and how the inclusion of video essays on the platform (which pulls data from The Movie Database) may inform how we think about video essays as films.

Adrian Martin (prolific critic and video essayist; friend of the show) kindly provided a response on our Facebook page :

Re: your latest newsletter (no. 4) and the question of which video essays are getting picked up as "metadata": in the case of the 2 you mention by Cristina and me (on Boro & Erice), we didn't engineer that ourselves, and the explanation is simple (and telling) for why they have appeared: they are DVD extras on commercial releases (although certainly not all the DVD extra video essays we've done together, or Cristina individually, show up in this way! Not the Boetticher, Carax, Fuller, Kieslowski). This also goes (on a cursory glance) for some of the other works by some other people cited (but certainly not all). But the point is interesting: in some poeple's eyes, DVD/Blu-ray 'lends official legitimacy' to video essays - or, more simply still, just renders them visible to some people who don't normally encounter them or seek them out.

First, thank you Adrian! I appreciate the response. This certainly makes sense. These questions of ‘legitimacy’ are fascinating and relate to what I discussed in my post last week. Just the other day I was clicking through The Criterion Channel and wondering how one might categorize David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, and Jeff Smith’s “Observations on Film Art” videos. I would categorize them as video essays using the umbrella term, but I think they belong to a subgenre of video essay that I am not ready to name. Perhaps someone out there has already discussed this and is willing to share their thoughts?

They certainly borrow elements from documentary and in particular the bonus feature doc that features a group of critics and historians talking about a film’s production, blended together with footage and photographs from the film. Of course, the “Observations on Film Art” videos go beyond that format and are criticism in and of themselves. I posed the question to Adrian and he said that Bordwell and Thompson do consider them video essays. In another comment he said:

This opens up an interesting area because many video essays on DVD are only SCRIPTED by their author - and then given to a professional editor to 'illustrate' (there are many such examples on Arrow, Criterion, etc). With, I guess, varying degrees of collaboration. Cristina & I have never done this method - we hold onto the editing/montage controls ourselves!

A perfect transition to one of the subjects we will cover on the next episode of The Video Essay Podcast, which will be released next week! The episode will feature a roundtable discussion with three editors of publications that publish videographic work: Michael Leader of BBC’s Inside Cinema, Adam Woodward of Little White Lies, and Joost Broeren of Filmkrant. 

BBC's Inside Cinema follows a format similar to what Adrian describes, where critics, professional editors, illustrators, etc. collaborate by each taking on a separate piece of the video essay’s production. Michael describes this process on the podcast, and I think it partially addresses some of the questions we are discussing here. Personally, I’m not ready to say such videos aren’t videographic criticism, but again I think distinguishing between video essays in which the critic controls the editing/montage is important (and arguably essential). As I discussed with Adrian when he appeared on the podcast, the process of exploration within the editing program is, I think, an essential element of video essay production for me. On Episode 14, Leigh Singer discussed the video essay he made for BBC’s Inside Cinema and said he edited the piece himself because that process is so essential to how he creates. And on Episode 7, Jennifer Proctor talked about collaborating with a professional sound designer for her video essay/film, Nothing a Little Soap and Water Can’t Fix.

These questions of collaboration are fascinating, especially when it comes to the editing process. What do you think?

News & Notes

  • Block Cinema at Northwestern’s The Block Museum of Art inaugurated its Desktop Cinema Working Group Series on May 28th with an online presentation of filmmaker and scholar Ben Mendelsohn’s As If Sand Were Stone and two episodes of What Is Deep Sea Mining?, a web documentary series by the Portugese media collective Inhabitants. Watch on Vimeo here.

  • A reflection by Catherine Grant on her recent video essay “Dissolving The Secret of Roan Inish.

  • On her blog Laugh Motel, Cristina Álvarez López offers a reflection on voice in “Notes on Film Criticism (IV).”


  • On Monday, the Munich Film Museum began a 7-week retrospective on the work of Mark Rappaport, the “Godfather of Video Essays”, according to Kevin B. Lee. More information and a complete schedule here.

  • The audiovisual essay journal Tecmerin issued a new CFP and is accepting submissions until August 1, 2020.

  • The Small File Film Festival is accepting submissions until May 30th.

Student Spotlight: A Q&A with Annika VanSandt

Each week, the newsletter will aim to feature a video essay made by a student along with a short Q&A. Is there a student or former student of yours you would like to see highlighted? Email willdigravio@gmail.com.

Annika VanSandt is a student at Occidental College and created this video essay under the supervision of Allison de Fren.

Will DiGravio: Your voice over in this piece is brilliant. What was the recoding process like? Do you have any tips for people who may be interested in making a voiceover video essay themselves? 

Annika VanSandt: First I wrote a basic script out. I broke my argument into sections that would explain and build upon each other. Once I had the meat of my argument written out, I would record the voiceover for each section. I don't have a professional mic to record with at home, so I used my iPhone's voice memos. As long as you speak clearly and loudly, fancy recording equipment isn't necessary! Recording the voiceover itself is an intuitive process. You don't want to read out a script word for word, yet you don't want to become too chatty either. I would recommend speaking informally, so it doesn't run the risk of sounding like a lecture. I made sure to speak slowly and added inflection in my voice as if I were having a conversation with someone.

WD: What was the process like for writing the script? How did you balance the writing and the visuals?

AV: In the initial script/recording, I found myself over-explaining. So it was during the editing process that I cut down my dialogue to a minimum and relied more heavily on the visuals to explain my ideas. For example, I cut out almost all descriptive dialogue, as a 3 second clip could better show what I was talking about. Use the video to explain what you don't verbalize. 

WD: I assume you have watched other video essays on Miyazaki before and during the process of creating this essay. Were you influenced by any of those essays? How did you provide your own unique take on his work? 

AV: I was actually influenced by Nerdwriter's Ghost in the Shell video essay on YouTube. Most of the video essays I had seen on Miyazaki focused on narrative themes, but I wanted my project to look at the animation techniques that he uses. So this Ghost in the Shell video essay closely aligned with what I had hoped to discuss. I referenced this video when structuring my argument. I had so many things I wanted to talk about, but I was struggling to condense it into an eight-minute argument. So this video essay provided me an example of how to interweave analysis of specifically Japanese animation technique and the film's narrative theme. 

WD: Is there something about Miyazaki that makes his work so suitable for videographic criticism? What drew you to his work, and this film in particular? 

AV: Miyazaki films have been a childhood favorite of mine, but there is something distinct about the style of animation that sets his work apart from other Japanese animations I have seen. There is a whimsical, bounciness to the movements in his animation and I have always wondered if there was a purpose to it beyond just aesthetics. After reading Thomas Lamarre's essay "From animation to anime: drawing movements and moving drawings" a few years ago, I was curious to find out how limited animation had been used in my favorite Miyazaki film of all time, My Neighbor Totoro. Lamarre discusses how limited animation is used to shape a narrative around gender and genre in Castle in the Sky, but to me MNT was all about critiquing a specific era in Japanese history. I wanted to see just how versatile this limited animation style was on a thematic level. Miyazaki's unique art and animation style is both an aesthetic choice and a philosophical process, and he uses it to promote different messages in each of his films. Because his films are so visually stylized, they are great subjects for videographic criticism.

Multi-screen Homework

Listeners of the podcast are currently making multi-screen compositions! Click here for the instructions, which are taken from The Videographic Essay: Practice & Pedagogy by Mittell, Keathley, and Grant. Click here for a Vimeo showcase of all the submissions we’ve received. Here is a great video by Cydnii Harris. Listeners may remember that Catherine Grant and I discussed Cydnii’s essay, “Cotton - The Fabric of Genocide”on the first episode of The Video Essay Podcast!

Episode 15. Shannon Strucci

Don’t forget to listen to our most recent episode! Shannon Strucci joins the show to discuss life as a YouTube video essayist, developing one’s own video essay aesthetic, the relationship between video essay making and podcasting, and more! We also discuss Shannon’s epic video essay “Fake Friends Episode 2: parasocial hell” and Harry S. Plinkett’s (Mike Stoklasa) review of Star Wars Episode I: Phantom Menacea seven part video produced by Red Letter Media.

New episode drops next week!!

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