Film Studies in Motion: From audiovisual essay to academic research video


Over the last couple of years, there has been an increasing output of videos investigating (or simply celebrating) cinematic works or film-related issues.[1] While Eric Faden started making short ‘Media Stylo’-videos as early as 1998 (on the 50th anniversary of Alexandre Astruc’s seminal essay ‘The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: Le Caméra-Stylo’) and personally considered these to be equivalent to academic papers (Faden 2008), it was not until 2007 that videographic work – resembling the form that we know now – began to take shape. Around this time, Kevin B. Lee started posting excerpts of films online, which gradually evolved into videos with an essayistic character. In successive years, critic Matt Zoller Seitz, and graduate students in film like Matthias Stork, also took to editing software to illustrate their analytical findings on certain tendencies in cinema. These initial videos made use of voice-over to comment on assemblies of film excerpts, and thus provided analytical criticism in which the object of study could be watched as it was being discussed. The first trend to garner popularity in these types of videos would focus primarily on ‘authorial’ trademarks, and take the form of obsessive compilations or poetic ‘supercuts’ where entire oeuvres would be summarized by stringing together the most characteristic shots from a particular filmmaker. Perhaps the most prolific in this category are Kogonada and Nelson Carvajal. As Stork mentioned on the profile page of his Vimeo account (circa 2014), he intended to develop and “make a case for the video essay as a new form of criticism, scholarship and digital ‘pastiche’ filmmaking.”
            This type of video is often accompanied by a written text in which the motivation and analytical angle behind the video are disclosed. Although later works showed more theoretical promise, the rhetorical developments through which the audiovisual medium’s specific affordances could have been addressed have been scarce and inconsistent. On the one hand, this can be attributed to the lack of shared platforms that would allow for the evolution of a common poetics among these video-authors. On the other hand, online audiovisual media have historically been reserved for artistic and entertainment purposes, and have little footing in tradition as far as scholarly efforts are concerned. Exceptions from before the ‘YouTube-era’, the likes of Faden’s ‘media stylos’, are either untraceable or have been mostly lost. This often occurred when their technological platforms (with which they were essentially entwined) ceased to be supported. Nevertheless, these early pseudo- or proto-academic videos mark a noteworthy departure from traditional analytical and interpretative techniques of Film Studies which have, from a medial perspective, remained consistent throughout its entire history: text-based.

While online videos that reflect analytically and critically on films are predominantly produced by critics, filmmakers and scholars, this is a form of expression that is available to anyone with access to video ripping and editing software. Though the amount of contributors is growing, most current output comes from a handful of ‘usual suspects’. As we will show later on (especially in Chapters II and III), the work of this selection of authors is arguably facilitated by the inception and rise of available multimedia extensions of film (or ‘paratexts’) in general. While the more obvious products such as DVD-extras date back to the 1980s, technological advancements democratizing media production and distribution go as far back as the 1950s.[2] As for the contemporary developments that fed media consumption as we are now accustomed to, we could list the emergence of Broadband Internet, the exponential growth in computational power of affordable home computers, the increasing user-friendliness of video-editing software and the rise of digital file sharing technologies. Audiovisual materials have become more easily accessible in general, as have the means to manipulate them. As the discussions in Chapter I and II will illustrate, traits of these technology-driven developments echo throughout current video essay practice.[3] Having an overview of them allows for a better understanding of current practices, and may contribute to the future of the video essay form by revealing ways it could learn from its earlier tendencies and previous pitfalls.

Whereas initially film oriented videos were uploaded without a clear center, goal, targeted audience, or established institution, lately there have been initiatives to select, group, commission and evaluate essayistic audiovisual work. Existing publication platforms for scholarly output are in the process of finding ways to adapt to and incorporate audiovisual work, while new online platforms and journals focusing on multimedia essays are being conceived. The most recent development is the emergence of websites and web periodicals that resemble more traditional journals (c.q. allow peer-reviewed publication) but are wholly centered on video. Notable examples are Reverse Shot’s Moving Image Source; Indiewire’s PressPlay; TriQuarterly and Mediascape. More scholarly examples can be found in the Vimeo group Audiovisualcy;; Teaching Media; Audiovisual Thinking; Film Studies For Free; and most recently REFRAME’s The Audiovisual Essay, and [in]Transition, which defines itself as “the first peer-reviewed academic journal of videographic film and moving image studies”.[4] These advances show that the audiovisual format is fully in development, as is the theory that attempts to describe, classify, and ultimately appropriate and legitimize the novel practice (efforts which, in fact, are carried out in large part by the same people that produce the videos – Faden 2008, Grant 2011, Lavik 2012 and 2012a, Proctor 2013, Lee 2013, and Marshall 2013, among others). Nevertheless, these journals and other gatekeepers (such as Vimeo groups) often select and share videos from the same pool of audiovisual works, where material can range from three hours to three years old. For instance, the first curated issue of [in]Transition – once again, one of the academically devoted attempts at an online journal presenting video – surfaced in February 2014 and featured Kogonada’s What is Neorealism? ​video, which stems from May 2013. After a short period of discovery and curated publication of existing video material on newly established online sites, today’s mainstream websites, professional film distributors, as well as platforms with academic ambitions began to actively stimulate production, calling for original and exclusive audiovisual essays.[5][6]
Considering this relatively new practice within the tradition of scholarly or academic communication, however, the videographic form is rhetorically and theoretically underdeveloped when compared to and contrasted with what one would expect from a written academic text. Perhaps most saliently, practically none of the existing videos attain self-sufficiency: all videos thrive through one form of accompanying text or another, either to explain the motivation behind the visuals, or to list their referenced works and media. In an academic context, video descriptions often link to “accompanying essays,” despite the video itself already being named “video essay”. But in reality, ‘accompanying’ is an understatement and the video would lose critical context without the write up. All too often the video functions as a mere illustration to traditional text, rather than offering independent and rounded argumentation in and of itself: the video is used in a similar fashion to the way stills have been used for some time now in contemporary Film Studies. A truly holistic video that is sufficiently articulate and informative when viewed from start to end is arguably a viable opportunity and one that settles into a category of its own. Experiments offering a serious move in this direction have been taking place while we have been writing this book. ​Notable examples are Tony Zhou’s videos that combine an essayistic voice with clean formalist explorations (see, for example, his analysis of Joon-ho Bong’s 2013 idiosyncratic sci-fi thriller, Snowpiercer – Left or Right), and Kevin B. Lee’s self-reflective work (such as his 2014 What Makes a Video Essay Great?). As far as academic video goes, however, our own 37-minute attempt – (un)reliable (un)reliability – or, Perceptual Subversions of the Continuity Editing System [an essay video] (2013) – represents one of those early and few exceptions that underline the rule (despite it being presented in Lee’s video as being part of a bigger movement).
But, again, what makes a video essay academic? In the voice-over of his meta-video, Kevin B. Lee reaches out to our work and contrasts academic with the “more casual video essays that you typically see, the ones that capture attention and go viral [and are] short, smart, and addictively watchable” (at 1:33, and 2:04) [Figure 1].
Although the divide surely falls somewhere along these lines, it is not as simple as to define academic videos as less attractive or less prone to ‘virality’. Also, it goes without saying (although it is mentioned in Lee’s video [Figure 2]), that one does not need to be an educated and professional scholar in order to create ‘academic’ videos, nor is the production of ‘more casual’ videos reserved for those alternatively educated.
In his attempt to answer the question ‘What is digital scholarship?’, Martin Weller agrees:

Traditionally we have tended to think of scholars as being academics, usually employed by universities. (…) However, digital scholarship broadens this (…) somewhat [as] people become less defined by the institution to which they belong and more by the network and online identity they establish. Thus a well-respected digital scholar may well be someone who has no institutional affiliation. (Weller 2011, 4)

Consequently, it seems that it is better to define ‘academic’ less as a question of affiliation, but more as a specific mode of communication – an approach we adopt and further define throughout this book. Therefore we pose questions like ‘What makes an academic paper academic?’ and ‘What are the general criteria of academic writing?’. In any case, such questions will provide us with some handles to hold when discussing scholarly concerns of video essaying (if only because the discussion on writing has existed longer).
            As for defining ‘academic scholarship’ as a specific mode of communication, Steven Pinker’s cheeky take – ‘Why Academics Stink at Writing’ – mentions a blend of two writing styles that characterizes such a format:

The first is a practical style, in which the writer’s goal is to satisfy the reader’s need for a particular kind of information, and the form of the communication falls into a fixed template, such as the five-paragraph student essay or the standardized structure of a scientific article. The second is a style that [Francis-Noël] Thomas and [Mark] Turner call self-conscious, relativistic, ironic, or postmodern, in which ‘the writer’s chief, if unstated, concern is to escape being convicted of philosophical naïveté about his own enterprise. (Pinker 2015)

Although we acknowledge this discrepancy, even appreciating Pinker’s irony, we do not think that bad (‘self-conscious, relativistic, ironic, or postmodern’) academic writing should define academic writing as such. It is better if we focus on practical style and envision academic writing as a trade-off between the imprecise plain language, which is often low on cohesion and high on fluency, and the potentially obscuring ‘traditional’ academic style, which is, in turn, commonly high on cohesion and low on expressive clarity and fluency.
            However, ​one must not forget that academic style is generally targeted at a critical audience that is informed at a certain degree of knowledge. This is not an elitist remark, but a reinstated acknowledgement of a professional niche market at which academic works should be aimed. Outweighing the academic context’s professional audience and thereby dominating the paratextual discourse, according to Mark and Deborah Parker, the general public has a “distaste for any explanation or analysis that is abstract, comparative, or extended. (…) A fast trade in detail and anecdote among web-savvy, self-appointed critics leave little space for such criticism” (Parker and Parker 2011, 122). While the audiovisual essay breaks interesting ground at the grey area between academia and entertainment, academic writing should not seek to compete with mainstream (film) journalism. If anything, the goals and means are disparately different. For one, academic writing’s aimed precision in communication should not be overly seduced by the attractiveness of expression, style should not trump argumentation, and viewing statistics and social reward should not mellow our established scholarly standards. Perhaps one of the main reasons for forgetting the specificity of the targeted audience and straying away from the academic path is due to digital, open and networked social media, under which new circumstances and on which novel platforms videos are easily distributed and readily (often impulsively) evaluated. The attractive lure of such digital playgrounds sometimes puts agreed and standardized values into the shade. Due to its openness and digital ubiquity, socially shared and assessed digital scholarship becomes less defined by academic standards and institutions’ institutionalized principles. Before this makes us sound too conservative (we have certainly nothing against self-appointed film-criticism and its fertilizing creative prolificacy), we would like to note that we do not think that this is a detrimental development. On the contrary: we envision and advocate fresh standards of new digital scholarship that both maintain and refine traditional academic values within the profoundly transforming dissemination context.
            In order to strengthen Pinker’s ‘practical style’, define and perhaps even improve that ‘fixed template’, and, ultimately, maintain certain standardized communicative principles aiming at an informed audience in our socially mediated digital era, we need manuals – something like an updated version of the ones such as Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell’s seminal The Wadsworth Handbook, which could offer clear criteria and practical guidance that can lead to well-rounded academic conduct. In Chapter III we will dig into Kirszner and Mandell’s work and appropriate its textual guide to the audiovisual practice of video essaying.

An audiovisual scholarly practice that fully embraces established academic principles while also refining their traditional standards for the new digital era still needs to surface. We do not think that videographic works will render the traditional, textual-based scholarship obsolete, but, as claimed elsewhere, we “do see reasons why, and evidence for how, their implementation could provide a valuable contribution to research and educational practices” (Kiss 2014). What we are implying is that there is still an audiovisual niche for academia that is not being tended to its full potential, despite the fact that it innately possesses all the qualities of a next logical step in exercising in-depth Film Studies.

It should be noted that our exploration of the academic video essay or research video practice and the theoretical aspects that are directly affiliated to it are all relatively new. Film is a fairly young medium; film analysis and theory are even younger. The perspective adopted in Chapter I, that is the history of the – mediatized – development of Film Studies itself, has only recently come into being (e.g., Andrew 2009, Grieveson and Wasson 2008). Problems with transposing established academic standards from written text to alternative media formats are a logical result of this novelty. The Internet, offering a hosting platform for the plethora of outcomes of audiovisual practice, is hardly thirty years old in its current form. Also, the ease with which videos can be shared, as is now the standard for online distribution, came to fruition only about a decade ago with the inception of YouTube.[7] Although video essays can very well be used as educational tools in an offline mode, the possibility for sharing content on a large scale has propelled the form’s appeal and maturation. It is no coincidence that the video essaying practice took off after YouTube’s launch: although ‘playing’ with the film material – in form of grabbing frames and scenes to illustrate publications and presentations – was a more or less common aspect of the scholarly work, a social platform was needed to demonstrate the practical benefits as well as the aesthetic attractiveness of such hands-on exploration. While scholars produced audiovisual materials in the pre-YouTube era, their fragmentary work hardly qualifies as what we now consider audiovisual essaying, let alone valid academic scholarship. What makes an audiovisual essay, in-part, is its intention to be one: an intention to be a closed work (not in terms of meeting academic standards, but rather, in terms of formal intent); an intention of having an argumentative potential (not only explanatory but also poetic essays are made for communicating a point) or at least a concept (that makes the idea more than a mere catalogue – see Álvarez López 2014); an intention of formal and aesthetic attractiveness (to express cinephilic passion, and to prove confidence in mastering technology and film language); and an intention of being valued (being shared within the academic community, or even go viral beyond that, as well as accepted as scholarship). The latter two of the principles can be regarded as typical to the video essay, as well as qualities that make producing them a fruitful and rewarding endeavor. Regarding scholars in the pre-YouTube era: the means available to them were simply too crude to produce works that meet the criteria stated here. And as several passages in this book will illustrate: intention does not always yield the desired results, nor is the term ‘essay’ always properly used.
            ​Immediacy and spreadability are not mere byproducts of web content and its affiliated possibilities; they influence not only the rhetoric by which videos are constructed, but also their appeal and impact. Some would go as far as to say it is, in fact, this very aspect of the work that renders it ‘ontologically new’ (see Chapter III for a more thorough discussion of this classification and its implications). As illustrated in Chapters II and III, some adopters of this viewpoint tend to depart from established modes and standards of academic scholarship in favor of exploring the artistic potential (and appeal) of web-based video.
            ​Despite the fact that the Internet started off as a free-for-all sandbox (and many may still regard it as such), the need for gatekeepers and orienting collections have made it so that even hosts for user-generated content have come to closely resemble institutionalized media. To bluntly summarize: introduction-level information is filed under Wikipedia, video is uploaded on YouTube or Vimeo, movie-trivia is looked up at IMDb, rather than a devoted fan site, et cetera. Online Film Studies are slowly undergoing a similar aggregation that is now taking place with still form-seeking online journals and specialized platforms. Though the same principles and needs may loom under the surface of the video essay practice, in the case of publishable research, platforms with defined criteria to enable content with a more stable, or even standardized character are actually needed. Ideally, such established platforms set and safeguard a certain level of quality, provide clear indication, and foster innovation while maintaining underlying quality criteria.
            That being said, novel experiments in audiovisual dissection, analysis, reflection and even theorization are being undertaken at this very moment, and new forms of appropriation surface regularly. Although there are scholars who engage with video, most fail, or are simply uninterested in translating and applying the same criteria on their efforts that the scholarly community impose on academic writing.[8] Granted, one of the innate virtues of video is exactly the fact that it is not text, and it would seem illogical to treat it as such. However, when the innate rhetoric of the audiovisual container itself comes into play this becomes an issue – which is most probably part of the general problem of converting textual devices trans-medially. Those who acknowledge the attractive possibilities and engage in the alluring practice of audiovisual rhetoric, in turn, appear to become involved in that specific area to a degree that abandons explanatory lucidity and informational traceability in the process. In other words: it seems as if the possibility for experimenting and reconfiguring different media becomes a goal in itself, instead of a means to progress ideas in a way similar to what written scholarship has built a reliable tradition in. It seems as if there is something new now in hands-on work with audiovisual material that would make our tinkering (our research practice) worth publishing as a scholarly output of our research. But have film scholars not always (or at least since the time of consumer versions of time shifting technologies) worked with films, hands-on and long before the opportunity to share such tinkering processes, and without a need to name it an ‘audiovisual essay’?[9] We are aware of the fact that the coming-of-age of new media is not necessarily garnered by mirroring the workings of old(er) media through mechanical remediation,[10] yet we found it remarkable that current video essays – of the academic kind – show near-complete disregard of a tradition of analysis and theory. As a result, we came across relatively uninhibited (or, willfully naive) conduct that neglects their chosen medium’s potential, and consequently does not really innovate the study of films, but occasionally even threatens to loosen the academic integrity that characterizes Film Studies as a scholarly practice. Therefore, we strongly feel that audiovisual essaying should be more than an appropriation of traditional video artistry, or a mere audiovisually upgraded extension of our analytical practice. What we expect from it is a form of expression that is autonomous and self-sufficient, that would both maintain and refine traditional academic values, and ultimately could lead to a ‘true’ audiovisual turn in communicative discourse by as well as about films.

For that reason, we wish to add to the knowledge surrounding this still developing phenomenon and investigate future possibilities of the practice in this book. Though we will present a mostly descriptive account, we believe this will intrinsically provide an argument for progressing academic work on cinema through audiovisual means. Again, we do not believe that audiovisual scholarship will take the place of traditional text-based analysis and theory, but it can provide a valuable complement that may enrich educational and research possibilities.
            ​Our exploration focuses on the trans-medial evolution of film-related scholarship from a technical-representative point of view. Therefore, we are not particularly concerned with the content of the practice: neither in its ideology or case, nor in the subjective (aesthetic) quality of its results.[11] Instead, we are interested in the medium and its creative affordance in the academic context (illustrative media, such as stills, paratexts, convergent and hypermedia, and the means of investigating content by power of a theoretical framework, and getting results in a methodical fashion). This scope may seem overly reductive of (and sometimes even critical toward) the many nuances and idiosyncrasies of the field (which expands exponentially as we write), but for the sake of focus, brevity and clarity, this is a necessity. Where needed, we will note the general line of inquiry, but only when entangled with the technological mode of study.

The leading question for this book is How can the traits and rhetoric of a traditionally text-based scholarly work, characterized by academic lucidity and traceability of information and argumentation, be optimally incorporated and streamlined into an autonomous, audiovisual container?Our research will be presented in three parts.
            In Chapter I we will designate three movements that preluded and influenced the current formation of video essays. These are the medial evolution of film theory; the audiovisual explorations of essay in personal documentary and essay film; and the inception of multimedia extensions, as explanatory supplements to films, found with digital video carriers.
            ​In Chapter II, we will map the formal properties of current ‘video essay’ practice. This entails providing a taxonomy of the dominant manifestations, describing their context, and distilling common tendencies and idiosyncrasies.
            In Chapter III we will match these practices up with the standards applied to the guidelines for academic writing, and supplement them with theoretical considerations for streamlining audiovisual rhetoric. This will result in the proposition of a formal blueprint, seeking to close the posited discrepancy between current practice and an ideal form.

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