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


Typically, the terms ‘visual essay’, ‘audiovisual essay’, and ‘video essay’ are used interchangeably. In their manifesto-text in the online journal NECSUS, Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin attempt to make an end of this diversity by arguing for their choice:

we choose audiovisual essay because: a. we all need to put an end to the casual ignoring of the decisive role of sound in every form of modern media; b. video (as in electronic videotape) is already an anachronistic term in the digital age and has been for some time; c. essay is a word which, in the spheres of film and media (both their analysis and production), has come to carry the simultaneous connotations of intellectual research and poetic exploration – neither simply a vehicle for instrumental rationalism nor art for art’s sake. (Álvarez López & Martin 2014a)

While the argument for the preferred umbrella term – ‘audiovisual essay’ – is precise regarding the accurate selection and naming of the term’s components, it is also too general if not inexpressive in terms of possible forms, methods, and functions of an already diversified practice.
            ‚ÄčIn 2013, in an attempt to assign some specificity and open up discussion about more distinctly formulated functionality as well as about the true novelty of the videographic practice, we proposed ‘essay video’ as a new sub-category. This rearrangement of words would signify an emphasis of essay in video-form, rather than allowing ‘video’-technicalities to trump the ‘essay’ component.[12] By now, however, it has become obvious that this codification contains at least two problematic elements. Firstly, the lexical variation is too minimal, and thus prone to confusion. This compromises the desired clarity in categorical distinction.[13] Secondly, the term ‘essay’ is problematic in itself: although an ‘essay’ may entail personal opinion under academic standards, its practice is always founded upon research that is clearly referenced along the progressing argumentation. Due to its vast tradition, the definition of essay might vary, allowing different approaches to serve different scholarly needs. Outside the context of academic writing, the personal angle dominates the construction of ‘essay’, which produces myriad – sometimes esoteric – structures of argumentation that assimilates prior reading into a singular, uninterrupted voice (Lopate 1992); a mode of referral that not only opposes the aforementioned, academic, fashion, but also sets it apart as unwanted.
            ‚ÄčInstead of engaging in futile terminological and definitional disputes, what we present here is a brief historical and theoretical overview, and formal guidelines to an audiovisual container that can host analytical, theoretical, philosophical or essayistic work. Our exploration is a creative, theoretical as well as practical meditation on the possibilities of audiovisual scholarship as a relatively novel trans-medial analytic tool, which, alternatively, is aimed at both maintaining as well as progressing traditional standards and values of academic conduct. Therefore, we shall leave ‘visual essay’, ‘audiovisual essay’ and ‘video essay’ as interchangeable terms, and will point towards the idealized form of academic research in an audiovisual wrapper as autonomous and explanatorily argumentative research video that contributes to a now-forming videographic Film Studies (in this book we only use the latter, longer, version when it is important to point out self-sufficient and research-supporting argumentative and explanatory qualities). “It is autonomous as it provides, just like a traditional academic paper, a self-contained standalone experience, and argumentative as it offers thesis-driven explicit reasoning” (Kiss 2014). Additionally, it is explanatory, regarding its mode and aims of communication, in which it greatly differs from other more artistic and poetic types of audiovisual expressions. While, again, even the most obscure poetic videos are intended to communicate an argument, they are often not interested in carrying out a comprehensible and unambiguous explanation within said audiovisual form. If the video does, however, explicate its arguments, then it “lends itself more easily to some pre-existing academic standards – recognized in traditional textual scholarship – and hence eases the task of evaluation” (ibid). It is important to note that the practice of research video that qualify as autonomous, argumentative, and explanatory (the focus of the present book) is just one form of (and idea about) audiovisual creativity that does not wish to exclude other modes of video essaying concerning film, all of which are valid and valuable in their own right. As Catherine Grant, one of the most prominent (and prolific) advocates of the practice points out, it is not evident whether producers of videos should be “aiming to ‘translate’ the (often unspoken) norms and traditions of written film studies into audiovisual versions, or (…) embrace from the outset the idea [of] creating ontologically new scholarly forms” (Grant 2014).[14]

Though it may not seem like it at first, the ambition of this book is rather moderate: instead of aiming for a (speculative) exploration of all the perspectives that an ontologically new scholarly form could cover, we rather provide an overview of this field in the making, one that deals less with theoretical reflection and focuses all the more on tracing the cultural and technological developments leading up to video essays. We try to keep an open mind while attempting to conjure up a demarcated vantage point. We will instate a typology of the ongoing practice and will consider current views on the practice’s ontology with (and even outside of) regards to traditional scholarship. From there on out, the book investigates the possibilities to define the autonomous and explanatorily argumentative research video as an alternative to text-based scholarship, and provides hands-on recommendations for both the production and evaluation of such videos.
            As an amalgam of a textbook, scholarly monograph, and best practice guide, this book will first aim at an audience of professionals and students who are working in the areas of Film Studies, or, more specifically, who have an interest in Digital Humanities and the practice of videographic work within. We aim to render the first part of this book accessible for a wide array of readers (scholars, students, and others interested in the topic). The second part will complement the first part by elaborating on a specific practice of autonomous research video, using a tone and delivery more suited for academic circles and (prospective) practitioners of videographic work. Subject areas include film analysis and visual culture. The book could be adopted for courses centering on research video-production. Both parts of the book are relevant here. Later on, the second part of the book could also suffice as a basic handbook to guide students in producing videographic term papers for any course in Film and Media Studies. Audiovisual essaying is a general communication form with great potential in transferability, thus its practice could also be adopted by studies and faculties not directly engaged with cinema. Being part of the developments of Digital Humanities, it can serve practically all study trajectories that now end with a written essay.

Notwithstanding a certain academic rigor, we strive to write with clarity, employ rational argumentation and explanatory tone. Meanwhile, upholding a style that should allow an accessible reading experience is of equal concern. Parts of this book perhaps may come across as overly critical towards different forms of audiovisual practice. Some may deem our arguments conservative; advocating ideas that rain on the sense of adventure many may feel while (first) venturing into a video of their own. We are aware of this danger, and encourage everyone to take up their own experiments with audiovisual materials. That being said, our self-imposed theoretical sobriety and deliberate criticism should be considered valid from the specific angle of our investigation; that is, from the academic research context within which some of the hereby-analyzed works are (intended to be) situated.

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