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


According to Andy Baio, who coined the term in April 2008, “‘[s]upercuts’ are obsessive-compulsive montages of video clips, meticulously isolating every instance of a single film, usually cliches, phrases, and other tropes” (Baio 2008).[47] In short, supercuts are condensed representations of a film or multiple films; commonly exhibiting recurring patterns of directorial trademarks or salient tropes. The most common means of portrayal are either successive examples that take up the entire video frame one after another, split-screen representation where examples are paralleled or juxtaposed, or, in some cases, successively edited clusters of multiple frames across the screen, resulting in a kaleidoscopic view. The ‘common’ supercut has no voice-over; it features a single piece of music throughout the entire montage and exempts diegetic sound, unless sound and music is (part of) the focus, as it is the case, for example, in Kogonada’s Sounds of Aronofsky (2012), or in Nelson Carvajal’s Pacino: Full Roar (2013) video.
The supercut can be accompanied by a write-up, contextualizing the tone, scope and aim of the video, or simply listing the films cited. As for ways of listing the cited films, Zach Prewitt's The Last Thing You See: A Final Shot Montage (2013) provides an elegant solution where each fragment is individually and chronologically noted in the description box with clickable timecode-links that jump to the corresponding film scene in the video.
Often curators of videographic platforms preface or contextualize the video with a write-up. This is a common alternative to the video’s author writing the accompanying article him or herself. Most notably, this is the set-up for [in]Transition, where audiovisual works are peer-reviewed and accompanied by a more scholarly – analytical and reflexive – write-up. In such processes, videos might be (re-)contextualized for specific audiences. More often than not, however, online videos are presented as without aid of any accompanying text or lists of quoted titles, thus trusting the viewer’s inferential judgment in figuring out the intention or ‘point’ behind their compilation – as it is the case in the completely non-annotated critical take on Claire Danes’s acting style in Slacktory’s The Claire Danes Cry Face Supercut (2012).
Videos with identical aesthetics are offered in scholarly, as well as non-scholarly, circles – examples include Vimeo groups and channels, like “The Filmmakers”, or entertainment websites such as Curiously, the expression ‘video essay’ is most often mentioned in video titles or descriptions by scholars and critics, while other, mostly non-professional, groups and platforms tend to label such videos (with identical rhetoric) as ‘tributes’ or simply ‘supercuts’.
            ​Bluntly summarized, the supercut elucidates a single phenomenon from a body of work or works as its thesis, made known implicitly through the title – see, for example, Kogonada’s Kubrick // One-Point Perspective (2012), and Breaking Bad // POV (2012).
The videos themselves commonly provide a parade of examples underpinning the same single observation. In order to drive their points home, supercuts often embellish their compilations through technical manipulations, such as increasing the tempo of editing, superimposing corresponding shots, or employing graphic overlays. Superimpositions and graphic overlays are common in, but not exclusive to, Kogonada’s work. For an example of the latter, look at his Wes Anderson // Centered (2014) and, once more, Kubrick // One-Point Perspective [Figure 13].
An extreme and, in terms of argumentative value and convincing reasoning, somewhat questionable example of graphic overlays can be found in Ali Shirazi’s There Will Be Blood / Through Numbers (2013).[48]
Shirazi’s exploration of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 film denotes its focal points in the video description, and graphically superimposes its ‘findings’ (more like its ‘assumptions’ in form of graphs and calculations indicating the ubiquitous presence of the golden ratio in Anderson’s work) onto the video [Figure 14].
Though aesthetically pleasing, the function and explanatory value of the graphics presented here become increasingly vague as the video progresses, rendering the already frail argument questionable [Figure 15]. Ultimately, the shaky status of the video is directly related to the lack of a clearly formulated thesis.
In the years 2008-2014, supercuts commonly did not provide references to the films shown, perhaps thought of as redundant thus unnecessary when only one filmmaker is portrayed (halfway through 2015 there seems to be a gradual shift towards presenting lists with links). Kogonada’s videos, with titles in the line of “[subject] // [focus]”, as in the aforementioned Kubrick // One-Point Perspective, Breaking Bad // POV, as well as in his Tarantino // From Below (2012), and Wes Anderson // From Above (2012), followed the characteristics mentioned above: implicit thesis, video set to a piece of music, no works cited list.
Similarly, Flavorwire introduced a collection of supercuts of “[name actor] Loses His Shit” that compile excerpts of climactic moments where actors deliver emotionally explosive performances – see, for example, Robert De Niro Loses His Shit (edited by Jason Bailey in 2013).
The video by Nelson Carvajal follows the exact same principle – presenting a compilation of Al Pacino having a mental breakdown –, yet it is titled Press Play Video Essay – Pacino: Full Roar (2013).
While, on the one hand, Flavorwire merely presents “details and credits” in its supercuts’ Vimeo description boxes and adds links to, Carvajal’s description, on the other hand, promises a “full article” by Matt Zoller Seitz and Carvajal himself – although it features little more than a discussion of specific Pacino-moments or the thrill of watching a video like this (and thereby it represents a work, once again, closer to celebratory fandom than systematic criticism or analysis). Neither the text nor the video allude to any form of ‘essay’ in terms of rhetoric or even content, yet the term is mentioned in the video title as well as in Seitz’s Press Play article (Seitz 2013). The main, and actually only, difference between the two supercuts is that one is featured on Flavorwire, which is a general site for cultural news and commentary, and was made by a staff member, while the other is on Press Play, which, according to the late Roger Ebert, is “[t]he best video essay source on the web” (see Press Play’s ‘about’ description), and made by a professional critic with an established online profile [Figure 16].
A sub-genre of this approach to audiovisual rhetoric is what we propose to call compilational supercuts. This type of video demonstrates an inversion of variables, such as multiple directors being analyzed with one film example per filmmaker as opposed to multiple film examples per one director. Notably, Nelson Carvajal produces these types of videos for both educational as well as entertainment or celebratory purposes. Videos of the first category would be Video Essay: I Love Chocolate (2013), Video Essay: Slow Burn (2013), and the gamut of videos in Vimeo groups “35mm – A Group for Cinephiles”, “The Filmmakers” and “Cinematic Montage Creators”. An example of the latter category was just discussed above.
Nelson Carvajal and Max Winter’s later work ​Women in the Works of Martin Scorsese (2014) shows the lack of evolution within this (sub-)genre. The first three minutes juxtapose footage of women verbally lashing out, and then, across Liza Minnelli’s rendition of New York, New York (in the film by the same title from 1977), a sequence shows women in roles as objects of affection. Though the video is thematically clear-cut, its ultimate goal is undefined beyond the simple aim of clustering and cataloging female performances in Scorsese’s films (even the types and roles are implicit).
Although the supercut’s written accompaniment clarifies a lot regarding Carvajal and Winter’s aims (the write-up reveals an intention to display powerful women), one may wonder why the video’s authors did not work this information into the video itself (for example by giving a more suggestive and explanatory title). The accompanying information, in a form of an article, is revealed only through a link in the video’s description box on Vimeo; technically as well as rhetorically speaking, the moment the video is embedded, one loses such contextual information that actually could reveal the ‘point’ of the video. This is one of the key problems with this kind of video-plus-text clusters, especially when the text has such significant role in directing one’s reading and interpretation of the video in question.

Examples of kaleidoscopic supercuts arrived somewhat later to the game, and certainly in smaller numbers. Salient and aesthetically quite powerful examples can be found in Kevin B. Lee’s Andrei Tarkovsky’s Cinematic Candles (2014) and Catherine Grant’s Intersection (2014).
Both videos focus on one filmmaker and one film, yet attempt to represent their findings as visually condensed as possible: while Lee’s video shows all of 123 shots featuring a candle in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia (1983), fanned out in 36 frames across the screen, Grant’s Intersection simultaneously shows all the sequences from Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) that play out to the same cello-theme waltz that recurs throughout the film [Figure 17].
Similar ‘soft montage’[49] ​examples of split-screened and picture-in-picture paralleled presentations can be found in Ali Shirazi’s P.T. Anderson // Close-ups (2014) or in Kogonada’s Ozu // Passageways (2012).
Both Lee’s and Grant’s videos are supplied with links to accompanying texts, ​indicated as “full description” (Lee) and “[y]ou can read more about this video” (Grant). The linked articles feature hermeneutic work that is exemplified and amplified in the videos: both authors isolate and then centralize a single trait that, they argue, unifies the film’s intricacies. The supplementary writing contextualizes, or better yet, warrants the approach and production of the videos. To show the range of the film trait – candle props and cello music – that these videos single out, they produced video that renders all of that singular device’s incarnations in a condensed perspective, which is more encompassing and aesthetically appealing than if one were to go through all of its manifestations one at a time, or present them via static stills. Though technically speaking more a dataset than an analysis, the kaleidoscopic supercut is a very potent form.

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