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

Thesis video

The parts of Matthias Stork’s Chaos Cinema cycle mark perhaps the first instances of thesis video. ​
While external sources are wholly absent in Part 1 and 2, this is largely due to the fact that these videos are built like a string of videographic formalism installments. For every argument, Stork offers a film clip which he annotates through voice-over as the clip plays out: the center of the screen is (somewhat cumbersomely) reserved for a boxed-in version of the film, with the title of each clip presented in the top-left corner at its onset. The first installment surfaced on August 15, 2011 and was something of an anomaly. Arguably it still is today. To playfully introduce the concept of ‘chaos’, the video starts with a clip from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). Stork then comes in with his voice-over, offering the premise of the video and his thesis, namely, that mainstream action cinema has become increasingly detached from classical continuity in both execution as well as purpose. The 10’23” thesis video packs a lot of information in a relatively simple format: the screen is constantly filled with video clips; the audio track is taken up by the accompanying sound of the clip, with the levels turned down every now and then to give way to Stork’s verbal commentary. While the first two videos were fairly similar, Part 3 expands on the technical and technological execution of the original subject (intensified continuity/chaos cinema), but also examines the impact of the first video by discussing the responses Part 1 elicited. As for technical improvements, Part 3 uses lecture-like slides and title cards to segment and demarcate the different topics. In addition, screen captures of various websites and clips of recorded computer game gameplay are implemented as means to underline Stork’s observations delivered through voice-over. As for segmentation, the chapters in the third video are headed by the most salient responses to Part I. Stork uses quotes from these responses and superimposes them on the screen mid-center, written in white color; bottom-center in red; or breaks them up halfway so that the text wraps around the visuals at the center of the screen. The end of Part 3 cites sources, but the selection is incomplete: the clips used in the video are absent here, though, these titles are shown in the running video at points when they are relevant. The sources of the quoted articles that were the foundation for the separate chapters are wholly absent [Figure 29]. Stork’s and Bordwell’s endeavors show that even the more scholarly and in-depth videos are not accustomed to conventional reference praxis when ideas are communicated by means of video.
Roughly around the time of Stork’s videos, courses engaging with audiovisual essays became more popular at different institutions of higher learning across the globe. Thesis videos come close to traditional written essays – and to their audiovisual counterparts of autonomous research videos – and are mostly affiliated with institutionalized education. This affiliation is a logical one, as in these cases there are teachers present to assign subjects, creative angles or even theoretical and rhetorical approaches. Experimental classes are taking place internationally, led by like-minded scholars and result in comparable outcomes. Like the categorical indication implies, thesis videos are founded upon a thesis. Ideally, they are built around the rhetorical means to develop their arguments and discussions. In practice, this would entail a theoretical framework, close analysis, and a conclusion. While carrying out such rounded project, student-videos are oftentimes hampered by time restrictions, limiting the room for development. In her 2012 article, “Video Essay in the Cinema History Classroom”, Kelli Marshall shares her experience, according to which, despite the fact that students generally do not have any problem with the technological aspects of the work (ripping clips, editing, etc.), producing a video with consistent audiovisual quality as well as sound rhetoric, however, remains an overly challenging task. Additionally, the success of these videos all too often hinges upon preceding contextual knowledge. Similar problems arise in several pilot programs, and run parallel to the general concern expressed by, among others, the founders of [in]Transition: those who teach video essays have not been taught themselves (at this point); everyone in the current playing field is self-taught and self-made. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that some of the instructors have not yet garnered enough experience themselves in making and studying video essays to properly project any ‘ideal’ method or outcome on their students. Our experience (distilled from our own audiovisual practice and from an informal survey with students and teachers we carried out at the University of Groningen) tells us that the general output of classroom videos varies, and proceedings are similar as those described by Marshall. Students encountered little to no troubles in the preparatory and production phases (including ripping clips), although the outcome revealed there were frequent problems with technology-related scholarly aspects such as disregarding or disrespecting original aspect ratios; editing clips with different visual qualities (e.g., resolution); or finding means to incorporate (written) sources. Additionally, the videos, more often than not, lacked consistency in terms of aesthetics, rhetoric and general handling and documenting of information (which was to be expected, as students’ capabilities in academic writing can vary). However, all shortcomings can often be attributed to the open-ended nature of both the assignments as well as their evaluation. If students are given no frame of reference, it is not surprising that theoretical conduct can come out highly inconsistent. Despite the fact that all students had passed classes in academic writing at that point in their education, most videos did not include a thesis. In addition, hermeneutic attempts were executed without consulting theory, and reference to intellectual property was often not properly documented, or not documented at all. Once more, although we acknowledge and embrace the value of free and playful hands-on experimentation in our teaching practice, somewhat ‘out of the box’ of the scholarly tradition, we also would like to remind ourselves that only those can step out of such box who are already ‘in’ it and therefore familiar with its discursive boundaries in the first place.

Our own 2013 effort, (un)reliable (un)reliability – or, Perceptual Subversions of the Continuity Editing System, was a relatively elaborate pilot attempt at producing an autonomous academic thesis video. While its runtime and allocation of materials pairs up with that of the video lecture, its audiovisual rhetoric is a combination of annotated excerpts, videographic formalism and video lecture.
Some of the aesthetic choices include: a self-composed musical soundtrack which was automated in volume in relation to the appropriateness of the voice-over and the audiotracks from video excerpts; clips were included from multiple films (instead of only the case study), as well as third party visuals, diagrams, screencaps and drop quotes from articles. All of these sources were referenced in the running video at the instances where they appeared as well as in a works cited list presented at the end of the video, in the style of a credit roll. To secure overview in an otherwise dense video, the screen was divided in regions allocated for specific functions: the lower-left corner shows page-references; the bottom line of the screen presents more elaborate literature references; the center of the screen is reserved for showing video clips, drop quotes and slides/text-cards. In a video with a high degree of audiovisual and informational compression as this one, consistent placement of distinct types of information greatly facilitates the viewing experience. In addition, theoretically dense passages were delivered multimodally, for instance both as on-screen written text as well as through voice-over. This makes the often difficult vocabulary used in the voice more comprehensible, or aids with the relatively brief timespans which one has to read on-screen text. Additionally, whereas all videos discussed thus far employ a single mode of presentation, our video sought to provide a sort of multimodal ‘lexical variation’, meaning that creative decisions were made to not have incorporate and facilitate several presentational modes (like supercuts, or elements of a lecture). Furthermore, the audiovisual material from the main case study was re-cut in a manner fitting to illustrate the point being made per example (most excerpts were looped in sequences, where additional annotation was added with every recurrence of that loop). The video’s rhetoric was modeled after a written research paper, starting with an introduction, followed by a contextualized thesis, consideration of form and method, theoretical framework, case study, and conclusion [Figure 30]. A logical problem that followed from this approach is, however, that there is too much of an emphasis on verbal text: the voice-over delivers a lot of in-depth information in a vocabulary that is closer to writing than speech, in a limited amount of time. This way, the video can be hard to muster for some. Nevertheless, accessibility was intentionally sacrificed in order to scope out the polar opposite of popular, yet, in terms of explanatory power, shallow videos. Therefore, it should be clear that this video was a pilot attempt, a means of testing the waters of technological and informational possibilities. For a video to succeed as a ‘text’ that is accessible, intricate and lucid, we suggest to find middle ground in perhaps all of the videos discussed in this chapter and oscillate between light and dense constructions where needed.
A relative newcomer to the scene that immediately made big waves is Tony Zhou. The first of his videos surfaced on May 9th, 2014 (on the use of telephoto lenses in Joon-ho Bong’s Mother, and reliability trickery in Bart Layton’s thriller-doc The Imposter). His work can best be described as thesis videos. Aside from the fact the he is a professional editor, he had a format at the ready as well: the name Every Frame a Painting and, in general, the overarching idea for the scope and style of his string of videos thus far are present right out of the gate. Zhou’s videos generally center on the creative devices as used by a certain director (Akira Kurosawa – Composing Movement, Lynne Ramsay – The Poetry of Details, and David Fincher – And the Other Way is Wrong), or isolate an idea from a specific film (Snowpiercer – Left or Right, Silence of the Lambs – Who Wins the Scene?, Drive (2011) – The Quadrant System). Aside from bridging relatively in-depth film analysis with accessibility, Zhou also introduced several new aspects to the realm of video essaying. One of Zhou’s trademarks that immediately draws attention is, as Kevin B. Lee dubs it, ‘hypernarration’ – Zhou’s voice-over delivers high quality information in a casual yet fast paced and well-punctuated manner. The rapid-fire styling of the way he conveys his information has an appealing quality to it, yet it does not suit every purpose or angle. In his What Makes a Video Essay Great?, Kevin B. Lee compares and contrasts this aspect of video essaying with van den Berg’s muted, more Kogonada-like voice work. Arguably, these two modes of voice-over represent the two polar opposites of the spectrum. Now, returning to the discussion of trademarks: the second salient aspect of Zhou’s industry is that he has set-up a Patreon account where fans, subscribers and the like can ‘pledge’ to fund him. He continues to make his videos available for free, free of ads, but offers special versions (annotated or additionally educational) to those that pay. While the main constructional component of these videos is videographic formalism, it is the ideas, the way these are set-forth and the construction of the videos that unmistakably make them thesis-driven Tony Zhou works. All in all, Zhou’s videographic works are exemplary to properly researched and documented videos existing outside of academic context. Zhou is a good example of ‘finding middle ground’ and shows high potential for the progression of the form [see the thumbnail image and description of Zhou's F for Fake (1973) - How to Structure a Video Essay (2015) - Figure 31].

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