The Videographic Essay: Practice and Pedagogy

In Dialogue: Eric Faden and Kevin B. Lee

This conversation between two noted videographic innovators was held in Fall of 2015.

Eric Faden – One of the reasons I wanted to have a conversation instead of writing something down is because I find it really challenging to talk about video work as text. And you were saying earlier that your first thought was, what videos could we show?

Kevin B. Lee – Absolutely, and I definitely feel handcuffed here, in terms of not having visual aids to accompany our conversation, but I guess that just goes to show how my mind has become accustomed to this mode of articulation and exploration of audiovisual materials. To me there’s a common-sensical logic to it – to use video work to explore and explain video work. I think that’s the primary promise of this type of work: it’s actually using the material to articulate itself, working within the medium to explain the medium.

Eric – Let’s talk about beginnings.

Kevin – I find it interesting that we come from very different backgrounds, and we’ve had years of professional – or in my case, pseudo-professional – experience; we’ve both worked in the industry or pursed filmmaking careers in different ways, while at the same time having scholarly and critical interest in film, trying to understand films at the same time as wanting to make them – studying films in order to make films better, or maybe making films in order to study films better – which is where we’re at now with videographic work.

Eric – So you began more as a critic?

Kevin – To really begin, I was an aspiring filmmaker, I worked several years in New York as one of these grunts in the independent scene. I got kind of disenchanted with that environment, so I retreated to getting a 9 to 5 desk job, of which about four hours were actually spent doing work. I’d get the work done and then spend the rest of the time on the Internet exploring movie sites, and that amounted to my film school. It was the way I could educate myself as well as possibly advance my independent film career.

Eric – I am a little older than you, and one clear difference between us is that your film education was born digital.

Kevin – Yes, it was, and it extended from learning to making. I was spending a lot of time thinking and writing about movies on these informal forums, and this then became kind of semi-professional. I started my own blog and started writing for other sites as well. As part of my blogging, I started extracting and posting clips online to use as modes of illustration. This is something important that the digital era affords us: ‘I’m not just going to tell you, I’m going to show you what I’m talking about’. Then I started adding my own commentary to the video clips I posted on my blog, and this then gradually progressed into more invasive modes of interpellation – re-editing clips in ways that could bring out what I was trying to point out about a scene – and becoming still more elaborate with the techniques. That’s when I sort of reached the point where I could call myself a ‘video essayist’. That was around 2007.

Eric – You’ve also written for Sight & Sound and Senses of Cinema, which are more traditional critical publications. Did that come before or after the video essay evolution?

Kevin – It was happening sort of concurrently. I secured a handful of freelance assignments for Senses of Cinema and the Chicago Reader. But ironically I didn’t really consider myself a professional critic until I got a fair amount of notoriety from doing the video essay work, and that was because a number of established critics started viewing the video essays I was posting on my blog, and I started entering into conversations with them – people like Matt Zoller Seitz, and Richard Brody from The New Yorker. I then invited them to collaborate. I wanted to be a facilitator, to bring them into this mode of criticism, and also to learn from them what perspectives they had that I could incorporate into my own video work. There was an intensive period from 2007 to 2009 where I collaborated with something like three dozen film critics, mostly in New York, but also some academics like Kristin Thompson and Paolo Cherchi Usai. And these collaborations helped bring videographic work to a greater public, or at least a greater community of film critics.

And then YouTube shut down my site. They changed their policy overnight, and suddenly I had three strikes against me for using copyrighted work without permission. And that drew the attention of these critics I had worked with, who then spoke out on my behalf. As a result, my account got reinstated, but also certain parties started looking for ways to legitimize my work to serve their purposes. Focus Features hired me to produce videos for their catalog of films. So making video essays was not just for me a mode of exploration of a new form, but also a kind of process of community building – bringing people together through this type of work.

Eric – So in many ways, what you were doing was not so much a radical break from traditional criticism. That is, you were doing something different, but the canon of critics who were writing in a traditional way were able to be incorporated into this new approach very neatly.

Kevin – Yes. I guess the term that comes to mind for me is para-criticism. I started off doing something that was on the periphery, but here it ended up folding back into the mainstream context.

Eric – My development in this regard was much different. I didn’t really have the aspiration to be a filmmaker. I was in a traditional Ph.D. program at the University of Florida, around 1996-97, and they were just starting to integrate digital tools in the few production courses they had. They had Media 100, and I started dabbling with the tools. But my start with video essays came out of my frustration with academic writing. I was working on one of my dissertation chapters, and it was so unsatisfying to see these visual patterns that I wanted to discuss, which appeared across a wide group of films, fixed in description, because these descriptions never captured what it was that so fascinated me about these images in the first place. So the first video essays I made were simply illustrations. I had a chapter draft, so I took these illustrations – sometimes just one clip followed by another – and showed them to my dissertation director, Robert Ray, to say, "Here’s what I’m talking about." And then eventually, these video illustrations just sort of got out of control. I kept writing less text and making more and more illustrating videos. And with each video I made, I played around with more of the tools, exploring the possibilities. You mentioned a moment ago about techniques that were "invasive" – to me, that was hugely revelatory, to be able to manipulate the images. Instead of just cutting from one to the other, being able to put them side-by-side in the same frame, things like that.

But another issue raised by this work related to its status as scholarship. I was going on the academic job market, which as we know is really competitive these days. And as the video work became more complex, it felt like something more substantial than just illustration. But the question was: where and how does work like this get represented on my CV? Remember, this was late 1990s, still sort of on the verge of digital. There’s no social media, no Facebook, still very little Internet. This work couldn’t be published in a traditional academic journal, but neither was there yet a place for it on the Internet. So I started presenting my video essays at academic conferences, both simply to share what I’d made, but also as a way of distinguishing myself as a young scholar. Also, I regard the academic conference as one of the most deadly boring and inefficient ways of communicating information and ideas to ever come along. So I would often propose a traditional paper for a panel presentation, and then when I showed up, instead of reading a paper, I’d show a 20 minute video essay.

Kevin – What was the response like?

Eric – Some people were angry, oddly so. They’d say, "You’re not doing academic work." But then a large number of others were really excited by it. Of course, the real challenge in taking up a strategy like this is that you really have to deliver the goods. The work has to stand on its own in making the case for scholarship in an audiovisual form. Then soon, lots of people, mostly outside academia, were starting to produce videos like this, so as distribution platforms like Youtube were posting these, people in academic film studies started to rightly wonder about how my video essay work was different from, say, a ‘supercut’? At what point does a work start to take on a critical, scholarly function? Showing my work at conferences was a way to offer evidence so that other scholars could see and start to define those differences for themselves. Surely there was a similar issue for you: "How does this work becomes criticism? How does it move past simply putting clips together for purposes of illustration?"

Kevin – Yes, and regarding the scholarship issue, there are videos I have seen produced in the academic context that seem like nothing more than a conference paper, read aloud, with clips under it. And then you have to wonder, how much of an improvement is this from the traditional mode? I call work like this "audiovisual wallpaper" because it feels more decorative or ornamental rather than a true engagement with the audiovisual materials of the source. So you have that on the one end – very bone dry, not taking advantage of the possibilities for invasive engagement. At the other end, you have videos outside the academic realm, more in popular culture and amateur video, where it’s so flashy, using a lot of effects and graphics, that it results in something that wants to be an object of fascination in its own right. That is, it seems to transform the material in a way that takes you away from the film rather than into it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – if it’s compelling, it’s compelling. The question is how is it – or is it – scholarship? What constitutes it as being a true critical engagement with the film it’s using?

Eric – Can you think of some examples from your own work where you employed a particular technique – a cut, an illustration – that made you think to yourself, this is that moment of critical transformation?

Kevin – Well, I’m just fresh off making this video essay for John Cassavetes’s Shadows, which was daunting for me. This is one of those situations where you revere a filmmaker so much that you’re a little intimidated. And I wanted to avoid those old bromides of John Cassavetes as a spontaneous, improvisational independent filmmaker. I was more interested in understanding his cinematic craft. People don’t talk about him as a craftsman. So I focused on my favorite scene in all of his films, which is a love scene, a seduction scene, in the middle of Shadows, which was his first feature. And I noticed that there was a movement of the camera from the right side of the room to the left as the man is seducing the woman. And he keeps on saying to her, “Don’t move, don’t move.” But as he’s saying that, he’s kind of pushing her with his presence from the right side of the room to the left. And so I thought about how I could bring that out in the video essay. I reduced the shot to about half the size of the screen, and I positioned it on the right side. And then as he’s pushing her to the left side of the room, I moved the frame within the frame to the left to mimic the action of his mise-en-scene, as if I’m mapping it within the space of the room itself. And this technique really brings out how space is being used in the scene. It highlights certain aspects of the actual production of the film – it’s a two-minute shot – but it also highlights an aspect of the film’s form. It was a way to appreciate the beauty of the long take, and how Cassevetes was able to express a dramatic moment through this single camera movement. So there was a manipulation of the source material, but in a way that brought out a truth – or maybe just an insight or a thought – about the scene. And my video became very much about the act of viewing: "This is how I see the movie. You get to see it through my eyes." This is another way in which the videos I make are different from supercuts, which often aren’t really looking at the film anymore. They tend to turn the film into something else. But this is also a bit different from a lot of traditional academic videos, where I feel that I am inside the maker’s mind but I’m not necessarily seeing the film through their eyes. These videos are more about transforming the film object itself and not about the act of encountering it. So for me, my video essays are also a lot about presenting that act of personal viewing.

[Editor's note: In 2019, Kevin B. Lee retitled the video "Cassavetes: Spaces of Assault" on the video's Vimeo page, and added the following commentary to the video's Vimeo page:

"This video was originally titled "Cassavetes' Spaces of Seduction." In the time since the publication of the video, I've become more sensitive to what this scene actually depicts. This new understanding called for a new title. If there was any act of seduction in this video, I was on me as a viewer, to have let my fascination with the cinematic and dramatic artistry of this scene blind me to what I was actually witnessing and the real life acts of violence and trauma it represents. I've contemplated whether this video should even remain online. Ultimately I decided to let it stand as a marker of how this film and the acts depicted in this sequence were approached videographically in 2015, in order to pose a question of how they may be approached today."]

Eric - It seems the digital tools allow you to take one step back and illuminate the film in a way that wouldn’t be possible if you were just watching it.

Kevin – And without necessarily upstaging the material either. What about you – what examples in your videographic work marked that moment of transformation for you?

Eric – There are a couple. There’s a project that I was working on with a student, and we were struggling with how to illustrate the difference between quotation and homage. The solution ended up being very elegant. The student was working with Do the Right Thing, and she wanted to illustrate how it was referencing Night of the Hunter. People who connect the two films call it an homage, but she wanted to argue it as quotation, which of course is something much more specific. So we worked together on how to get the videos to make her argument without voice-over or text, and at one point we simply placed two scenes in the frame side by side because her argument rested not just on the scene’s content, but on the timing. In that case, simply playing one clip and then the other wouldn’t work, you had to have them running simultaneously so you see that Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing is not only saying the same words, but his timing exquisitely matches Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter.

The other example is from a video essay I made called “Strangers X,” which is a reading of Strangers on a Train. What I wanted to illustrate was some of the patterning in the film, the repeated motifs, especially the number two because the film is all about pairings. And in each instance, I enlarged the frame. It was a way of using digital tools to refocus the viewer. Of course, the whole point of critical analysis is to reveal things that most people would not be able to see otherwise. So I like the idea of using tools to direct the viewer what to look at – "We’re only going to look at the lower left of the frame," or "We’re only going to look at the background of this shot" – to reveal something about the film that was there all along but that people likely didn’t notice.

Kevin – What I am noticing that we have in common, and it may be because of our production experience, actually making films outside of this academic context, is that we both like to get nuts-and-boltsy. We like to point things out that can be used as evidence of our appreciation for the craft of film, for how a film gets puts together. I guess I mention this because we both participated in the Middlebury videographic workshop [in 2015], and I felt that much of the work being produced there was more oriented toward illustration of theories. And I was fascinated by a lot of it. I don’t know if I could make that kind of work myself, but it was interesting to think of this kind of practice, one that originates in academia, because I can’t think of video work originating out of any another place that focuses theoretically or thematically – on topics like ‘the haptic’, or on Deleuzian terms – and seeks ways to illustrate them using the audiovisual essay. There were no videos using Bordwellian shot counts or conducting compositional analyses, which are closer to our more formalistic practices. I wonder if there is a way to bring these two sides together because it seems to me right now that they are separate strains. But of course this just points to how much diversity there is in videographic work even at this nascent stage.

Eric – When I think of the more quantitative critical approaches, in traditional written criticism, I already see that as a way of visualizing film. So for me that doesn’t appear as fruitful material for a videographic essay because it’s already taken a film and abstracted it into numbers or graphs or charts in the most concrete way. Theory has the opposite problem – it’s too abstract. And this is what makes it an exciting and potentially fruitful space for video essays. If I’m reading about the haptic or whatever, I may be tempted to throw my arms up in confusion. But the exciting challenge is to take the abstraction of the theory and make it concrete in the video form.

Kevin – One thing I noticed from the workshop was the amount of discussion on music choice for the soundtrack of a videographic essay. This was fascinating because it suggests that in order to deliver intellectual insight, you need music to set the mood. You have to prime the ears as well as the mind. It made clear the question, "What are the stakes when we’re talking about the aesthetics of audiovisual scholarship?" I’m sure a purist would ask, "Why do we need the music?" I know I did at one point. Doesn’t the music get in the way of the ideas so that we’re not so much thinking concepts as feeling them? But maybe we have to acknowledge that that’s part of the delivery system.

E – I had a student who did not believe that music should be part of video essays. She said, "When I turn in a paper, I don’t turn it in with a bottle of wine." She felt music was doing the same thing – tainting the scholarly integrity of the work. But one of the things that excites me about the video essay is that we have the ability to take criticism and scholarship and give it the same poetical quality that we find in the movies we love most. That has been a driving force for me in making video work.

You mentioned earlier things we have in common – another is that we both make video essays that incorporate original footage, which is not common among video essayists. That is perhaps another link to our experience as filmmakers. How did that evolve in your work, wanting to work in material you shot yourself?

Kevin – I think back to two early instances. One was a video on . . . And God Created Woman, the really trashy Roger Vadim/Brigitte Bardot soft-porn classic. I was struck by how much Bardot was being so clearly positioned to allure me as a male viewer, so I had this idea of watching myself watching. I turned the camera on myself, and I was wearing these glasses with highly reflective lenses, so you could actually see Brigitte Bardot’s body reflected on my glasses. I thought that could be a compelling image of my awareness of how the movie was situating me to watch it, and how I was engaging with it in response.

Another instance came when I was making a video about Sam Raimi’s low budget schlock horror film Evil Dead II. There were these weird shots in the film where the camera is moving in fast motion through these forests, but like a fast motion tracking shot. So I wondered, ‘How do you do that? Do you just film the tracking shot normal speed and then speed it up in post-production?’ So I did that myself, walking around my neighborhood, and then up the stairs to my apartment, and I went into my room and pointed the camera at the TV, where the shots from Evil Dead II were playing. So it was a continuous tracking shot through my environment and into the movie. I like the idea of incorporating the technique of a film into a video essay, or maybe the reverse – letting the technique of a film play out in my own world. That’s what I like about this approach with shooting original footage, it takes the videographic essay outside the realm of the film and brings it more into the space of our lives – into the space of viewing, the space of the person viewing, into the space of how that person experiences the movie outside the screen.

Eric – Then the movie itself is no longer in a vacuum. It is no longer just a thing, it’s a thing in the world.

Kevin – Exactly, and that’s something I am very interested in, the idea of cinema outside of the cinema. I think of the videographic essay as a means of practicing that, of ‘enacting’ cinema. It’s no longer a passive experience: it’s us at work, it’s us putting ourselves into the movie in some ways.

Eric – As a teacher, I assign video essays, and I routinely ask the students, "Can the form of your video essay mimic its subject?" Early on, I realized that being able to create something that was in relation to what I was talking about gave the video essay a lot more critical power. Rather than just just talking about something, it was me experimenting with it, performing it – and I felt that gave the video work more authority. So when I ask students if it’s possible to make a video essay that is in the form of its subject, if their subject is montage, they see that it’s one thing to talk about it, but a whole different level of knowledge is engaged when you try to do it. So asking students to both analyze and illustrate gives their work and the video essay assignment itself a lot more conceptual weight.

In my later works, I became interested in the question of how we understand a movie. Original footage allows you to manipulate more than you can with existing footage, to not only show the thing you’re talking about, but to show other possibilities. In a video essay I did on documentary called "The Documentary’s New Politics," I wanted to illustrate how easy it is to fictionalize documentary. So I shot a lot of original footage and shaped it so that it was clearly being positioned as documentary, and then I would reveal it to be staged. Of course, the audience assumed the revelation was real, but then I would pull back to show that even the revelation was staged.

Kevin – I like how that works as a rhetorical strategy, and as pedagogy as well. It’s a rhetoric that stimulates to viewers to critical thought about what they’re watching.

Eric – Yes, and as that’s happening, viewers have to re-evaluate all the documentary footage that’s been shown previously.

Kevin – These examples you gave a moment ago about mimicking bring to mind my on experience as an undergraduate and the changes digital tools have brought about. Now the old 101 composition assignments, which were often essays about literature, can be replaced by video essays or media production as a form of composition, a form of articulating ideas and thoughts about media itself. I remember one of my greatest experiences as an undergraduate was a seminar on Samuel Johnson and reading his Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, and the professor pointed out that when Johnson wrote about, say, Shakespeare, he would incorporate certain sentence structures or metaphors or other trademark motifs that Shakespeare would use. And when writing about John Dryden, he would imitate Dryden. So for each poet he was considering, there was a degree of mimicry that Johnson would engage in. So for my final paper, I tried to use some of Samuel Johnson’s literary techniques and rhetorical strategies. It’s amazing how potent that can be – trying to incorporate the style of the person or work you’re studying. It’s a strategy for any scholar as a way to be absorbed in the object they’re working on.

Eric – It allows you to understand your object in a much more sophisticated way.

Kevin – To embody it or inhabit it.

Eric – Yes, as a deeper way to know it. But I want to ask -- has working in this way, and producing videographic essays, changed the way you watch movies?

Kevin – This is a question I’ve gotten from many people, as I think many critics and scholars have. This was especially true of the Transformers premake that I produced. People asked: can you just watch Transformers as a normal person, and enjoy it for its plot and other cinematic pleasures, which is what most people are looking for when they shell out twelve bucks to see a movie in the theater? Now, regardless of whether that’s even possible with a movie like Transformers, whether it has any cinematic pleasure to begin with, the answer is No. And I feel that it would just be too limiting to experience films just on that level. Why not open yourself to a more engaged, more critically aware position of wanting to peek behind the curtain? Why not let that enhance your understanding of the film so that it brings out your interpretive potential or, especially with videographic essays, your potential as a collaborator, after the fact. That is something that this thing we’re calling post-cinema or post-passive viewing experience is affording us. I like what it implies in terms of where it positions us as viewers, so that we’re not just spectators but actively involved in the culture that we’re immersed in.

Eric – It’s an oversimplification – though one most would likely agree on – that there are two types of movies: one that is designed for a passive spectator, it’s self-contained and disposable; then there are other films and filmmakers that are really inviting you to play, they are geared toward the viewer as collaborator, as you said. I’m working on a project now that brings together a group of filmmakers not typically associated with each other – Jacques Tati, Wong Kar-Wai, and Michael Haneke, directors with very different styles. For me, their films all invite the spectator to explore, to play, to interact. And this goes beyond routine interpretation. For someone who makes videographic essays, I have seen that these are films that are not just very friendly to, but actually seem to summon the kind of collaborative interrogation that digital tools enable. I wonder if this will eventually have an effect on our ideas about what films are in the canon. As the videographic essay form develops, and as video essays proliferate, as criticism itself changes, maybe the canon will be shaped by the films that offer themselves in this way.

[2019 update: This project materialized as Visual Disturbances, which was made in 2017 - 2018 and published in early 2019.  This video essay continued many of the ideas discussed in this dialogue but also expanded my work in new directions.  While my earlier films often relied on close formal analysis, Visual Disturbances integrates a variety of methods including interviews, historical research, focus groups, eye tracking technology, and new visualization techniques.  Expanding the research methodologies necessitated expansive collaboration. Video essaying is often the work of a solitary creator. In this film, however, I relied on my Bucknell colleagues Psychologist Aaron Mitchel and Mathematician Nathan Ryan (plus their students Taylor Myers and Alexander Murph) to guide the research behind the film’s application of psychological theory, the eye tracking experiments, and then the mathematical analysis and visualizations of that experiment’s data.]

Kevin – I think that distinction, and your description of the second group of films, can help people who are contemplating taking up videographic scholarship because video essays can be similarly divided. Both are valid. But someone starting out should consider whether they are trying to make a delivery system for content that is very unidirectional, or are they inviting something more interactive, something more along the lines of the approach of Tati or Haneke – more playful, more open to further critical engagement and interpretation?

Eric – We’ve talked so much about the advantages and pleasures of producing videographic work, but what would you say is hard about working this way?

Kevin – For me, its not feeling like I’m falling into a rut, repeating myself. And this is something I worry about not just for myself, but for the larger body of videographic practice that seems to be growing and growing. Paradoxically, the more it grows, the more there seems to be a need for conventions and formulas. There are some video essayists I know who have becomes very successful, and then inevitably there are several copycats, imitating their style. Maybe that’s just inevitable – but formulas and conventions need to be continually challenged and pushed further. So that’s hard – just trying to think of ways to be original or innovative with each piece. But it’s also what makes it exciting and vital at the same time.

Eric – I am always amazed by how much effective videographic essays do the same thing as movies. If they are really successful, they work in an almost transparent way. If it’s crafted very well, the labor is concealed. I am always amazed how much work goes into these for a project that is eight or ten minutes long, and how often the completed video does not give a sense of the amount of work that went into it. I have to confess, there have been times when I’ve said to myself, "I should just write a paper."

And one of the things that is crucial, but not always obvious, is that we are working in a multi-channel environment. With a paper, you just have the written text as one channel, whereas we’re working with text and moving images and sounds – both music and dialogue – and graphics, and it becomes an incredibly rich alchemy when you mix these elements together so that they harmoniously work. But I don’t know that the most effective works reveal the amount of labor that goes into them. I don’t know that it necessarily always needs to be revealed, but certainly within academics, not everyone appreciates the effort of rhetorical conceptualization that is required.

At the same time, I feel that that the videographic work I’ve done has had a stronger impact than any journal article I could ever write. It hasn’t been trapped in academic circles. It seems to have escaped out into the larger world. Surely there must be thousands of people who’ve watched your video essays who would not necessarily consider themselves active readers of criticism or scholarship – they’re just interested in movies.

Kevin – I’ve worked with young people – people who are in Ph.D. programs – who have started making videos that are having significant pedagogical value. I worked recently with a twenty-something named Jake Swinney who wanted to make a video about Dutch angles for Fandor, which is the site I worked for [at the time]. So he put together a compilation of Dutch angle shots, but it needed to be more structured. I suggested that maybe he could organize them by the degree of angle, starting at one degree and going all the way to 90. He did that, but then he did something I can’t do because I don’t know this software. He used After Effects to create a grid that was laid over the images so that we could really visualize the degree of angle. We put it on the site, and it’s been phenomenally popular, one of the most popular we’ve ever posted. This is something you would learn about in an intro film class, illustrated with tremendous vividness. I can’t help but wonder what it means for academia for the student to be in a position to offer something so pedagogically valuable?

Eric – I think it’s great! If it had been up to him to write a journal article, he never would have done it. Videographic criticism opens a path for makers to express something that they might not have been able to, or wouldn’t have wanted to, otherwise. Also, this is one more way that digital technology has rendered the walls between academic and journalistic criticism less solid, now more porous.

Kevin – Yes, so now students are showing us how academia needs to re-evaluate the role it’s playing in facilitating this type of multi-media scholarly production. The longstanding arenas, hierarchies, and conventions that governed media scholarship really can no longer be taken for granted.

Copyright ©2016, 2019 by Eric Faden and Kevin B. Lee

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