Becoming Videographic Critics: A Roundtable Conversation
Edited and Curated by Jason Mittell
The three NEH-funded workshops on Scholarship in Sound & Image, affectionately known as ‘videocamp’, brought 44 scholars to Vermont to take their first steps toward becoming videographic critics. One of the core goals of the workshops was to create a ‘community of practice’, where we would learn from and support one another. In Fall 2018, Jason Mittell invited all ‘videocampers’ from the three workshops to participate in a conversation about their experiences during and after the workshops, fostering a community of practice that spans the multiple years. This is an edited version of the online conversation conducted by nine of the participants.
Jason Mittell: Thinking back to before you attended the workshop, what made you interested in learning about videographic criticism? Do you feel like you’ve accomplished those goals since?
Maria Pramaggiore: I wanted both the technical expertise and the ability to think and argue using sound and moving images. I feel I accomplished both. The technical expertise, to me, is more a matter of confidence that I can go back to this complicated program (Premiere or Final Cut) and figure it out. At the workshop, I saw the experienced practitioners twiddling around here and there to figure out how a function or feature had changed—that gave me insight and hope that, once I feel comfortable with certain techniques, I can branch out. Or not. I have always approached my research in film and media with a close connection to the text—I feel that the closer an argument is to the text, the stronger it is. (This does not rule out social and cultural criticism by any means, but an essay that can trace a specific image in a work to its other appearances in film or visual culture, for example, persuades me in part by precision). So audiovisual criticism is a new way of establishing the bones of an argument from the text, and owning the ways my intervention is drawing that meaning out of it and contextualising it or meditating upon it.
Neepa Majumdar: I had heard wonderful things about the earlier videocamps, but I had also had an itch to satisfy my own creative impulses in some kind of way that would be recognizable and would also allow me to explore new ways of thinking. Before I applied to the workshop, I had co-taught a global stardom graduate seminar in which we included several video essays, and I began to think that this form allowed for an affective engagement with stardom that wasn’t the same thing as fan expression, but was akin to it. I became enticed into thinking about similar work that I might do if I had the technical skills, but I was never sure if I had it in me because videographic criticism requires one to have certain visual instincts that I had no idea if I had myself. When I went to the workshop, I thought this would be the most vulnerable and exposed I would ever be in my entire career as a student, but also felt that I could allow myself to fail without utter humiliation because I so desperately wanted to try it. I found the workshop stimulating, encouraging, and non-judgmental, which allowed me to overcome my hang-ups about ‘exposing’ myself to public humiliation. Months later, I worry that I may have already lost some of the technical skills, but that hasn’t stopped me from thinking of other ideas for stuff I can play around with.
Kristen Warner: I don’t know that I knew that much about videographic criticism prior to attending videocamp. I was aware of supercuts and that style of visual essay but I think learning how to edit and think through patterns of texts was of great interest and were something I really enjoyed putting into practice. Like Neepa, some of the skills I learned at videocamp may have faded and when I assign students to create video essays for class assignments, I may not quickly tout that I can be of great help to them as they assemble and such, but I am happy and proud to show them the drafts essays I made and continue to (slowly) tweak.
Melanie Kohnen: I first encountered visual analysis using moving images in fan remix videos, specifically the vidding community, which has a forty-year history of transforming film and television into vids. I had been an active vid-watcher for years before attending the workshop and always wanted to learn how to do video editing myself. The opportunity to spend two weeks doing nothing but video editing and learning about videographic criticism seemed ideal--and it was. It remains one of the best academic experiences of my career. I still use what I learned at videocamp in my scholarship and teaching, and I continuously work on merging the aesthetics and practices of vidding and videographic criticism. Like Neepa, I consider the inclusion of affect-driven critique one of the greatest strengths of videographic criticism. One thing I’m still wrestling with is how to apply videographic techniques to explorations that are not rooted in form or narrative. For example, how can you carry out an analysis of the media industries via videographic criticism, especially a more poetic type of video essay? Or is this not possible and we should accept that videographic criticism is best suited for projects about media form and content?
Warner: Oh yes! This is a slight detour but I have the same questions as Melanie about the limits of what videographic criticism can capture in terms of argumentation that does not engage directly with form, aesthetic, or narrative. I still don’t know!
Kohnen: We (that is, Kristen and I) were even talking about this at videocamp, because the projects we had in mind seemed to be at odds with many of the video essays we watched for inspiration. I have seen video essays that engage with themes (queer tropes, for example), but I’m still unsure how you’d do more contextual analyses without falling back on a very documentary style mode.
Casey McCormick: I agree that the affective affordances of videographic criticism are a primary draw, which does, in some ways, naturally favour studies of aesthetics, form, and narrative. But it’s hard for me to imagine any kind of research question in media studies that couldn’t, in some way, utilize videographic methods. For instance, Katie Bird from the 2017 workshop does amazing videographic work on below-the-line labour!
Warner: It may be able to utilize it but it hasn’t quite yet. But I’m all for hoping that somebody does it!
Jaap Kooijman: My initial interest came after attending a session at NECS 2014 and talking to Catherine Grant afterwards. Although I was familiar with some work done as editor of NECSUS, I had no clue how to make an audiovisual essay. I basically envisioned doing a moving PowerPoint while reading a conference paper as ‘voice-over’. The exercises during the first week really helped to look differently at the source material and eventually also to the form my audiovisual essay eventually would take.
Pramaggiore: This makes me smile, because when some of us were working late nights we joked about how our brilliant creativity was only going to result in ‘narrated lectures’. There was definitely a premium placed on doing something more associative and less linear in terms of argumentation and meaning.
Alan O’Leary: I had experimented with different prose forms in my academic work previously and my first degree was from art school, so I was excited by the opportunity to learn a more deliberately creative approach to my analytical work on film. Secondly, I hope to get funding to create a digital archive of clips as part of a large project on Italian historical cinema, and video work will be a key means by which this archive is analyzed and presented. For example, we hope to work with arts organizations to co-produce films as a spur to artistic production. More instrumentally, I wanted to give the developing film programme at Leeds an advantage in attracting students, so I wanted to be able to teach videographic criticism, and to train other colleagues who wish to teach it. From the perspective of a very budget-conscious institution, videographic criticism is equipment-lite—most students already have the tech they need on their phones or laptops—so we can offer a ‘practice’ element in what we teach for relatively little initial investment.
Derek Long: I had been vaguely interested in videographic criticism ever since I was an undergrad (in Jason and Chris’s classes at Middlebury!). But it wasn’t until I got to graduate school and began to encounter some of the work being done—including by members of the first workshop—that it became clear that the videographic format offered our field a vibrant alternative to the written essay. So my main interest in the workshop, at least initially, was in learning what I assumed was primarily an alternative form of publication. I definitely feel like the workshop accomplished that goal, although I quickly learned that videographic approaches went far beyond just the idea of a published format or ‘end product’. Like Neepa and Kristen, I too struggle to keep working in the form on as regular a basis as I’d like, at least from the standpoint of publication. But videographic research as a process has been really fruitful for developing courses, and encouraging the kind of mental strategies of that research (‘make first, think later’) has been really compelling for the undergrads I assign this kind of work.
Kohnen: This semester, my students have had a hard time with ‘make first, think later’. They make three five-minute video essays across the semester and write accompanying statements. After the first round of projects, most students said they wished they’d written the essay first and then made the video. I have since then allowed staggered deadlines for the two halves of the project, so students submit one part one week and the other the next. All students chose to submit the statement first during the second round.
Patrick Keating: My initial interest in videographic criticism was very specific—I hoped to make video essays to accompany a book I was working on. My idea was to make one video essay for every chapter in the book. That didn’t quite work out as planned. I made a few video essays about camera movement a couple years ago, but I didn’t finish the book until this year. And I learned that the length of a book chapter isn’t well suited to the length of a video essay. Since then, I have shifted to making shorter video essays (not based on the book), and I am making a non-essay website where readers of the book can watch individual clips.
Pramaggiore: I’m quite interested in the relationship between video essays and traditional scholarship, in book or chapter or essay form. I arrived at the workshop with a book idea, and a few chapters published in article form, but the video essay I did on the subject at the workshop helped me sharpen the idea so well that I began to wonder if it really should only be a video essay—did I actually have more to say, or did the audiovisual element take the place of all my anticipated prose? I’m going forward with the book proposal but am conscious that I will be paying close attention to how I can work across both. I have been drawn to conceiving of a series of very short video essays, looking at something small with focus, rather than chapter sized arguments. Part of that decision is the time frame I have for writing and video essaying, as I am an administrator.
McCormick: I applied to the workshop after hearing about the first iteration from a few campers, and I was generally aware of emerging discussions about videographic criticism on the conference circuit. In a sense, I feel like I often ‘think videographically’ about my research—an argument starts in my head as a series of images, moments, edits, cuts, and juxtapositions, and then I translate it into words on a page. Words are great, but insufficient, methodologically speaking, for media studies—it seems natural to me that we should use the substance of our subjects in our research process. So for me, attending the workshop was a chance to get the technical foundation necessary to start exploring such methods on my own. I felt a combination of relief and pressure at videocamp: I’d submitted my dissertation just days before leaving for Middlebury, and my goal of producing a videographic companion to my dissertation (to be shown at my defence) made the stakes seem high. While I accomplished my camp goals—I did present a video essay as part of the opening remarks at my defence, and I do have a basic foundation of editing skills—I’ve found it difficult to advance my skills post-camp. In my cohort, I was one of the least experienced with editing and the technical stuff remains an uphill battle.
Mittell: What has surprised you most via your work with videographic criticism?
Pramaggiore: I was most surprised by the opportunities for making associative and subtle connections and arguments that might be set aside in traditional written essays because they would take too much space and time, and potentially seem digressive. The workshop made me reconsider my written work as more didactic and deductive than I was aware of. I know my arguments are deductive--state the point in your topic sentence, as I harangue my students—but the workshop taught me a tiny bit about the ways using the audiovisual medium give you time and space for delay, play, diversion, induction, association, questions, rather than conclusion.
McCormick: I agree that videographic criticism lets you give attention to elements of your argument that might ‘take too much time’ in written work. I think there are a lot of ways in which videographic work is more economical, in terms of conveying complex ideas and analysis, than the written word.
Kohnen: I second the discovery of open-ended arguments and posing questions as possibility in videographic criticism. There is also a spirit of exploration embedded in the process of non-linear video editing that leads to different discoveries. Sometimes just adding clips to the timeline and seeing what happens can lead to insights that I would not have had in writing. My most recent video essay, on Todd Haynes’ film Carol (U.S.A., 2015), began with a formal experiment and a question: what happens if I play the opening and closing scenes side by side? The rest of the video essay fell into place afterwards and allowed me to discover many more mirroring moments in the film that I had not seen before (even though I have watched Carol multiple times).
Majumdar: I think I was most surprised to realize the obvious: that there are different styles of videographic criticism. This came home to me in sharp and wonderful ways during the second week of the workshop when Kevin B. Lee, Alison de Fren, and Catherine Grant demonstrated to us what I took as three very different approaches to video essays. I was delighted to see that, unlike written academic work, where there’s basically one accepted style, that’s not the case in videographic criticism and that one can be much more playful and ‘by indirections find directions out’ (to quote Hamlet). Like many others at the workshop, I was uncomfortable with directly using my voice whether in voiceover or in written text, and am still working on how to avoid doing either while making sense to others. I had come back to my realization in my stardom seminar that what I wanted to do was to convey a feeling, rather than make an argument, even if that feeling was supported by arguments and concepts discussed by others.
Warner: To Neepa’s point, one of the things I realized while trying to figure out ways to engage the kinds of scholarship I do in more traditional avenues, was that my best bet was incorporating affect and feeling as an approach in my videographic criticism. One year for SCMS, I made a piece that followed a short paper I gave on Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs, U.S.A., 2015) and what surprised me in the assemblage was that while I wasn’t sure I had the skills or the ability to visually show the argument I made orally, I could make the video about what the argument is underpinned by: affect and resonance. I enjoyed building a kind of sensorama via videographic criticism. I just hate that I don’t think it works to its fullest potential unless you hear or read the argument first.
Kohnen: Kristen, do you think that sometimes, affect and resonance is enough? I think so (this notion probably comes from being exposed to vidding first before learning about videographic criticism). My latest video essay on Carol is rather open-ended, as it is only framed by a scholarly quote and otherwise works through contrasting clips and music taken from the film’s score. I’ve been struggling to come up with a way to develop a written argument around it (so I can submit it to [in]Transition), but I almost don’t want to pin down the meaning. The video essay has things to say, and it certainly evokes an affective reaction, but I like that it speaks to different people in different ways.
Warner: Melanie, I think it can be. And in the MMXXL project, it kind of has to be, because I don’t know how to make it more. For me, it’s enough to whet the appetite and create a desire to know more by way of revisiting the original text or by going and finding the argument elsewhere. In the case of your Carol piece, I could see how that might be enough, leaving it open ended and up to the viewer.
Long: I agree that videographic criticism has this curious power to bring ideas of affect and emotion into scholarly work in a way that is more immediately explanatory than a written essay. That ability to bridge modes of discourse has surprised me a lot. Most of my work is historical, and much of my writing requires either interfacing with documents from the archive or offering analyses of form from historical media within some sort of relevant context. In both cases, writing about “this thing” (archival document, shot, whatever) abstracts it in a way that seems necessary for whatever argument I’m making, but at the same time kind of kills its material interest/pleasure. Videographic criticism helps preserve that—certainly in analytical/associative videos, and I continue to be surprised at the extent to which more historical video essays are able to do this as well (thinking about Patrick Keating’s ‘Homeless Ghost’ video here).
Keating: I have been surprised by how much difference the sound makes, in terms of generating an affect suitable to the argument. Partly inspired by Catherine Grant’s creative experimentation with music, lately I have been trying to force myself to use more kinds of music tracks, different from the somber-sounding ambient stuff I usually use. Really, a different track can change the whole thing—affect, argument, everything.
McCormick: I agree with Patrick that videographic research (and play) make the importance of sound more readily apparent. Since I work mostly on televisual texts, and sound is relatively unexplored in TV studies (compared to film), this has been one area that I’ve really gravitated towards since videocamp.
Kooijman: Not sure if ‘surprise’ is the right word, but what I didn’t expect before that working with audiovisual material in this way would actually change the way I look at the material. Just the first exercise—looking for shots that were at least 6 seconds long--already changed the way I looked at the material. Working with films and television series for an audiovisual essay really does force one to look differently at a film or television series, to notice elements that escape your attention when looking at the material through the eyes of theme, plot, and star image (just to name some examples).
McCormick: I echo Jaap’s idea about not expecting the degree to which videographic research changes the way I look at my material. I’d say this has been true for me not only when I’m in editing/play mode, but even before that stage: videocamp actually changed the way that I watch and approach all TV and film. But at the workshop, I was most surprised by how easy, and how difficult, some of the technical aspects were. It was such a great feeling to make the Videographic PechaKucha on day one and to realize that, with just a few quick commands, you can make something pretty cool. But as the workshop went on, there were tasks that I felt should’ve been easy that ended up taking lots of time, and vice versa. As I mentioned above, most of my fellow campers came in with at least some experience, whereas I’d never used any editing software. I was proud that I accomplished each homework task, but consistently in awe of the technical complexity and precision that many of the other campers achieved. So overall, the barrier to entry was lower than I expected, but progress past the basics was even harder than I thought.
Mittell: How has your engagement with videographic criticism impacted your pedagogy? What type of work and learning has emerged from your students, whether in a dedicated course or integrated into a broader course?
O’Leary: I’m co-teaching a graduate course on Italian cinema with Dana Renga at The Ohio State University next year, initially conceived of in fairly standard terms. But Dana agreed with the idea of shifting the theme to the criticism and production of video essays with Italian films as our ‘object matter’. We think it will be really exciting for the students, and we can work with skilled local faculty like workshop alumnus Sean O’Sullivan.
Majumdar: In the past, I’ve included video essays as a possible project in lieu of a paper (and in fact, a student submitted a wonderful video essay in my graduate stardom seminar). But in those cases, students could do so only if they already had the technical skills. I have been thinking of ways to include very basic video essay techniques in my introductory “Film Analysis” course next fall because I think assignments I already had before in written form would work better in video form. Next semester I am teaching a film sound course for undergraduates, and plan on incorporating one videographic criticism assignment, probably one in which students will take a sequence and 1) replace its existing soundtrack with something else; 2) remove its existing foley work; 3) experiment with asynchronous foley work or non-realist foley work. I have also been thinking of proposing a standalone undergraduate course on video essays, along the lines of the one that Jason & Chris teach, because this is something that would work for both our production track and our critical studies track, and several of us could teach it.
Kohnen: I have included videographic criticism in three iterations of my Queer Film and TV class; next semester, I will also include video essays in TV and American Culture and in Media Design and Criticism. Inspired by my videocamp experience, I begin the semester by teaching students how to use Premiere Pro and introduce them to videographic criticism through short exercises modeled on the ones we did at videocamp. We also watch video essays and discuss them, including student work from previous semesters. Then students begin to craft their video essays (either a semester-long project or several shorter projects). We also watch vids and explore how vidding and videographic criticism align and diverge. Students are enthusiastic about making video essays, but also learn to live with technical frustrations and setbacks. One of the most encouraging aspects of videographic pedagogy is seeing students who are not strong writers craft complex and beautiful video essays. Teaching videographic criticism has been extremely rewarding, and word has begun to spread on campus about my work with video essays. I have consulted other faculty on how to integrate video essays into their classes and collaborated with our IT department on recording a video explaining how I teach videographic criticism in my classes.
Warner: After videocamp I pretty much included it in all of my upper level courses. I do not offer much assistance with the actual video essay assemblage (they are all primarily production-oriented students, so I would be in the way), but I get them as close as I can in terms of all the upfront work that needs doing regarding imagining what their projects can be and demanding that the visual argument be well researched. This is frustrating for them because I think what they imagine videographic criticism to be is far more demonstrative and “instructional” than what I ask them to accomplish—which to some degree is figuring out my existential quandary on the possibilities of the format. So there’s still a lot with regard to the pedagogical imperatives of this format that I need to develop and engage.
Long: I second Melanie’s point about the joy of seeing students who otherwise struggle with writing make incredibly compelling video essay work. It’s really empowering and validating for them to see that they actually do have analytical and argumentative chops. This is just one of the many reasons that I would assign video essays for every one of my studies courses if I could. But in the meantime, our department offers a number of video essay-focused courses, and we hope to make videographic approaches a thoroughgoing part of our curriculum. Jenny Oyallon-Koloski (my colleague at Illinois who also attended the second Middlebury workshop) teaches a dedicated video essays course modeled in large part on the structure of the workshop (though expanded to 15 weeks!). She also has the students in her Contemporary Movies course make PechaKuchas, and they have responded well to it.
I structure my entire History of Animated Media course around videographic approaches. Because animation as a form is generated frame-by-frame, it’s incredibly useful to have students in the course use Premiere as an analytical tool. It enables them to see timing, spacing, and all the other stylistic elements that we cover in the course. Their first major assignment asks them to produce an explanatory video analysis about an example of classical character animation (usually either a Warner Bros cartoon or a Disney feature), while their second assignment asks them to consider backgrounds and layout in limited animation (typically anime). These assignments ask the students to deal with pretty specific questions about animation in a historical context, so there is perhaps a bit less room for the poetic than I’d like—to Kristen’s point, I think it’s a real challenge to get students to think beyond that explanatory impulse. I feel like this is easier in a dedicated course on video essays than in a course that marshals videographic approaches toward some other purpose—would love to hear other people’s thoughts on that tension. But I do use these assignments to introduce students to techniques of voiceover, multi-screen, and text manipulation that they can then use in a freer-form video essay—explanatory or poetic—for their final project. Students really, really like this kind of work. Even just the act of putting animation into Premiere is a revelation for some students, since they are so used to streaming platforms that do not allow them to scrub through media frame-by-frame.
Kohnen: Derek, I have found that students often develop their own style of videographic criticism, so some will make more open-ended, poetic video essays that forego a voiceover and only use a minimum of on-screen explanatory text, and others will narrate their argument in detail and walk the viewer through clips. This semester, I require my students to incorporate vidding into one of their video essays to encourage them to think about how you can make a visual argument if you can only fall back on editing techniques to make sense of images in combination with music. I am fortunate to have a three-hour screening and a three-hour class, so we have time to watch and discuss many examples of video work.
Keating: I have taught a 15-week course entirely on the video essay, and it was one of the best teaching experiences I ever had. Students had to make 7 videos over the course of the semester. The first five were closely based on the five exercises we did at Middlebury videocamp. The last two were close analysis video essays. As others have mentioned, it was delightful to see students who struggle with written essays produce really complex work in video form. In this class, I tried out a strategy that worked well for me, though I can imagine others would find it overly restrictive. For the first twelve weeks of the class, we focused on only four films: Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophuls, U.S.A., 1948), The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, U.S.A., 1955), Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, U.S.A., 1958), and Bonjour Tristesse (Otto Preminger, U.S.A., 1958). I picked these four because they all appear in the book Style and Meaning, by Gibbs and Pye, which we read in class. I knew that the films would speak to each other, but I was astonished at how many connections the students found. One student made a split-screen video comparing Joan Fontaine’s performance (in Letter) to Deborah Kerr’s (in Bonjour), and it was shocking to see how similar they were. Another compared Vertigo to Hunter, and the result made each film even more disturbing. I think the students got a little sick of these four films after a while, but the strategy forced them to watch each movie several times, which allowed them to find new insights. Finally, at the end of the semester, I allowed them to pick their own movies to analyze, and they continued to produce really impressive work.
In other classes, I have tried short one-time video assignments. They made epigraph videos in an Arts & Ideas First Year Seminar, and alternate previews in a second-year Media Interpretation class. Both exercises were successful, though in general the videos were not as rich as the ones produced in the intensive class.
Kooijman: First I included the possibility of doing an audiovisual essay instead of a final paper in most of my Master’s courses, yet without making it an intrinsic part of the course. Several students used that opportunity with some really good results (I did some individual instruction with some of the students). My colleague Toni Pape and I did incorporate it within our course on Art and Television (even called the course, when we taught it a second time, ‘Art, Television, and the Audiovisual Essay’), devoting at least three of the twelve sessions to do a workshop in class, based on the exercises of the videocamp. Although this worked really well (we had some good to excellent audiovisual essays coming out of the course), we did not attract many students for either time we did the course. We are not sure why (it seems that Art scared away the TV students, and television the Art students!), but we had one student drop out because he thought we would teach him about audiovisual essays, rather than have him make one. The inclusion of the audiovisual essay within courses of our department has been more successful in explicit Film Studies courses. We even did a ‘pilot’ in which students made an audiovisual essay instead of a B.A. thesis. I was not part of the team that taught that course, but I was used as an ‘expert advisor’. Biggest challenge here was how to translate the requirements of a written B.A. thesis into an audiovisual one, resulting in the requirement that the audiovisual essay had to be at least 10 minutes long and had to have a voiceover presenting the academic argument. This was against my advice (although I do understand the requirement). A B.A. thesis has to fulfill legal requirements, as it is the final exam leading to an official diploma, but for me these requirements went against the possibilities that videographic criticism as form provides us.
McCormick: Videocamp gave me the tools I needed to incorporate videographic components into my teaching. My first semester teaching after the workshop, I encouraged students to pursue creative methods for their final projects, though resource and time limitations prevented me from including video editing as a designated part of the course (I did, however, work one-on-one with a handful of students who produced videographic work). In Winter 2018, I taught a course called ‘Poetics of the Image’, in which I more fully integrated videographic and deformative methods. I organized student-led digital skills labs, assigned weekly Twitter homework that built up students’ digital tool box over the course of the semester, created a multimedia essay assignment, and led a media-making bingo challenge in the final class. Overall, I am struck by the how easily students seem to grasp the ways in which working with the raw material of a cinematic or televisual text creates new avenues for analysis. One of my students from a ‘single-author study’ course on Joss Whedon described their experience using videographic methods as follows:
This quote is from a forthcoming book chapter entitled ‘Transmediating the Whedon Classroom’, where I argue for a transmedia approach to pedagogy, in which the instructor crafts an interactive, multi-platform storyworld around the course material. In the upcoming Winter 2019 semester, I am teaching a ‘Digital Studies/Citizenry’ course, and I plan to incorporate a variety of videographic and deformative approaches. I am happy to see how many of you are using video work in the classroom, as I really think that teaching these methods will help us discover new ways to use and think about videographic criticism.
The act of chopping up episodes and choosing how to rearrange the pieces together gave me insight into some of the topics, such as auteur theory and fan practices, that we discussed in class. With my video essay, I repurposed pieces of Whedon’s work to create my own argument, which, I believe, illustrates how meaning does not come from only one legitimate source (the author) and how it is never fixed. (Kerisel)
Mittell: Do you consider yourself a producer of videographic criticism now? Why or why not? If you are, how does that fit into your professional identity? If you aren’t, would you like to be, or are you content with not actively producing work?
Majumdar: I once heard a novelist give a talk to young writers where he said that he has friends who talk to him about their detailed plans for writing fiction, and he told the audience that you’re not a writer unless you write, no matter how many ideas you have. I find myself in the position of this novelist’s friends right now. I have simply not been able to make the time yet to bring any of my other video essay ideas to fruition. I am committed to becoming a videographic criticism producer, but will know if that’s the case after winter break.
Pramaggiore: I do consider myself a practitioner now, and intend to integrate videographic criticism into my professional identity. A group of us co-organised a panel for SCMS and that’s a move in the right direction. My current challenge regarding producing essays is lack of bandwidth, because I am Dean, so research days I schedule get eaten up. But I’m heading into my final year in the role, so I’m trying to lay the groundwork for a productive sabbatical that will involve both conventional writing and video essays.
Warner: No, I don’t. I like that I have more tools in my toolkit and, that, when inspired (and have some time) I can make something. But I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that title.
Long: I’d *like* to be able to think of myself as a videographic producer, but I don’t honestly think I can make that claim, for the same time-related reasons Neepa mentions. I have a few scattered essay projects that I’ve started, but the pressure of writing my (traditional) book and other responsibilities have tended to consign my own videographic work to the back burner for now. That said, I do use videographic approaches in my pedagogy pretty extensively.
O’Leary: Absolutely! Though when I mentioned this to a colleague she raised an eyebrow and asked if I was having a mid-life crisis—I just turned fifty. (I think I’ll have to get a videographic publication before I can confidently claim to be a practitioner.) I’m not alone, though, among scholars of my generation, in imagining I can reinvent myself as a filmmaker. The luxury of permanent positions means we can take chances. Exemplary is my colleague at Leeds, Paul Cooke, who built his career writing about German cinema but has just won a couple of prizes for a documentary film he made in South Africa. There are strong institutional impediments to getting the value of videographic work taken seriously but, oddly, what has made the creative more viable as an academic approach is the UK government’s philistine insistence that research should have demonstrable social or economic benefits, known as ‘impact’. This has made it easier (obligatory, even) to spend time on ‘non-standard’ modes of working, because they are perceived to have greater reach outside the academy. I intend to take advantage of this situation to argue that my academic and ‘impact’ work are one and the same in their videographic form.
Kooijman: Like Kristen, I do not consider myself a ‘video producer’, but rather see videographic criticism as just another tool added to my ways to make an academic argument. As my original background is in literary studies, I find it productive to make a comparison to analysing a novel. When I do a close-reading of a novel, I use the same medium as my object of study—in this case, writing. Yet, that doesn’t make me a novelist. When analysing a film, television series, or star image through videographic criticism, I used the same medium as my object of study, but that does not make me a film or video maker. I’m just an academic scholar using different media—writing, video editing—to make an academic argument.
McCormick: I do, even if a novice one. When initially responding to this question, I said that I like to claim this title even though I haven’t published a peer-reviewed video essay, and that I hope to earn the title more legitimately. It seems like some of the above responses echo this kind of tentativeness. But I think more scholars embracing the title of videomaker (and I think that everyone who has attended videocamp is!) would help grow the field and normalize this type of creative practices in the eyes of institutions.
Mittell: Some people have said that after working in videographic criticism, they find that their writing processes change. If this is true for you, how so?
Majumdar: For me, as I mentioned in my workshop application, writing has been agonizing because of its linearity and the fact that you can’t lay out several things simultaneously as contexts for what you want to argue, even if they need to be said simultaneously (I find myself writing ‘at the same time’ a lot). The ability to leave linearity behind was what attracted me to the possibilities of video essays in the first place. I’m not sure I’ve figured out a way to apply their lessons to my writing.
Keating: I have found that writing a voiceover for a video is very difficult. When you have only a few hundred words to make your argument, every word counts. I think that the process of writing videos has made me better at cutting down my phrasing to a minimum, which is a lesson I have tried to apply to other writings.
O’Leary: In a very obvious way, yes, in that I have rethought a book I was writing on film and history as a videographic monograph (I was inspired by Jason’s plans for an audiovisual book on the television series Breaking Bad). What I’d like to try to do is to eliminate the written prose element—as with David Bordwell’s Christopher Nolan book, which has embedded clips but is basically text + illustrations—and make the whole thing a film or group of films organized into chapters. The idea is to use (by merging, alternating and juxtaposing them, and without implying a hierarchy) the three basic videographic approaches as represented by the three guest teachers at the 2018 Middlebury workshop: poetic/allusive (Catherine Grant), reflexive/desktop (Kevin Lee), and explanatory/documentary (Allison de Fren).
More generally, the experience of the workshop has confirmed for me the productive value of imposing arbitrary formal constraints on the writing and other work I do. This parametric approach has already informed the design and activities of a practice-as-research project, Parameters and Practice, that I’m doing with my partner, Marie Hallager Andersen, who’s a dance artist. My sense is that the parametric approach can help to generate a powerful hybrid artistic/academic form, and this is something our project is intended to demonstrate.
Kooijman: I remember that one of our first discussions at videocamp was that making audiovisual essays was totally different from writing an academic essay. That surprised me. For me, both processes are very similar. I’m a very slow writer and a very slow editor, in the sense that: a) it takes me forever; and b) I re-read and re-watch what I’ve written or edited endlessly. Although this is often very tiresome (and also is the reason why I’m not a ‘prolific’ author), for me that is the basis of my own academic research. I think and re-think through writing, reading, changing, and similarly through re-editing and watching, spending hours on thinking about one certain word (in writing) or one single shot or dissolve (in videographic criticism) until it works, it fits… like all the puzzle pieces comes together. In that sense, writing is very similar to editing—and that was already before I started doing videographic criticism. I realize I’m way too picky (I don’t consider myself a ‘perfectionist’--people use that too often as vanity), but rather than perfectionism, it’s more that writing and re-writing, as well as editing and re-editing, echoes the way of thinking, sharpening one’s argument until it’s ready to be shared with the public.
Warner: I’m with Jaap, here. I’m a slow to start but frenzied writer, who has an idea and has the evidence but really figures out the point as I go along. It was the absolute same with assembling video essays. The same giddy rush when I accidentally stumble upon a connection in building a written argument I feel when I accidentally make something happen in Premiere workflow. The difference largely is that I just don’t have the words to articulate what I did in the latter case while I usually can explain it in the former.
McCormick: I don’t think it has changed my writing practice per se, but I find myself thinking about my scholarship in videographic terms alongside (and, increasingly, instead of) my writing.
Mittell: Where does videographic work fit into your professional arc, in terms of your scholarly output, networks, markers of success (as on the job market or in promotion cases), or the like? Are there ways that you wish your professional identity could better accommodate videographic work? How so?
Pramaggiore: I am lucky to be in a position that I am not working for the next promotion. I’m looking forward to returning to ‘just’ being a faculty member soon. I believe that my videographic work will be well received at my institution, but possibly seen more as impact—an offshoot from research that presents it to a wider audience. I suppose it depends upon whether I share freely or restrict the work to peer reviewed publications.
Majumdar: At my university, creative practice is increasingly recognized and even encouraged, though not necessarily (yet) for milestones such as the dissertation or tenure (though that too is changing). So I see videographic work in my future pedagogy. I thought the gift of time was the biggest benefit of videocamp, and I can’t say yet if I can gift myself a similar block of time in the summer to get some other video projects going. Ideally, my goal would be to write and make video essays simultaneously. There are so many things one ends up not being able to say in academic writing and I hope to see video essays complementing my writing. One thing I want to add is that I was surprised to find a strange consistency in my written research and my instinctive interest in sound in the one video essay I made at Middlebury: I probably had more fun choosing and messing with the sound track than with the image track. I became obsessive about it, cutting up the sound, reversing it, layering it with other sounds, overlapping parts, so that it sounded ‘right’ though there was no real logic to what made it more or less right. I would never have thought I would pay that much attention to sound in a video essay, but it turns out it’s consistent with my interest in sound studies, though not in any premeditated or rational way.
O’Leary: The UK academy has a national process called the Research Excellence Framework (REF), run every seven years or so, which assesses the quality of research produced in every area of every university according to a set of perhaps conservative criteria. Government funding is awarded to each university according to grades received, so it’s a massively important and highly anxiety-generating process. We don’t yet know how videographic criticism will be received in the REF, though Catherine Grant (based in London) is leading the way in thinking about how to present such work in portfolio form as ‘practice as research’. REF tends to bring out cautious instincts in colleagues with institutional roles—who will be in charge of the allocation of funding for sabbatical leave, for example—so it will be very important to be able to make persuasive arguments for the REF value of videographic work if it’s to be seen as good for the university and for the individual’s career. I’m senior enough no longer to have to give a Fellini, but people like me have to make the institutional argument for videographic work so that more vulnerable and younger colleagues are protected in their aspirations to deploy and develop the mode.
Kohnen: My videographic work is respected and encouraged by my department and college, but also is seen definitely an ‘add-on’ to traditional publishing. In other words, it’s considered nice that I do it, but I probably wouldn’t get tenure on videographic criticism alone. I certainly wish there was a better understanding of how rigorous and time-consuming videographic work is, but if you are the only person on your campus producing this kind of work, it’s an uphill battle.
Long: Seconding Melanie’s point: videographic work is definitely seen as valuable insofar as it is ‘cutting-edge’ (in the parlance of the institution), particularly as a pedagogical innovation. But I probably would not get tenure if most of my publications were videographic. That said, videographic work does seem to get people’s attention—I’m sure that it has helped with various grant applications and in framing the development of our curriculum. I do wish it could ‘count’ in a more fundamental way—or at least in a more obvious and transparent way—for my research portfolio. The risk of taking time away from my book or from the next article for more substantial video work simply seems too great at this point in my career.
Keating: I am in the fortunate position that I have tenure already, and so I am facing less pressure to publish traditional essays than I did in years past. One positive about video essay work is that it can be accessible to non-film scholars. I applied for promotion recently, and I was very aware that I had to explain my work to a committee of people who were not film specialists. My initial sense is that committee members appreciated the videos as a way of learning about my work very quickly.
Kooijman: I realize that I speak from a position of privilege, as I have a ‘tenured’ position (although we don’t have a tenure system) and I don’t face the precariousness that so many younger colleagues do. In other words, I can afford doing videographic criticism without worrying what effect that will have on my career. So far, I only have published officially one audiovisual essay and I listed it as part of my official peer-reviewed output in our database, wondering whether or not it would be accepted by the powers-that-be as an academic article that ‘counts’. And it was accepted! What probably helped is the institutional context of [in]Transition and its very visible peer review process. Also, I was asked as a keynote speaker at a conference in London solely based on doing videographic criticism—so yes, it has had a positive impact.
Mittell: If you could change anything about the way videographic criticism is practiced, published, taught, consumed, etc. today, what would it be? How might the broader videographic community work to implement such changes?
Keating: I find that the videos my students watch the most often tend to be about a pretty narrow range of films—namely, films by David Fincher and Christopher Nolan. If I could change one thing, I would like the most popular video essay sites to address a wider range of examples—global examples, historical examples, independent examples, and so on. I’m afraid that my own work is rather narrowly focused on studio-era Hollywood, but I’d like to explore other works in the future. (For years, I have been planning to make a shamelessly auteurist video about Amy Sherman-Palladino’s directorial style. Maybe this summer…)
Pramaggiore: It may be an impossible ask, but I wish there were a way to distinguish academic videographic criticism from the online world of supercuts and mashups. All these genres can do similar work and I enjoy the fan-generated work, … but I still want to reserve a space for scholarly approaches. Seeing work like Catherine Grant, Kevin Lee, and Allison de Fren’s at the workshop, as well as some of the work made by my workshop colleagues, brought that home to me. They are not only tinkering around for fun. I realise there are journals for academic work, and I am conscious of the need to question the need to make these distinctions. But I want to validate intellectual work that is creative work as well.
Majumdar: I wish one could go to video retreats where one works on one’s own project. As far as distinguishing academic video work and other work, I rather like the fact that the boundaries are slimmer than in the case of writing. I am glad there are peer reviewed videographic journals, but I also like the idea that there are non-academics watching them.
Warner: I would love for more media studies-oriented scholars to learn the skills and also grapple and debate and figure out how to negotiate the limits and also discover the possibilities of videographic criticism for different kind of argumentation. This is a selfish desire I realize, but I think that is also the next frontier for this style of scholarship.
Long: As much as I love and value the poetic side of videographic practice, I wonder if the field as a whole might benefit from attending to and theorizing the explanatory mode more extensively. My students generally come to the video essay through the world Maria describes (Every Frame a Painting, in the best of circumstances). So the tendency among most of them is to think of this as a form of film reviewing or auteurist criticism before anything else. To what degree can we as scholars intervene in that space—as public intellectuals, to some degree—to bring media history, theory, and criticism more into the public eye? Could creating work that is fundamentally explanatory and approachable, but with scholarly rigor and critical precision, help elevate that popular online discourse while also encouraging more sophisticated approaches? I’m thinking of the value of something like David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, and Jeff Smith’s ‘Observations on Film Art’ essays for FilmStruck (RIP) as an entry point into videographic work that might bridge that gap.
McCormick: I hope the opposite of Maria and Derek—I would like to see blurrier definitions of videographic criticism that take fan-produced or “popular” content more seriously. And while I do think the videographic community could do more to wrangle with the limits and possibilities of different modes, I would want to resist establishing hierarchies in terms of what ‘counts’ as scholarly videomaking. I think that certain perceptions of videographic criticism (and other creative research practices) in academic institutions put us in a position of needing to defend its value, which sometimes results in an unjustified dismissal of more ‘popular’ types of videomaking. I’d like to see more variety of videographic forms, different ways of mixing video with text, gifs, still images, etc. I’ve been really drawn to deformative methods after attending Jason et al.’s 2017 SCMS workshop, and I hope to see that field grow alongside videographic criticism. Finally, I look forward to seeing more videographic work in TV studies, as I think it allows us to tackle the formal aspects of expansive source texts in ways that are often difficult in written scholarship.
Kooijman: Wow, this is such an important thread that I’m not sure how to respond. On the one hand, I agree with Casey that blurring the lines would be preferable to avoid ‘establishing hierarchies’. It’s a discussion Miklos Kiss addressed in the spring 2018 issue of NECSUS; although I understand where he’s coming from, I'm weary to over-categorize different approaches in videographic criticism as it might lead to too rigid standards (whether or not intended). On the other hand, I do realize that there is a difference in what one can expect from a scholarly work, an artistic work, and a fan-based work. I would suspect that as an ‘artist’ or ‘fan’ one has more freedom and leeway to manipulate the material one is working with. In a scholarly audiovisual essay, one cannot leave out a shot or segment that is in the original work but counters or problematizes your argument. For me, my approach to videographic criticism is very similar to Mieke Bal’s five principles of cultural analysis.[i]
O’Leary: I’ve been very interested here in some of the skeptical and necessary points raised by Kristen and others. What I think we need, as practitioners or sympathetic observers of videographic criticism—and it is already happening in this forum—is an explicit discussion about the value of the different modes of videographic criticism, and about the capacities and ethics of videographic criticism as such. The focus of the Middlebury workshop was practical and hands-on, but these questions were raised (in the 2018 iteration anyway) by the character of the work of the guest teachers. In effect, Catherine Grant presented her videographic work as a kind of overture to its own discursive explication: the cryptic beauty and density of her short video essays seemed to invite verbal or written unpacking. Kevin Lee’s aesthetic (or ethic) refused the beautiful object in order to reveal the mechanics of his work’s construction and its embeddedness in contemporary digital ecologies; the scent of mise-en-abyme was sometimes quite heady. Allison de Fren expressed very frankly her own suspicion of the poetic mode of videographic criticism and her work was closest to standard academic argument, to the extent that it claimed a ‘transparency’ for its explanatory mode that is refused (implicitly and explicitly, respectively) in Catherine’s and in Kevin’s work. Each approach seems to me to have considerable epistemic and analytical power, and I think the different approaches can be combined—even and especially when they seem to be in opposition; I like the idea of using unresolved juxtaposition in videographic work so that conclusions are revealed as provisional and the task of interpretation is deferred to the viewer. This combination might do something to persuade colleagues who doubt the capacity of videographic work to make arguments of the requisite analytical density and falsifiability.
I also want to mention a fourth approach at the Middlebury workshop: the parametric one taught by Chris and Jason in the first week, when we were set exercises that imposed formal constraints on the choice and treatment of material to be used from our chosen audiovisual texts. As all the contributors here will remember, the idea was for us to treat our source material as archives of sounds and images. I really enjoy the playfulness of this approach, which for me refuses both the Romantic idea of the artist who expresses his (sic) essential self and the (Enlightenment?) idea of the intellectual who authoritatively pronounces on a particular theme. Using a parametric approach, the videoessayist intervenes ‘intra-actively’ (Karen Barad’s term) in a system and acknowledges themselves to be part of that system rather some Godlike figure beyond it. But it was salutary to see that some of the participants at the 2018 workshop were uncomfortable with the parametric approach, for political rather than creative reasons. Fellow participant Susan Harewood wrote to me about the difficulty of treating films as audiovisual archives if that disavows ‘what is at stake for folks who are either absent from those archives or present in very particular ways’ (quoted with permission). To put this more crudely than Susan would: is the parametric approach a form of white privilege? I’m reminded of the historical irony that the ‘death of the author’ was proclaimed at exactly the moment that women were claiming their equal place in a canon dominated by men. The kind of post-human ethics of creation promised by parametric form needs to contend with, and be modest before, the humanist claim to individual expression and intellectual authority made by those who have traditionally been denied those things. Is it too soon to declare the post-human when the humanity of whole categories of people has for so long been denied?
Warner: I would hope that it would be, Alan. To be clear, I think there is great power and imagination in the construction and design of the videoessay. I think the producers, and in particular the mentors we had at each of our videocamps, do smart, savvy, critical, beautiful work. I just don’t know if, even with the combinations you mention, it fulfills my checklists for what a work in my area is supposed to accomplish. Now, I may not have the imaginative fortitude to see how to bridge that gap but I can believe it is possible—which is a lot for a skeptic!
Kohnen: Alan, I find your question about the ethical implications of the parametric approach revealing and important. I had not considered the question of what it means to reduce films (and TV shows) to a visual archive without consideration of who/what is absent or present in certain ways (perhaps a sign of my own white privilege). I would love to see further discussion of this. I also think that the parametric approach can speak to inclusions/exclusions. My students often work on Hitchcock’s Rope when going through the initial set of formalist exercises, and the queerness of the text has a tendency to make itself known, whether students intentionally try to highlight it or not. Overall, I would like to see videographic criticism more overtly discuss the position of the videographer and the types of texts most frequently featured in video essays.
Mittell: Are there any other things that you’d like to say that haven’t yet been said?
Keating: When I encourage colleagues to try videographic criticism, I always warn them that a surprisingly large portion of the work is just technical problem-solving. When I write a traditional essay, I can fix a typo in a few seconds. When I make a video, a minor mistake on the voice track might take hours to fix (going back to the sound booth, re-recording a few words, cutting them back in smoothly). This is just one example. Really, video work is filled with these maddening fixes. Sometimes I will lose sync on my soundtrack, and I won’t know why, and it’s just soul-crushing. But then there are other times—when a piece of music works just right, or when a split screen reveals a hidden connection—when it’s a pure delight, and I decide it’s worth it to put up with all the headaches for these little moments of surprise.
Majumdar: I will say that I wish we could collectively commit to video retreats that would give us the time and community to work on our projects. For me, the greatest gift of Middlebury was those heady hours spent in the lab with other people engaged in exactly the same thing, each of us working on our own, but eating meals together and intensively discussing our work the next day.
Kohnen: I second Neepa’s wish for more videocamps! The gift of time and community at videocamp is so precious and so important for the process of videographic work, and it is difficult to replicate even during academic summers.
Kooijman: Indeed, more videocamps, but also, let keep organizing videographic criticism-based panels at conferences.
Patrick Keating is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at Trinity University in San Antonio, where he teaches courses in film studies, media studies, and video production. He attended the first videocamp in 2015. Since then, he has made numerous video essays, and incorporated videographic work into many courses.
Melanie Kohnen is an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Media Studies at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, OR. She participated in the first videocamp and has since made two video essays about queer visibility in film and TV. She most actively engages with videographic criticism in my teaching.
Jaap Kooijman is an Associate Professor in Media Studies and American Studies at the University of Amsterdam. He attended the first videocamp in 2015, which was the first time he seriously started doing videographic criticism. His final project—after many hours of re-editing at home—was published in [in]Transition. Since then, he has made several audiovisual essays, but most of them either to use in the classroom or as presentations at conferences.
Derek Long is an Assistant Professor of Media and Cinema Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He teaches courses in film studies, historiography, animation, and digital media production, and is currently working on a book on the history of distribution in early Hollywood. He attended the second workshop, published a video on Rose Hobart in [in]Transition, and has integrated video essay assignments into animation history and graduate historiography courses.
Neepa Majumdar is Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of Wanted Cultured Ladies Only: Female Stardom and Cinema in India, 1930s to 1950s, and was written broadly on early Indian cinema from the silent era to the 1950s, star studies, and sound in cinema. She was in the 2018 workshop.
Casey McCormick is a sessional instructor at McGill University, where she completed her PhD in Cultural Studies in 2017. Since attending the second workshop, she has integrated videographic and deformative methods into her teaching and research, working on a larger project called ‘serial deformations’. At her dissertation defense, she presented a revised version of her video essay from the workshop.
Alan O’Leary is Professor of Film and Cultural Studies and member of the Centre for World Cinemas and Digital Cultures at the University of Leeds (UK). He has just finished a book on The Battle of Algiers (Italy/Algeria, 1966) and did videographic work on that film at the 2018 workshop, which has since been published at [in]Transition. What he learned at the workshop has informed a practice as research ‘meta-project’ (called Parameters and Practice) with dance artist Marie Hallager Andersen, and he is designing a course on Italian cinema and videographic criticism for The Ohio State University.
Maria Pramaggiore is a Professor of Media Studies at Maynooth University in Ireland, and currently Dean of Graduate Studies. She has published widely on gender and sexuality in cinema and media, including three monographs, a co-authored film studies textbook, and a co-edited collection on bisexual culture. Since the 2018 Workshop, she is currently designing a videographic criticism class for the M.A. program in Critical and Creative Media.
Kristen Warner is an Associate Professor of Journalism and Creative Media at the University of Alabama, and author of The Cultural Politics of Colorblind TV Casting. She attended the first workshop in 2015. She teaches courses in film and television, identity, and production cultures, incorporating videographic assignments.
Copyright ©2019 by Jason Mittell
[i] Mike Bal, ‘5 principles of cultural analysis’.