April seems like years and years ago, but it was, believe it or not, only four months ago, and the time when listeners of The Video Essay Podcast were assigned their first piece of videographic homework, the “PechaKucha.” Listeners would go on to be assigned the remaining four videographic exercises developed by Chris Keathley, Jason Mittell, and Catherine Grant for the Scholarship in Sound & Image Workshop at Middlebury College: the epigraph, multi-screen, voiceover, and abstract trailer, all of which are discussed at length in their open-access Scalar book, The Videographic Essay: Practice & Pedagogy. I’ve gathered all the exercises made by listeners on one page, here.
The most recent episode of the podcast featured Jason & Chris (Katie was our first guest), who talked about the development of the exercises and the workshop, aka “video camp.” I had originally planned to do some kind of episode centered on this year’s video camp, but, of course, the workshop was cancelled and those dreams quickly subsided. When I asked for feedback on the podcast from listeners way, way back, Ariel Avissar had the idea to expand the traditional “homework” assigned on the show to include actually making video essays. When quarantine began throughout the world and video camp was canceled, it seemed like the perfect time to take Ariel’s advice and assign the exercises from the workshop to podcast listeners.
Now, months later, I figured it would be a good time to put a final bow on the homework and reflect on the process. Long story short: in my book, it was a huge success!! Here are the stats: listeners made a combined 35 PechaKuchas, 11 Epigraphs, 12 Multi-screen Compilations, and 5 Voiceovers. We’ve yet to see any abstract trailers, but I left the homework open ended and figured that it would be awhile before we say any. All in all, I was overwhelmed by the response, particularly at the beginning. Clearly, as was to be expected, fewer and fewer exercises were made as the months wore on. I can only assume that folks grew more busy, tired, overwhelmed, etc., as quarantined continued. I told myself that I would make all of the exercises but only ended up making a PechaKucha.
In many ways, the homework I assigned deviated from the exercises outlined in The Videographic Essay and how they are assigned at the workshop (for those new to the newsletter, I worked as the teaching assistant at the 2019 workshop.) Some of these changes were necessary. For example, the multi-screen composition exercise says that participants should pair their media object with the media object(s) already being analyzed by another participant(s). Of course, that was not possible here. One of my chief concerns in assigning the exercises was making sure that listeners who may have never before edited a video were not turned off by the number of parameters. For example, the instructions in The Videographic Essay say that in making the epigraph video, participants must not only add text to a continuous sequence taken from their media object (three minutes max), but also had to “alter the video sequence in some noticeable way using at least two different types of transitions or effects (but not editing multiple clips)” and “either replace or significantly alter the soundtrack.” I asked listeners to only focus on pairing their media object with text.
Perhaps the most notable difference between the “homework” and the exercises as they are outlined in The Videographic Essay is that podcast listeners were not required to stick to a single media object. Why? An obvious reason is that I, of course, could not force anyone to do anything! And another is that I figured (and this was the case) that folks would make some exercises and not others. I also thought that leaving it more open ended may entice a greater number of listeners to try their hand at an exercise, which, I think, was a mistake, and why a majority of listeners made PechaKuchas and did not make another video.
In their essay on the exercises, Mittell and Keathley write of two core principles that inform the first week of video camp: “one learns by doing” and “formal parameters lead to content discoveries.” By eliminating so many of the parameters in my own homework assignments, I deviated from these core principles and in doing so, I think, undermined the notion that these exercises are meant to be rough and not complete video essays. While PechaKuchas can lead to critical insight or be poetic and moving, they, unlike the epigraph, multiscreen, and voiceover exercises, do not really ever have the potential to be video essays, or at least scholarly video essays, in their own right. I can’t help but think that after making the first exercises, many listeners did not continue because they felt the pressure to create a stand alone video essay with the subsequent exercises. I also asked listeners to upload their videos to Vimeo or YouTube and send them in to be added to the webpage, which I think added more pressure. I’m not sure if the video camp mantra of “Make First, Think Later” can be achieved in this format, unless there were listeners who made the videos but did not share them publicly (if that’s the case for any of you, please get in touch!). As Chris said on the podcast, it is very rare for someone to create five great videographic exercises, especially since one of the goals of the first week of video camp is to be a period of trial and error. Allow me to use myself as an example.
When I took Jason’s videographic criticism course in the fall of 2018, my media object was Rio Bravo. Here’s my epigraph, which I would deem a success:
My goal for the epigraph was pretty simple: draw attention to the absence of dialogue in the opening of Hawks’s film by pairing the sequence with a quote from cinema’s earliest days. At the time, I was flipping through Roger Ebert’s Book of Film in the library at Middlebury and was compelled by Leo Tolstoy’s comments on the cinema. To further emphasize the absence of dialogue, I removed the diegetic noise and replaced it with the music that accompanies the film’s opening credits. For my “two different types of transitions or effects,” I chose to zoom in on a brief moment in the film when Dude (Dean Martin) turns away from the camera and wipes his mouth as a waitress walks by carrying a cold beer.
For the second, I decided to adjust the opacity of the image and overlay it with a moment from later in the film, when Dude (my favorite character of all-time) fights back against his alcoholism and pours a shot of liquor back into the bottle. Simply put, the juxtaposition is meant to show Dude’s progression in the film.
If one were to label my Rio Bravo epigraph a video essay or self-contained piece of videographic criticism, then it would be because of the parameters and the additional layers of meaning they provided. In this case, I lucked out! However, when it came to my multi-screen composition, the parameters were not in my favor.
As I mentioned above, the key parameter for this exercise is having to compare one’s own media object to the media object(s) being analyzed by another participant or participants. In the above video, I place Rio Bravo beside Twin Peaks, The Empire Strikes Back, Chinatown, and Ex Machina. What fun! If anyone out there thinks that this multi-screen is successful then I will be truly shocked. Here’s a brief overview of why I chose what I did (as far as I can remember):
This first comparison is pretty simple: two law enforcement officers enter a room unannounced. I remember Jason asking me why I chose to layer the images in this way rather than simply place them side-by-side in the typical fashion. To be honest, I’m not sure. But I think it was because I wanted to make the law enforcement comparison crystal clear by quite literally lining up the two men. Perhaps I didn’t give my audience enough credit? It’s not exactly the most complex comparison!
Okay, this one is actually a little more deep. This next part of the video pairs Rio Bravo with The Empire Strikes Back, specifically the scene when Luke fights fake Darth Vader during his training with Yoda on Dagobah. In the scene in Rio Bravo, Dude and Chance (John Wayne) are trying to catch the man who shot and killed Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond). Dude takes the lead in an effort to prove himself to Chance, entering a bar full of unfriendly men in search of the killer, who is hiding in the rafters. Isn’t that kind of like what Luke is doing on Dagobah? Dude equals Luke. Chance equals Yoda. Wheeler’s killer equals … Darth Vader? Dude’s past and alcoholism equals … Darth Vader? There’s definitely something there, right? Either way, you see my problem. It’s kind of a ridiculous argument to make, especially with so little context. I tried to embrace that ridiculousness and cover the requirement to transform the image in some way. I thought the effect was pretty funny, but I remember when I screened it in class there were crickets. Oh well! And finally, the third comparison:
If I were to go back in time, one thing I would stress more to listeners is that these exercises are supposed to be rough, weird, and, yes, sometimes ineffective and confusing. In our conversation with Katie, we discussed her term “working in the flow,” of the way in which audiovisual essayists create videos, share them, solicit feedback, continue to edit them, and mimic the fluidity of the Internet by sharing work that is not polished in the traditional way one thinks of scholarship. When I uploaded the Rio Bravo videos to Vimeo after finishing Jason’s course, I didn’t know what purpose they would serve other than to just exist, which is a perfectly fine reason in its own right! Before I even knew Katie’s phrase (which I considered stealing for the title of the podcast), I’ve always been pro-"working in the flow” and figured, why not upload them? And now, they’ve finally served a purpose! Or, at least the multi-screen video has finally proved useful. If that’s not a case for working in the flow then I don’t know what is!
This is not all I have to say about the “homework” exercises, and I plan to write about them again in this space sometime in the future. But a final note for now: When Katie and I chatted on the first episode of the podcast, we discussed her very first video essay, “Unsentimental Education: On Chabrol’s LES BONNES FEMMES.” The essay was created for a Chabrol blog-a-thon hosted by the blog Flickhead, which has since gone private (read Katie’s reflection on Film Studies for Free, here). Ever since that very first conversation, I knew that I wanted the podcast to become a platform for something similar, a place where those looking to dip their toe into videographic criticism would be given a chance to do so. As I’ve said before, starting this podcast in many ways felt like cheating because I knew that such a passionate and engaged community of video essayists and fans of video essays already existed, but it was cool to see the effect that the homework had in the community, and how the exercises, just as they do at video camp, helped turn many video essay fans into video essayists themselves! I received so many kind and thoughtful messages from folks who said they found making the exercises to be a cathartic experience, a welcome distraction from the state of the world; that they had been wanting to create a video for awhile and this was the first time they finally got the chance; and even some listeners who had made videographic work before but had lost interest were using the exercises to help get back in the game. This was an incredibly rewarding experience and thank you again to everyone who made videos! And please send in abstract trailers if and when you make one!