Video Essays from 2016 – Emerging from Screens Big and Small

I concluded the entry reviewing my video essay activity of 2015 by expressing an increased frustration with exploring the flat, two-dimensional parameters of screens. I was (and still am) seeking new ways to provoke a more palpable awareness of engaging with screens as not just a visual, but a physical activity.

The 2016 International Film Festival Rotterdam presented an opportunity to explore these concerns when they became the first film festival to commission me to produce an original video essay. The festival’s Critics Choice program, organized by Dana Linssen and Jan-Pieter Ekker, is a selection of films where critics introduce the works prior to their screening. This program spotlights the role of the critic in mediating the relationship between film and audience. Typically this is realized through the critic writing a review or program notes on the film. But when the critic produces a video essay in the film, and that video essay plays on a big screen in front of the audience right before they get to encounter the film for themselves, this mediating role becomes much more pronounced and loaded with a burden of responsibility bordering on an ethical dilemma. If I am showing footage of the film and explaining it to an audience, to what extent am I pre-empting or ruining their experience?

I faced this challenge when I made a video to introduce the festival’s screenings of Hong Sang-soo’s newest film Right Now, Wrong Then. I opted to make two video essays. The first one would be a side-by-side comparison of two similar scenes with running analysis in text windows. The second would be a written anecdote of my personal experiences with Hong Sang-soo and his films. These videos play simultaneously on the top and bottom halves of the screen, and the viewer is instructed to hold their hand up to block part of the screen so that they can focus on the rest. The viewer is thus given a choice to control what information they want to receive about the film. It also makes the act of viewing more explicitly physical by prompting viewers to use their hands to control their field of vision.

The video screened to a full house at the 900-seat Luxor Theater in Rotterdam. I gave the audience instructions to use their hands prior to the screening. It was fascinating to see different viewers obey and disobey these instructions.

Some did use their hand to block either the top or bottom half of the screen as was the “proper” way to watch the video. Others tried to watch the entire screen at once; I wonder what that must have been like to be overloaded with audiovisual and textual information, and how their eyes managed the overload. Still other viewers held their hand up sideways or in other configurations I hadn’t anticipated. It was wonderful to see all this physical activity and decision making involved in a theatrical screening.

I called this an “interactive” video essay – though at least one scholar took issue with the use of this term, since historically it has more to do with a certain kind of programmed interface where one pushes buttons or selects from a screen menu to control the linear path of the experience. But how distant or unrelated is this basic use of hands from a more technological definition of “interactivity”? Regardless, these questions really intrigue me. Even more than desktop documentary, this is a form of engagement I would love to explore further.

As it happened, the rest of 2016 would take my attention to an almost diametrically opposite direction, though at the same time related (however perversely) to my interests in exploring physical interactions with moving images. In the spring of that year, Fandor adopted a new strategy to optimize its original video content for Facebook mobile viewing. Consultants to the company had identified Facebook and mobile devices as primary platforms for consuming online media. Video essays produced by Fandor would need to be designed to be viewed effectively on these platforms.

This led to the implementation of new design guidelines applied to all videos. Two guidelines in particular are notable.

First, it was determined that Facebook mobile enjoys a much shorter window of engagement than desktop-based platforms, since the viewer is predisposed to scroll to the next item on their feed rather than focus on any item of content for an extended period. The recommended ideal length of a video was 30-45 seconds. Up to this point, the average length of a video I produced was around 5 minutes.

Second, videos need to make sense without sound. The reason for this is that Facebook sets its videos to start playing automatically when they appear on a user’s feed. This is an inversion of the previously dominant interface associated with sites like YouTube, where one typically has to click on a link or the play button on a video to initiate play. So instead of an “opt-in” interaction with YouTube, the viewer must “opt-out” of the video that is already playing on Facebook.

This change is motivated in part by the logic of the Facebook scroll interface, but also by the desire to nudge the interaction towards achieving the goal of counting as an officially measured “view” to feed into its performance metrics, which in turn make the platform more appealing to advertisers. What duration counts as a “view”? Three seconds. (Compare to YouTube, which counts 30 seconds as a view).

Since Facebook auto-plays its videos, it mutes the audio to avoid causing a nuisance for the viewer, who has to press the video if they want to hear sound. For this reason, text becomes a more important element to provide commentary for the video, effectively replacing voiceover narration. Graphic design elements also become more important in attracting the viewer’s interest.

With these guidelines in mind, I set about to make the videos I’d been making for the previous five years, concerning the films and filmmakers I cared about most. It so happened that one of my favorite filmmakers, Abbas Kiarostami, passed away around this time. I wanted to make a tribute video for him, one of the masters of what we might call “slow cinema.” But how does one make a tribute to “slow cinema” for smartphone social media sharing? I opted for one of the most tried-and-true methods, the supercut. And this is what resulted from the attempt:

I actually had to ensure that those two dot-sized people at the end of the video were visible on a smartphone screen. (If you watched this on your desktop, you didn’t watch it the way it was meant to be seen.) This video’s implicit question of what it means to experience cinema in an age of smaller screens and dwindling attention spans — and my role in mediating the relationship between the two (am I a translator, a corrupter, or an executioner?) — created tremendous pressure on my part. And, as with my viral video experience of 2011, even when I seemed to have a breakthrough, it was somehow used against me. My first hit video on Facebook was one looking at the sexism of the original 1984 version of Ghostbusters, made in response to the sexist trolling surrounding the 2016 remake. This video wound up netting over 5 million Facebook views, and yet it was determined that it could have been more successful if I had stated the main point of the video as an opening title card, edited the video at a much faster pace, and made it no more than a minute long.

Despite such dispiriting feedback, I gave it my best effort, partly because I found this absurd predicament strangely irresistible as a creative challenge. Others who produced video essays for Fandor also answered this challenge, at times yielding results that were quite brilliant for how resourcefully they worked within these parameters to create compelling videos. Examples include:

At the same time, there was a noticeable shift in my own subject matter. The Abbas Kiarostami video proved to be a farewell not only to one of my most beloved directors, but to my producing of videos not dealing with mainstream or American cinema. There was simply too much pressure to make videos that had maximum potential to perform well on Facebook, leading to a hard shift to Hollywood subject matter. Nonetheless, I was intrigued to find ways to link contemporary Hollywood filmmaking to the types of concerns I was dealing with in my own work.

This video netted about 7 million Facebook views. These numbers in themselves were ridiculously beyond what my past videos had managed through YouTube and Vimeo – the previous high that any of my videos had netted was this one, whose original upload (since removed as part of the January 2017 massacre) gained a million views. But what’s a 30 second Vimeo or YouTube view compared to a 3 second Facebook view? Such a disparity of duration, as well as the conditions for attentive viewing (desktop vs mobile device) strain the correlation of quantitative to qualitative measurement of audience engagement.

That said, here is the most watched video I ever made, which netted 11 million Facebook views. I made it partly out of a sense of resistance to the conventions that had been imposed on my work at this time: it’s three minutes longer than what I am told its ideal length should be; and it features a voiceover narration. I just got tired of reducing the work I had made for so many years, work I considered to be substantive, nourishing engagements with cinema, into what was described in the office without irony as “snackable content.” And in a sense, I made this video as a way of locating my own struggles, however associational, with this actress, whom I confess I hadn’t really taken seriously until making this video. I depict her as someone leveraging the narrow demands and conventions of the entertainment industry in order to achieve her own aims as a respectable talent.

When this video ended up garnering as many views as it did, I felt validated that my work could still uphold the creative and critical values described above and still serve the commercial motivations of the company. However, when I showed this video at a talk I gave in Frankfurt this past January, one student shared his viewing experience: “I don’t really remember anything that was said. I was just staring at her the whole time.”

With such Pyrrhic victories accrued over roughly two dozen Facebook-optimized video essays I produced over the second half of 2016, I was fairly burned out by the end of the year. The following video essay, produced on one of my favorite and most prolific actresses working today, proved to be the last of over 200 video essays I produced for Fandor from 2010 to 2016. It may be following my typical fashion to read too much into things, but I think it’s a rather fitting coda in terms of the thesis I came up with to summarize her career to date. The three female role types she has performed over the last 17 years speak quite resonantly, I think, to the options for personal self-fulfillment typically assigned to women. But somehow I also identify with them as the kinds of roles that I’ve bumbled through on a haphazard personal journey that has taken me to where I am now.

I produced video essays over the last several years for Fandor to provide a kind of customer service product, to help others see movies better. But underlying this business justification (however threadbare it was at times) was a more personal one: that these videos could help me better understand my own relation to both the screen world and the real world. Having spent so much time applying this work in one particular context (one whose merits I leave for you to evaluate based on what I’ve disclosed above), I am more inclined than ever to apply this work towards a higher aim, and to trust myself more than ever to determine what that aim shall be.