Video Essay on Barry Jenkins’ non-feature films

This is a belated congratulations to Barry Jenkins for winning this year’s Best Picture for Moonlight, in most dramatic fashion. Three years ago I took a long look at the short films and commercial work he had produced up to that point, as I had wondered what had happened to him in the six years since he had made his first feature Medicine for Melancholy. I was struck by the clarity of vision in that film and wondered to what extent his works-for-hire bore that vision as well. I wondered what it would mean if he never made another feature: could this body of work – one feature, several shorts, even a commercial for Facebook – stand on its own?

That question has now been rendered moot as far as Jenkins is concerned, but remains valid to ask in its own right. What kind of body of work – or works within that body – are worth our attention? How much work should be considered in telling the story of a filmmaking career? Especially for those who may never make a feature film? Who are the greatest filmmakers who never made a feature, and how are their legacies considered differently from those who have?

Video Essays from 2013 – Re-Educations

In 2012 I made more video essays than in any other year yet still couldn’t maintain a living with this type of work. Little did I realize that the subjects of one of my first video essays of 2013 was suffering a similar fate on a far greater scale, despite winning an Academy Award that year.

The CGI production company Rhythm & Hues was breaking new ground in photorealistic animal special effects; I’d been so impressed with its Oscar-winning work in The Life of Pi that I produced a video essay for Sight & Sound charting its 20 year history of developing computer generated animals for movies. This involved the greatest amount of research I had performed for a video essay to that date: I interviewed several employees of the company and acquired proprietary test footage from several of their past projects. I wonder if one reason why they were so cooperative was that the company was in fact on the brink of filing for bankruptcy, and they were looking to tell their story to sympathetic listeners.

The company was one of several Hollywood special effects firms being run into the ground due to unfair financial arrangements with big budget production companies, despite these productions going on to make hundreds of millions of dollars. (Their story is told in an episode of the podcast series Freakonomics which can be found here.) These were industrial considerations of filmmaking that my video essays to date hadn’t really explored, including this one. But it would become more of a concern as the business aspects of my own work would become more pressing in my mind.

What this video focuses on instead are questions of how reality and affect are constructed and programmed on screen. These were questions I had been pursuing as early as The Spielberg Face, but now with a nascent curiosity in the uncanny, as I was auditing a course on the subject taught by Tom Gunning at the University of Chicago. In his class, Gunning skillfully staked out the terrain of the uncanny – one of uncertainty, irresolution and in-between states – and enabled his students to occupy it attentively. Continue reading “Video Essays from 2013 – Re-Educations”

Highlights from the BACKDOR Collection

On January 6 2017, approximately 280 video essays disappeared from the Vimeo channel of Fandor, the company for whom I had served as Founding Editor and Chief Video Essayist since 2010. As reported in an article by Conor Bateman, a video essayist whose own works were removed from the site:

Fandor Keyframe began removing older video essays from their website following advice from their in-house legal counsel… The legal question, as far as I am aware, primarily concerned the use of music in video essays, which could have placed a greater burden on Fandor to prove fair use under American copyright law. Fandor is currently in the process of reviewing and rescoring some of these removed video essays. As it stands, though, many of the best video essays of the last few years are currently unavailable to watch online.

In response to this action, I resigned my position as Chief Video Essayist. At the same time, members of the academic community expressed dismay that so many works had disappeared at once simply due to a change in corporate policy by the party that had hosted them. Many of these works are used as educational material in classrooms and referenced by scholars in their studies of cinema and videographic research.

Fortunately the rights to these works reverted back to their creators as stipulated in their contracts, and many of these video essays have been re-uploaded by their originators on their personal accounts. I myself have spent the last six weeks re-uploading the 215 video essays that I had produced for Fandor over the last six years, a process which I have just recently completed.

At the same time, the Vimeo channel Audiovisualcy took interest in re-assembling these videos as a body of work. Audiovisualcy is the leading curator of outstanding video essay content online, having just curated its 1500th video essay. After discussion with several video essayists who had been affected, Audiovisualcy created an album to collect and identify the 280 newly restored video essays. And so we present this album, labeled BACKDOR.

Speaking to why this channel is important, I believe that it reinforces a basic conviction: audiovisual essay work is of significant cultural and scholarly value. Therefore, it should not simply disappear from the internet if its original host no longer desires to be associated with it. It comes down to what sort of underlying set of principles and values we want to govern the internet, especially when it comes to matters of creativity, critical thinking, and personal expression through media.

It also presents an opportunity to celebrate the work of the many video essayists I worked with as editor of the site. Every video we worked on became an opportunity to ask new questions about this ever-evolving form and what we could express through it. As a result, there were many moments of innovation, surprise and delight both in these videos and in the process of making them. I wonder if such a collaborative environment will ever exist again in the service of this type of work. For now, this collection stands to commemorate a significant chapter in the development of video essays.

Here is a roll call of the video essayists whose work had been taken down, as well as a link to their profile, the number of videos initially taken down, and one example of their work.

Jacob T. Swinney (15 videos)

Continue reading “Highlights from the BACKDOR Collection”

Video Essays from 2012 – All In

Still from “The Career of Paul Thomas Anderson in Five Shots”

When we last left this year-by-year account of my past decade of video essay production, it was December 2011, I had just been fired for not making enough viral videos, and was immediately re-hired after making the most viral video essay of my career.

I was now relieved of my responsibilities managing editorial content for Fandor, and assigned to focus solely on producing roughly four video essays for each month – the arrangement I would maintain until I left the company at the beginning of this year. As a result, my production skyrocketed from 10 video essays in 2011 to 46 in 2012.

Despite this dramatic increase in output, I was now working on a freelance basis at a greatly reduced salary than my previous full-time status, so I was effectively doing more work for less pay. I had to seek other outlets to supplement my income. Fortunately around the time of my status change at the end of 2011, Matt Zoller Seitz recruited me to help finish editing his epic video essay series on Steven Spielberg for his newly launched blog Press Play on Indiewire. He then hired me as Editor in Chief of the site to produce one new video each week. This meant that between Fandor and Press Play, I was producing eight videos a month. This was the most intensive period of video essay production I’ve experienced, and will probably ever experience. I literally was sitting in front of my computer for 12-15 hours a day watching, editing, publishing and promoting videos.

Continue reading “Video Essays from 2012 – All In”

Talks in Paris March 6 and 8

I will be in Paris the week of March 6 to participate in a couple of public talks hosted by the École normale supérieure.

Monday March 6:

Post-Cinema and The Future of Digital Images
A conversation with filmmaker Kevin B. Lee and Prof. Dork Zabunyan, conducted by Chloé Galibert-Laîné

Amphithéâtre Dussane (45 rue d’Ulm)
The session will be held in French and English.

Cinema has often helped us imagining our future: but what about the future of cinema itself?

Continue reading “Talks in Paris March 6 and 8”

Understanding the Video Essay Landscape

Highlights from “Text vs. Context: Understanding the Video Essay Landscape” by Jessica McGoff, published on 4:3:

“The emergence (and subsequent rapid proliferation) of the video essay has left both film critics and scholars not only grappling with how best to participate in the move towards the audiovisual, but also how to discuss and analyse the form in its own right.

Criticism is necessary for any form, especially one still establishing itself, but what is becoming increasingly perceptible in many recent pieces is a failure to keep up with the video essay’s rapidly changing landscape.

This is primarily because critiques of the video essay are often lacking institutional context, resorting instead to auteurist modes of analysis first developed in (non-audiovisual) cinema studies. This discursive flaw both illuminates the current shifts in the video essay landscape and also leads me to contend that working towards an institutional analysis will open up insight regarding the versatile capacity of the video essay.”

Continue reading “Understanding the Video Essay Landscape”

Video Essays from 2011, Part 2 – Hired, Fired, Viral, Hired Again

This is a continuation of a year-by-year recollection of my experiences over the past decade of video essay production. The most recent entry reflected on two sets of legacies of self-reflexive film and media study that happened in 2009 and 2011. As gratifying as it was to connect my work to the past, I was still seeking ways to make a living doing this work in the present. It seemed that I had found a solution when the startup company Fandor hired me in 2010 to manage the editorial content of their site.

Fandor was launched as a subscription streaming service dedicated to connect its audience to a greater selection of festival films. My role was to produce content that would acquaint viewers to these films, which were often obscure to most people, even if they came with festival accolades. Key to this effort would be producing video essays that would help give viewers as vivid and enticing an introduction to these films as possible. This often meant trying to find ways to connect these neglected works to films that had more currency to the moment. Such was the case with the very first video essay produced for Fandor (and the 76th I had made overall at that point), which connected the parallel editing narrative techniques of D.W. Griffith to Christopher Nolan’s 2010 blockbuster Inception.

In 2011 I produced 14 video essays: 10 for Fandor, 2 for the Moving Image Source, and 2 for Ebert Presents at the Movies. Despite working fulltime for Fandor, my video essay output was curtailed by editing text articles for the site as well. I share some reflections on that experience here.

At first this type of work seemed like a project perfectly suited to my knowledge, skills and interests, but very quickly I ran into a dilemma. Continue reading “Video Essays from 2011, Part 2 – Hired, Fired, Viral, Hired Again”

Found Footage Magazine

The third issue of Found Footage Magazine is now available, with 19 articles on over a dozen filmmakers and topics. Full contents of the new issue can be found at Found Footage Magazine. But there are a couple of items of particular interest for this blog: Continue reading “Found Footage Magazine”

Video Essays from 2011, Part 1: Connecting to Legacies

Continuing the year-by-year account of my past decade making video essays (see past entries on 2007, 2008, 2009-10), I now look at 2011, my first – and only – year in which I was fully employed as a video essayist. In 2011 I produced 12 video essays, which can be found here.

Design image for the Kunst der Vermittlung project (source: Kunst der Vermittlung)

In my previous entry I discussed how YouTube’s sudden shutdown of my account triggered publicity and expressions of support for my work. I neglected to mention some especially important supporters at the time: the organizers of a project called Kunst der Vermittlung (The Art of Mediation), a website and screening series drawing attention to “Filmvermittelnden Films,” or works of cinema that focus on the cinema itself.

As described in the project website (via Google Translate): Continue reading “Video Essays from 2011, Part 1: Connecting to Legacies”

Video Essays from 2009-2010 – Rights of Passage

My project continues to archive and catalogue all of the video essays I have made over the last ten years.  Previous entries looked at 2007, when I began, and 2008, when I engaged mainly in collaborations with different critics and began to make video essays for pay.

First, here’s the Vimeo album of the video essays I produced in 2009. I produced 20 video essays in this year, but only 16 are accounted for in this album, for reasons explained further below.

In 2009 I made the last video essays for Shooting Down Pictures, the personal blog project that initiated my video essay production in order to more deeply investigate the films I was writing about. I continued collaborating with others, such as with film scholar Kristin Thompson on the silent film classics La roue and Varieté; and a video essay on Greta Garbo’s first starring role, with commentary by Swedish film scholar Jan Olsson.

I also collaborated with a longtime internet friend Christianne Benedict, with whom I had interacted for years from the now-defunct message boards of the Internet Movie Database. We produced this video essay on The World According to Garp, which I’m particularly fond of, because it was my first real experience learning about and appreciating issues of transgender identity, specifically within film history. In light of recent setbacks for trans and LGBTQ rights under the current US administration, I think this video essay is as relevant as ever.

Just a couple days after this video essay was first published on YouTube in January 2009, it was taken down – but not because of anything to do with its transgender subject matter. This video – and every video I had made up to this point – came up against another kind of rights issue when YouTube shut down my account due to a new copyright policy they had adopted overnight. Continue reading “Video Essays from 2009-2010 – Rights of Passage”