Thomas Eckert

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On Video Essays

13 Feb 2018 | Seattle, WA

Last night, a friend stopped by while walking her dog. Sophia and I sat with her on the porch. She brought up a new discovery in her life: video essays. Sophia mentioned that they are a passion of mine – I watch them constantly. I asked if I could send her a syllabus of my favorites and she said okay. After all, I said, my love language is sharing media.

She continued walking her dog and I started drafting an email. She had already talked about one of my favorite essays, Frames and Containers (9:01), so where would I start my list? Perhaps with one of my favorite creators, Tony Zhou. My email draft sat before me

Video Essays Syllabus

Top Ten
  1. |

and I watched through my favorite Zhou essay F for Fake (1973) - How to Structure a Video Essay (4:31) which has a thesis that recommends a narrative structure over arbitrarily ordered lists.

Although I wasn't creating a video essay, asking my friend to dive into potentially hours of video content without any cohesion or guidance to connect them seemed cruel. I wanted to give her choices and directions to explore.

As I created my list, I noticed emergent genres. I began to ask myself what defines a video essay. The genre has existed for decades, but only recenly exploded in popularity because of platforms like YouTube and Vimeo. I tend toward inclusivity in defining a video essay. They are videos that explicate or comment on an existing text to provide evidence for some thesis.

Visual art is a great subject for video essays because the subject and commentary can be distributed to the video and audio tracks respectively. Entertain the Elk is a newer creator who comments on color palettes and composition in Monet: Creating Winter (8:10). Amor Sciendi focuses solely on visual art: Life is in the Details: The Mérode Altarpiece (5:12). Comic books fall into this category too as with Batman: Zero Year - Retelling the Origin Story (Part 1) (8:00) by Viewfinder. Cinematography as a subject brings in elements of the visual art, as in Mr. Robot: The Art of Framing | Video Essay (6:04), The Stylistic Evolution of Anime (21:24), and The Seductive Atmosphere of CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017) - A Video Essay (8:09).

The origin of video essays is commentary on film. This is the most abundant genre of video essays. As with film itself, the theses in these essays touch on a vibrant spectrum of the human experience. They can be technical, Spider Man | How to Film a Cinematic Moment (8:25); textural, Andrei Tarkovsky - Poetic Harmony (15:00); or philosophical, In Search of the Distinctively Human | The Philosophy of Blade Runner 2049 (17:33). They can explicate a single scene, Taylor Ramos and Tony Zhou on THE BREAKING POINT (2:04) or an entire filmography, Quiet Cinematography- Floating Weeds (1959) (7:08).

Commentary on film is oftentimes a commentary on culture. Nerdwriter looks at symbols and references throughout modern film in Intertextuality: Hollywood's New Currency (6:08). The Pop Culture Detective examines the sexism inherent in a trope he calls Born Sexy Yesterday (18:13). The ripples of a text into later works are explored in The Influence of Akira (7:12).

Film can also provide a jumping off point to talk about narrative structure, Ex Machina — The Control of Information (10:44) and How to End a Movie (4:49).

Commentary on culture is of course not limited to film, as can be seen with Will Schoder's David Foster Wallace - The Problem with Irony (9:53) and Adam Neely's What is the Real Book? (a jazz shibboleth) (9:03). The essay Folding Ideas - Earthsea and Adaptation Sickness (26:33) explores the effects of a culture of adaptation by looking at a particular series by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Video games are a more recent subject that plays to the same strengths as film. Ahoy explores culture and mystery in POLYBIUS - The Video Game That Doesn't Exist (1:08:33). Leonardo Da Sidci meditates on the emotional impact of games in Depression and Video Games | Sidcourse (16:16). ShoddyCast analyzes narrative in Hyper Light Drifter - A Story Without Words (10:07).

Music poses a difficult challenge to the essayist because it requires subject and commentary to occupy the audio track. However, this can allow the creator to be more inventive in illustrating her subject thoughtfully without being distracting. Frank Ocean – Musical Identity by kaptainkristian does this perfectly. Polyphonic uses the imagery of Afro Futurism in Sci Fi & Social Justice: The Music of Janelle Monae (5:53). The problem of a visual subject is solved through an object in Oscilloscope Music - Pictures from Sound (12:11).

Essays on physics and math are particularly interesting to me. They hold a place between pure explaination and explication. The Map of Physics (8:19) is a meta-analysis of the subjects in physics and how they relate to one another. Why Should We Care About Higher Dimensions (17:53) does a great job of bringing higher maths to an accessible level. One of my favorite content producers, 3Blue1Brown, does this consistently, especially in The hardest problem on the hardest test (11:14). On the engineering front, there is The Ingenious Design of the Aluminum Beverage Can (11:39).

There is a lot of innovation in video essays. I am looking forward to more pieces that defy easy categorization like An Introduction to Zoning (5:57) and How To Be Creative: How an Artist Turns Pro (12:56). I hope this introduction gives a good picture of what has been done and what is possible with video essays in the future.