Welcome to the video essay

CAMS 266 & CAMS 105  •  Maurizio Viano

It is a true pleasure to share with you some reflections on and results of the pedagogic, digital experiments I conducted with the generous support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Blended Learning Initiative. I specifically worked towards implementing the making of video essays in all of my film courses, and more specifically in CAMS 266 Power to the Imagination: The Animated Film (taught in the Spring 2016) and the First Year Seminar CAMS 105 Twenty-First Century Cinema (Fall 2016).

What is a video-essay?

The video-essay (also called videography) constitutes a new form of intellectual/scholarly production, sanctioned by the professional organization in our field, the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS). Three years ago, they launched a website that publishes peer reviewed video-essays. The key word here is “peer-reviewed,” that is the process through which written academic scholarship must go through to be published. In short, the video-essay, at least in the field of Cinema and Media Studies, is quietly becoming a viable alternative to the traditional written essay. The website they sponsor is appropriately and significantly called [in]Transition. You can follow the vicissitudes of the scholarly videos-essay’s birth also here, at http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/audiovisualessay/. The scholarly video-essay is different from a fan tribute or a simple mash-up of favorite clips. Academic video-essays have a clearly identifiable argument, they rely on ‘serious’ research and essentially demonstrate that the audiovisual can be a form that thinks.

Video-essays in my film courses

In both of the courses mentioned above, I replaced the previous emphasis on papers with videography. The major challenge, of course, was to find a way to gradually teach the tools to think and produce knowledge audio-visually. For CAMS 105, for example, a first year seminar in which the emphasis on thinking audio-visually is virtually built in the course description, students are trained in the use of editing software in the second week of the semester and are subsequently asked to produce audio-visual assignments where before there would have been written ones. Here are some examples:

  1. During the week when we examined the expressive potential of film editing, students were asked to select thirty seconds of film that the include the transition from one shot to the next, and then insert a brief theoretical reflection on the meaning unleashed by the association of the two moving images. So, the written word is not entirely replaced, just relocated on the audiovisual text. This opens all sorts of interesting questions regarding the esthetics of the image-text combination.
  2. During the week dedicated to the study of sound, students had to detach the audio track from a clip, delete the visual track and comment on how the sound was ‘designed’ and what kind of meaning might be conveyed aurally.’

In CAMS 266, things worked a bit differently in that I gave students the option of doing a video essay or write a paper. Thus, only those students who were already skilled in editing chose the video-essay option.

I will be teaching the course again this Spring (2017) and I plan to proceed as in CAMS 105, that is to have students trained in editing software from the first week. Of course, the shift from the customary written work to the video-essay, while liberating for some, is threatening to others, so one has to find ways to work around that. This much said, let me add that a few of video-essays I got in CAMS 266 last Spring were outstanding — see links below.

What video-essays end up accomplishing

From a certain point of view, videography entails a circular movement: [1] the student watches an audio-visual artifact, a film; [2] she then reads about it, discusses it with her peers and the professor in class; and this ‘translates’ the experience of film watching into a verbal register; [3] in the wake of her readings and discussions, the student then writes a script of sorts where she envisions arguing AUDIOVISUALLY the points she would argue in a conventional paper. This in turn forces her to to foresee how to couch verbal arguments within an audio-visual format; [4] the student then selects the images she needs to substantiate her argument and transfers them into an editing application [most typically Final Cut Pro X or Adobe Premiere]; [5] a dialogical process of a peculiar kind then must take place, namely the process of going back and forth between the written script with its logically formulated ideas and its ideal translation into another ‘idiom,’ that of audio-visuality. Words and ideas must somehow be transmuted into images and sounds, inter-titles and voice-overs, musical soundtracks and split-screens for comparison purposes. It is an INTERMEDIAL exercise that forces the student’s mind to shuttle back and forth between two forms of communication, two forms of thinking, thus proving that the moving image is a form-that-thinks.* Indeed, it only makes sense that, thanks to the unprecedented tools technology is making available to us, we ask students to produce work that, instead of using words to describe film’s scenes, uses those very scenes, manipulating them to extract and express thoughts.

A few examples of students’ work

I have started a Vimeo page where I am collecting some of the outstanding video-essays made by students: https://vimeo.com/album/4100674

Although without an artist statement, this video-essay on the transgressive ‘rock musical’ Hedwig and the Angry Inch by Carlyn Lindstrom is also a great example of what students have done with the form. Note in Carlyn’s video-essay the creative way she uses to indicate that a certain portion of the voice over is a quote.

As a great example of a video-essay from the animation class, see: https://vimeo.com/180982372. The student who made it asked me to make it private, so you’ll need a password to watch it: cams266

I’m eagerly waiting for the final projects in CAMS 105 to share some of the work done by first year students.

Can video essays be used in courses other than film?

I think so. The ‘form-that-thinks’ can be used in virtually any discipline, and it is foreseeable that it will become more and more widespread as professors realize its potential.

* This explains the massive output of books about film and philosophy in the past twenty years: cinema thinks, albeit in its own peculiar way.