The Process of Video Essays

I have a new video essay out. As a matter of fact I'm putting this blog out just as a way to buy some time and write a little bit about this piece. Even so, the video is out for the world to see. I just want to get everything I have to say about it straight, then do a little more work to finish off the work I've done on black and white cinematography.

To that end, here's a little bit about the practical work I put into these video essays. Let me just begin by saying it's hard and time consuming. Evidently, on my previous projects, since I still have work to do on "Black and White" yet, every minute of finished footage took close to two and a half hours of project time.

A little summary of time I've spent on video essay projects. I've gotten more diligent about tracking this time as I've gone on, but these are some generally good numbers.

A little summary of time I've spent on video essay projects. I've gotten more diligent about tracking this time as I've gone on, but these are some generally good numbers.

That's not so bad all things considered, but definitely fitting in a whole extra workday into an already full work schedule with at least a full workday of commuting per week is difficult. I also try to manage other projects, besides working and doing these essays, and what you might call the off the clock time in any project of theory or criticism is hard to measure. Suffice it to say that I'm happy with an output that gets one video out per month.

When all is said and done, the final product of "Black and White" in my time tracker here can either be looked at as three 2-4 minute videos or one 11 minute video or both. But it surprised me to look at the tracked time on this project and see that I was going to have put in 40 hours of work by the time I'm done. (Yeah, I probably have about 2-5 hours of work ahead of me on that project.) But of course I've worked on both faster and slower projects.

For me the quickest part of my process really is writing. Synthesizing what I'm going to say and getting it on the page itself goes by pretty fast. Now the steps of gathering information and the illusive inspiration are hard to tell. But so far I've found myself at some point possessed after sufficient rumination on a topic to sit down and hammer out a quick script in a few minutes.

In the case of my Principles of Cinematography video, I did have something of a prompt from a coworker running in the back of my head; "I want to learn more about cinematography" she'd asked me, and I figured I'd offer some thoughts. Somewhere along the way to having a concept that prompt, something I've been asked in various ways many times hit got mixed in there. Something like "what do you look for in a movie?" or "what makes a good movie?" which are really sticky questions. The prompt from my coworker brought this into relief for me.

Usually when I'm puzzling over that kind of problem, I have a handful of movies (something I rely on my Top 100 list for) that come to mind for different situations. If I have a general question about film, I like to look to those movies first. At this point The Fall (2006) came to mind. Likewise The Apartment (1960) and Schindler's List (1993) are movies which I happen to know have the best black and white cinematography already, and I felt a bit of a demand for analysis of individual films so I went that direction.

What was striking about my first cinematography video essay was that there was a moment of inspiration with these three things colliding that I could actually attempt an answer in a classic five paragraph essay. I try to get that concept typed up as quickly as possible. And usually that's pretty close to the end of it.

When I record I have a sense of how long it will take me to get through the script and how long that track should make the video. I'm usually aiming for under five minutes, the script as recorded is usually about two minutes of that. So I could probably stand to be less brutal with my script editing. But I always make changes during recording, usually for rhetorical purposes, I make things easier to speak and I absolutely try to keep improvisation to a minimum.

Lately I've had to go back and make additions for clarity, correctness, time, or whatever else is a relevant reason. Doing this is a pain in the editing process and never fails to make me dissatisfied with the audio. But it's hard to get a take perfect in the basement where I do most of my voiceover work.

The really difficult part of laying down a track is that I'm not a very natural voice talent and I don't always know what the tone or what the music or the full extent of clips from movies I'm going to use will be at this stage of production. So getting a variety of takes is both critical and very difficult for me. Should I rush or pace myself? How can I get a track that will be malleable in Adobe Premiere? I try to read each paragraph about 7 to 10 times and give it it's own audio file with several takes. These are the only rushes I ever really go through, finding the best read for my script (more on this in a moment).

Sometimes to shake things up and aim for the kind of voice quality I like, I'll imitate some voices I like, usually from radio, Roman Mars or Ira Glass in particular. These radio presenters have really distinctive voices and deliveries which are perfect for voice reportage work. These are also very different voices, so I'll see if I want some of Ira Glass's reedy rushing or Roman Mars's darker, laid back enthusiasm in my track later on.

I browse Spotify for good music and I really kick myself for not getting royalty free music, but I'm still not making a living off any of this. Spotify is a good tool because I can start radio from a playlist of things I think work and get recommendations of things to ultimately ignore. The reason I can do that has a few different parts.

First I have a very dense visual lexicon in my head, so I have a sort of good idea of what I want to use and what that will go well with pretty early on. That was the case with Lightness and Darkness where I knew the movies I wanted and just how well many of them would work with the music from The Social Network (2010). But to do Schindler's List required a lot of thought and choices about music before I settled on this piece from Gladiator (2000) which wasn't easy to work with.

At this point it's just a matter of editing and I have to admit I don't waste my time watching all the movies I think I'm going to use end to end. Usually, for me, seeing a movie once is enough to really have in mind most of the information I'll ever need from that movie. The Apartment was a movie I'd seen once many years ago, and I did brush up on that film which was enjoyable but I'd already edited half my essay already.

Schindler's List on the other hand is a film I've seen many times and sort of know backwards and forwards. There's so much I could say about that move, and it was ambitious to take this topic on in the first place, but I never rewatched Schindler's List for this essay. As a matter of fact I already knew many of the images I wanted to use. But this does wind me up in some difficulties.

Most notably, I have to cover a lot of time with footage, and it can be hard to fill in gaps sometimes. Usually I know where to look, but making the connection between a visual from a film, however familiar with it I may be, and the word of my voiceover is usually something I need to have the editor open to do. I usually have to "discover" the creative work at these points. Working with Schindler's List I found shots which could singularly illustrate my point as well as shots which would illustrate the point I'd just made and intimate the next item I needed to use as an example.

At the end of the day my work looks like this: I quickly write a script to stick to based on my content knowledge of film and a topic; next I sweat out recording a voiceover in a style which I find really hard to change, it kind of drives the look at feel of my essays against attempts to do otherwise; finally I cut everything together leaning heavily on my rich memory of films I'm using and I publish to Vimeo.

Alright, now I need to put together some info on this most recent video essay and get back to a more regular productivity schedule.