Making Videographic Criticism
The last two weeks were some of the most exciting and energizing of my academic career. My colleague Chris Keathley and I hosted an NEH-sponsored digital humanities workshop at Middlebury, called Scholarship in Sound & Image, focused on producing videographic criticism. We define videographic criticism as creating videos that serve an analytic or critical purpose, exploring and presenting ideas about films and moving images via sounds and images themselves. This workshop flows directly from the journal of videographic criticism, [in]Transition, that Chris and I co-founded (with Catherine Grant, Drew Morton, and Chris Becker) – and which recently won an Anne Friedberg Innovative Scholarship Award of Distinction from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. It also connects with my own work as faculty director of Middlebury’s Digital Liberal Arts Initiative.
This post does not aim to recap the entire workshop, nor share everything that we did – Chris and I are working on another way to capture that material. But as I and others have been posting about the workshop on social media, people seem really interested to know more about what we did. Additionally, my role in the workshop was a hybrid of facilitator and participant, as I produced my own videos alongside other attendees, who were faculty from other institutions across the U.S. and Europe – prior to this workshop I had no direct experience making videographic criticism, so this marked my own transition from theorist to practitioner. And as is my wont, when I make something, I want to share it. So here are the videos I produced for the workshop, framed within the assignments we gave participants – this should provide a good taste of the type of work we undertook.
Our approach is based on a couple of core principles. The first is to learn by doing – even though more than half of our participants had virtually no video editing experience, we had them start making projects in the very first day. Luckily my colleague Ethan Murphy is fantastic at teaching the tools of video production, so he gave them a crash course in Adobe Premiere on day one, and then everyone learned via practice. Our mantra in the first week was Make First, Talk Later – a distinct challenge for a group of academics!
Our second principle is that formal parameters will lead to content discoveries – instead of asking participants to make a video that serves a particular content goal (such as criticism, analysis, comparison, etc.), we created exercises with very strict formal requirements, but open to whatever content people were interested in. To facilitate this process, each participant selected a single film or series to serve as their source text for a series of five exercises to be produced in the workshop’s first week; this produced a strong focus for experimentation, and allowed participants to come to know each others’ films as the exercises accumulated. I chose the film Adaptation, as I am writing a short book about the film this summer (for this book series) – while I am interested in making videographic criticism about television, I correctly guessed that working with a source text as long as a television series would be far more unwieldy than the contained length of a film.
Below are the parameters for each video exercise that we assigned, and my own creation for the assignments. Remember, these are formal etudes rather than motivated works of scholarship; however, I and many of my fellow producers did create videos that were meaningful and effective explorations of the films we were working on, especially if you are familiar with the original film.
The first assignment is a new form of videographic expression that Chris and I invented for the workshop: the Videographic PechaKucha. A typical PechaKucha is an oral presentation format that has strict parameters for the timing of slides – 20 slides lasting exactly 20 seconds each auto-playing with a presentation lasting 6:40. The videographic variant consists of 10 video clips of precisely 6 seconds each, overlaying a continuous 1 minute audio segment, all from the same film (or series). This 1-minute video proved to be an ideal first assignment, getting participants familiar with the basics of video editing while allowing them to make new discoveries about their films. I enjoyed the process so much that I made a diptych of Adaptation PechaKuchas:
The second exercise reverses the emphasis between sound and image, adding the often-used (but controversial) device of voice-over narration to our videographic toolbox. The assignment was to create a video of no more than three minutes, using a single continuous visual segment from the source text that should be altered, but not by editing, and adding a voice-over track that “tells a story.” I chose an appropriately semi-autobiographical story:
The third exercise is to create a new trailer for our film, but not a “narrative preview” of the original. Other formal parameters included the use of exactly three intertitles of no more than 5 words each, the use of at least three transitions beyond a straight cut, and an additional parameter assigned from a list of four – mine was “shots can include no more than one person.” You can judge whether I violated the “no narrative preview” parameter or not:
The fourth exercise expands the palette of source material just a bit, while adding the new technique of multiscreen composition. Videos should serve as a response to at least one other exercise created within the workshop, and should include material from both our source text and the collection of videographic exercises created in the previous three days. Each participant needed to impose an additional parameter upon her/himself – mine was that I needed to incorporate material from every participant. Here’s where I was fortunate to be working on a film about filmmaking (and you can catch glimpses of the films my colleagues were working with):
The final exercise was inspired by the work of Catherine Grant, who visited the workshop for the second week. Many of Grant’s videos marry an onscreen quotation with an altered clip from a film, creating what we call “a videographic epigraph.” This etude requires noticeably altering the video, manipulating or replacing the soundtrack, and featuring a quotation from a work of criticism or theory via onscreen text. Mine took inspiration from an essay that will play a large role in my book about Adaptation, but not the specific ideas seen here:
I did spend the second week making a larger critical video, also about Adaptation, but it is not ready to share yet. But over the course of creating that piece, I ended up making this shorter experimental piece on Mulholland Drive, which certainly is highly parametric:
Hopefully these videos are a testament as to what a transformative workshop this was for me, and seemingly my fellow “video campers.” I started the process as a complete novice when it came to video editing, and a bit scared about whether being more creative and experimental would result in laughable failure during the workshop I was supposed to be leading! I ended the two weeks feeling very confident about my technical abilities in Premiere, and assured that making videographic work could be both incredibly fun and provide unpredicted insights into objects of research. To be honest, I’m now more concerned that I will feel overly restricted by the parameters of just putting words down on the page!
Stay tuned here and at [in]Transition for more about this videographic work and future ways to get involved.
Filed under: Academia, Film, Middlebury, New Media, Not Quite TV, Open Access, Videographic Criticism | 10 Comments
Tags: adaptation, digital humanities, remix video