The Return of Videocamp


The month of June was spent preparing for, and then leading, the second installment of our NEH-funded workshop, Scholarship in Sound and Image, a.k.a. “videocamp.” (See this excellent article that my student Will DiGravio wrote for our local paper for a good account of the workshop and ideas behind it.) Much like the first iteration in June 2015, it was one of the best experiences of my professional career. This year, we restricted participation to graduate students, creating a more homogeneous cohort (at least in terms of career path, if little else). And we have funding for one more iteration in June 2018, with participation open to scholars with Ph.D. in-hand (faculty, post-docs, independent scholars) within the field of film & media studies, broadly construed. (Applications will open in late September, so keep an eye out here!)

While it’s tough to compare the two experiences, as both were uniquely fabulous, I think the net result of the 2017 workshop might be stronger overall, at least in terms of the work produced. Partly this was due to the broader circulation and understanding of videographic criticism over the last two years—even though few participants this year had made their own videographic work, all were more familiar with such work than people were in 2015. Partly it may have been due to the graduate students being more attuned to participating in a course and producing work on deadlines than the 2015 faculty were. But I think one key shift was the revised sequence and assignments that my colleague Chris Keathley & I presented over the first week, and the greater structure throughout the second week leading to excellent final projects.

In the spirit of openness and experimentation that the workshops embody, I want to share the revised exercises that we assigned, and my own attempts at undertaking them—I’ve called these exercises “etudes,” as they force you to practice particular editing skills while also producing enjoyable and interesting results. We’ve found that some people are using these blog posts and the short book, The Videographic Essay, that Chris & I wrote as guides to do their own simulation of the workshop—Lori Morimoto shared her experiments back in 2015, and my Middlebury colleague Louisa Stein is doing her own version this summer as well. So here are the revised exercises and my examples, offered with the challenge to try it out on your own! (If you do, post links to your work in the comments…)

As with the book and first workshop, these exercises are designed to be done on a single source text: a film, television series, web series, or the like. Most people choose feature films, but we had more TV and documentary examples this year; when working on a longer format like television, it’s best to restrict yourself to a few episodes, as managing more than 2-3 hours of footage is really tough. [Note that examples from the 2015 workshop are still available at the book’s supporting Scalar site – we plan on updating that site with 2017 examples in due time.]

ASSIGNMENT ONE: Videographic PechaKucha. Create a video of exactly 60 seconds consisting of precisely 10 video clips from a single film, each lasting precisely 6 seconds, assembled with straight cuts. Audio should be one continuous sequence from the same film with no edits. Include a 3 second black slug at the beginning and end of the assignment.

This assignment endured virtually unchanged, and I am still convinced that it is the best first step in learning videographic criticism—it forces you to conform to quite rigid and arbitrary parameters, which then enables you to see the source material in very different terms, as an archive of sounds and images to play with. The one caveat we gave at the workshop, which Chris realized is essential after a less-than-successful experience with PechaKucha’s in the classroom, is that the goal is not to tell the story of the original in compressed form, but rather to see what you might express or explore using these strict parameters.

For the workshop, most of my exercises were on the pilot episode of Better Call Saul—I’ll be writing an essay on the series soon, and I’ve also devised a longform videographic project on Breaking Bad and BCS that I hope to start producing next year.

ASSIGNMENT TWO: Voiceover. Produce a short (3 minute max) video on your selected film using your voiceover. The voiceover should tell a joke or relay an anecdote, not overtly related to your film. The project must also incorporate some sound from the film itself. Video should be one continuous sequence from the film; duration and/or scale can be manipulated, but it should include no new video edits.

This assignment was revised somewhat from 2015, and probably needs some more tweaking. The key goal is that the voiceover should neither directly comment on the film, nor operate in the scholarly register that most academics are used to; it could be quoted from elsewhere, or original writing by the video’s creator. Thus the voiceover should be operating in a non-scholarly register, but it’s hard to give parameters that focus on “don’t do this” – if you try this one yourself, the key thing is to speak/read something that feels distinct from the source film/TV, but hopefully implies interesting connections. I opted for the “tell a joke” approach, although the footage gives the joke a melancholy tinge:

ASSIGNMENT THREE: Videographic Epigraphs. Select a film sequence, and a quotation from a critical text (not specifically related to your film) of no longer than 10 sentences. Alter the video sequence in some noticeable way using at least two different types of transitions. Either replace or significantly alter the soundtrack. The quotation should appear onscreen in some dynamic interaction with the video.

We shifted this assignment earlier in the workshop, rather than giving participants the weekend, as we did in 2015; while we thought they might struggle with the compressed time, the results were excellent, suggesting that this needs no more time than the other etudes. The epigraph is one of the most successful exercises, and one that produces videos that actually transcend their “exercise” origins—Catherine Grant (who was again a featured guest for a week of videocamp) has created and collected many such epigraphs that function as engaging videographic works on their own terms. My own example feels like a bit of a failure, as it requires a lot of words to make its point; nevertheless, I quite like the interplay between the text and dialogue, which is uncommon in such epigraphic work.

ASSIGNMENT FOUR: Multiscreen Video. Participants will use a multiscreen process to create a short piece (2 minute max) responding to at least one other video created by your classmates. The video must contain moments of both fullscreen and multiscreen. All audio and visuals must come from your film or the videos posted on our server made by other participants that you are responding to. Each editor must impose an additional parameter upon themselves.

The videocampers did excellent work on this one as well, although it was interesting that many avoided what I had assumed was a given parameter: that you should use footage from other people’s videos within your own project. Instead, a number of participants used either audio from their peers’ work, or referenced their projects via text on screen (as with quoting their epigraph or voiceover). I’m not sure if it would be useful to explicitly require using other people’s footage within the edit—it restricts possibilities, but does force you to learn to grapple with various video formats, aspect ratios, etc.

If you’re trying this on your own, it’s harder to know what footage to respond to and use—feel free to use our earlier examples as the fodder for your own work. I had a lot of fun doing this exercise within the framework of Better Call Saul:

ASSIGNMENT FIVE: Videographic Abstract Trailer. Produce a short (no more than 2 minute) abstract trailer of your final videographic project. This videographic abstract trailer should convey the topic, approach, and tone of your final project (per an article abstract), and relate to the form of the film trailer in some way. One key goal of this video is to make us want to see your final project. It might also function as a kind of “proposal” that will help you develop your final project. Think about parameters.

This was definitely the most significant revision we made to the exercises, shifting the trailer assignment to the weekend, and reframing it as a specific pivot to focus on the final project people would work on over the second week. It was hugely successful, with participants creating compelling abstract trailers for their projects and setting them down the path toward creating excellent final projects for the rest of the workshop! They ranged widely in terms of how “abstract” they were, and how much they aped the trailer format. (Expect to see many great videographic works from this group of graduate students soon…)

I shifted gears for my abstract trailer, as the Better Call Saul project is too far down the road to work on in depth this summer. Instead, I focused on another videographic project I’ve been thinking about for months, focused on how we think about The Wire post-Ferguson and in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement. Here’s the abstract trailer for a video that I did produce over the second week of the workshop, and that I hope to publish somewhere soon:

All and all, Videocamp 2017 was another amazing experience! If you’re intrigued with what you see, I welcome people with Ph.D.s to apply for the 2018 version—and everyone is encouraged to try your hand at these etudes on your own. Share your results below…


One Response to “The Return of Videocamp”

  1. 1 A Vid(eographic) Journey – transform

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