My Plans for an Audiovisual Book

01Jul18

As of today, I am officially on leave for the next academic year. I recognize what a privilege it is to get such a leave, as the tradition of the tenured academic position with regular leaves for focused research is becoming more rare and confined to elite institutions (and only some appointments within such institutions as well). Thankfully, Middlebury has mostly retained their commitment to traditional faculty positions, so I get to take a year to focus on the work I most want to pursue, without the demands of teaching and (more importantly to me) service to the institution. This means stepping away from being department chair, from being Director of our Digital Liberal Arts Initiative, and from being on countless ad hoc committees and working groups. While all of those facets of the job are rewarding, they are also exhausting and consuming in ways that make sustained progress on an ambitious research project near impossible.

[Note that I will maintain focus on one very important non-academic project: supporting my wife Ruth’s campaign for Vermont State Senate! And hopefully in the spring semester, I will be doing lots of solo parenting as she spends time representing our county at the state capitol…]

So what is that ambitious research project that I hope to spend most of the next year working on? As I’ve discussed previously, I have been investing much of my time into teaching and creating videographic criticism over the past few years. Yesterday, we concluded the third NEH-supported Scholarship in Sound & Image workshop at Middlebury, leading another 16 participants through the approach to learning videographic criticism that my colleagues Christian Keathley, Ethan Murphy, Catherine Grant and I have developed. (While this is the final version of the NEH-supported workshop, we do hope to convert it into a tuition-supported workshop following the same model – stay tuned for news later this year!) As with the previous years, I spent time during the workshop drafting my own videoessay, which served the entry point for my larger leave project: creating an audiovisual book called “The Chemistry of Character on Breaking Bad.”

What do I mean by an audiovisual book? If a typical video essay functions similarly to a written essay or scholarly article, then this project will be analogous to a single-authored book focused on a single topic. Instead of a single seamless video, resembling a feature documentary, my project will be structured more as a compilation of shorter videos that can either be each watched independently, or consumed together to present a more overarching set of ideas and arguments. I’m not certain how it will eventually be published yet—I could imagine using Scalar to self-publish, or pursue publication through a digital open-access academic press like Lever Press. Regardless, I will likely be sharing some of the drafts of videos as I develop them throughout the next year.

Why am I focusing on character and Breaking Bad? In writing Complex TV, I found that the chapter on Characters, which was already the longest chapter, was the topic about which I felt I still had more to say. Additionally, characterization is an area particularly well-suited for videographic criticism, where the details of performance, relationships, and representations can be conveyed directly video sound and image rather than lengthy description. As to why Breaking Bad, I wanted to focus on a single series/franchise and do a deep dive into the footage in a way that is typically very difficult without an extended period of immersive viewing and editing. Breaking Bad, and its spin-off Better Call Saul, are not only among my very favorite television programs (and thus spending a year wading in their sounds and images is appealing), but they raise a number of interesting and unique issues around character. I’ve already written about some of these facets in Complex TV, so I will be building upon that foundation in this project.

As is my tendency, I hope to make much of my process public. In that spirit, I am sharing a draft of the first “chapter” from the audiovisual book here, produced last week during our workshop. This video, “What’s Walt Thinking? Mind Reading & Serialized Memory in Breaking Bad,” is an adaption and extension of a section in Complex TV, where I discuss these issues using a scene from the series. I wanted to see how I might explore these same ideas around the same scene using video and audio rather than lengthy description (as I did in my book). The process of developing the video took me in unexpected directions, but I’m happy with how it turned out. All feedback welcome as I will certainly revisit this video as I develop the whole project.

I am also sharing the proposal and tentative chapter outline below. This was drafted to apply for grants (alas, no luck yet!), so it reads as a combination of self-promotion, ambitious claims, and introductory contextualization. Hopefully it also conveys the ideas sufficiently. Again, I welcome feedback as I undertake this project, and plan to keep posting updates to the blog.

The Chemistry of Character on Breaking Bad: An Audiovisual Book by Jason Mittell

Overview:

This multimedia project will explore the landmark American television series Breaking Bad (2008–13) via the emerging format of videographic criticism, producing a collection of open access video essays interpreting the particular modes of characterization within the series and arguing for the significance of character as an aspect of media storytelling. The resulting “audiovisual book” will be intellectually significant in three primary ways: adding to our theoretical and analytical understanding of characterization in moving image media; serving as one of the first extended single-authored studies of one of the most popular, acclaimed and influential contemporary television series; and breaking new ground on how videographic criticism engages with television, establishing a new format of the audiovisual book focused on a television series. Given the popularity of the series and the accessibility of and high interest in the video essay format, this audiovisual book should make a strong impact on both the academic field of media studies and general audience understanding of Breaking Bad and videographic criticism.

Narrative:

Over the past decade, the field of film and media studies has embraced the emerging form of digital scholarship called videographic criticism. Comparable to popular video essays, academic videographic criticism analyzes films using the same media that it seeks to analyze: sound and moving images. At its best, videographic criticism is not just the presentation of traditional film analysis in video form, but functions as a distinctive research method, pursuing distinct modes of discovery, analysis, experimentation, and expression (Mittell 2018). Videographic practices can reveal otherwise hidden facets of media, with videographic works exploring experimental, poetic, affective, and aesthetic dimensions more effectively than in typical written scholarship. Such videos convey ideas and experiences in unique and unprecedented ways, reaching broad audiences both within and outside academia. A number of landmarks over the last four years suggest that this new form has arrived as a legitimate and important mode of film scholarship: the 2014 launch of [in]Transition, the first peer-reviewed journal of videographic scholarship; [in]Transition’s 2015 receipt of a prominent award from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies; and three Institutes for the Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund workshops to train videographic critics.

I have been central to all of these developments: as the co-founder and ongoing project manager of [in]Transition; as the co-director of the NEH workshops; as the co-author of the 2016 book The Videographic Essay: Criticism in Sound & Image; and as a teacher and producer of videographic work. Thus far, videographic work has rarely intersected with my long-established primary area of conventional scholarship, television history and criticism, as almost all video essays focus on film as their object of criticism. However, this century has seen the simultaneous growth of television studies as a prominent and growing subfield (within which I am an active figure), and the rise of high-profile, prestigious television programs that have supplanted mainstream cinema for many as today’s most talked about and celebrated narrative medium. My own videographic work has primarily focused on film, largely because the process of “writing” with video requires becoming intimately familiar with source materials, both to master the archive of sounds and images used in a videographic work and to make unexpected discoveries through an immersive exploration of a source object. Such a task is far easier to accomplish for a two-hour film than a 60-hour television series, with the latter requiring a long swath of uninterrupted, focused time.

My academic leave will provide this time, intertwining my dual areas of expertise to produce the first long-form videographic project focused on television. The resulting “audiovisual book” will examine the groundbreaking television series Breaking Bad, one of the most acclaimed and beloved programs of this century, which possesses a notably vivid visual and aural style suitable for videographic criticism. Additionally, Breaking Bad is particularly notable for its construction of character through performance, writing, and visual style, making it ideal to advance our understanding of characterization in television and its connections to important facets like identity politics, morality, and viewer engagement. I will spend the year immersing myself in the source material of Breaking Bad, its ongoing spinoff Better Call Saul, and its various paratexts including podcasts, web videos, and deleted scenes, striving to master an archive of sounds and images to create a long-form videographic project. The result will be a collection of video essays, presented together in a website that contextualizes the videos within broader scholarly dialogues concerning the series, aspects of contemporary television, and modes of videographic criticism and digital scholarship. The format of this project will not be a single videographic piece, comparable to a monograph or documentary film with a singular sequential argument, but instead a collection of discrete video essays that can be viewed and distributed separately—yet when watched together, they will present overarching ideas about both Breaking Bad and its treatment of character as a core facet of television storytelling. This project will break new ground, both in conveying original analyses of the series and demonstrating the vital importance of analyzing a medium using its own form.

The specific scope, arguments, and titles for specific essays will certainly evolve as I work through the series within the research platform of Adobe Premiere; however, it will build upon this planned table of contents:

  • Breaking Genre: while Breaking Bad plays with various genre tropes, including crime drama, Westerns, comedy, and horror, ultimately it functions most clearly as a “character study,” a genre virtually unheard of on television—this video sets the stage for overall treatment of character.
  • Walter’s Whiteness: this video tackles the protagonist’s slow transition from mundanity to monstrosity by examining the role of color—both in costuming and racial identity—in developing Breaking Bad’s portrait of toxic masculinity.
  • Skyler’s Story: Walt’s wife is central to the unfolding narrative, serving as his goal (to provide for his family), his foil (obstructing his criminal plans), and his collaborator; this video retells Skyler’s story via her experiences of his actions, and considers her often-hated persona in a new light.
  • Jesse the Fan Favorite: playing with dual videographic styles of fan video and analytic essay, this video traces how Jesse Pinkman emerged as a fan favorite and the program’s emergent conscience.
  • The Intersectional Gus Fring: Walt’s employer and adversary Gus is notable for being somewhat of a cypher, but his presence is situated within key identity categories of race, sexuality, and nationhood, working as a structuring opposition to other central characters.
  • Hank Loves Marie: although Breaking Bad is far from a romantic series, this video explores the relationship between Hank and Marie in offering fleeting moments of emotional connection that humanize two figures who are easy to view as broader comic relief.
  • What’s Walt Thinking?: most television lacks direct access to characters’ minds, but this video considers how the combination of serialized memories and performance places viewers in the often uncomfortable position of sharing a character’s thoughts.
  • The Monstrous Todd: although only appearing in the final two seasons, Todd stands out as a striking embodiment of amorality against which other morally dubious characters might be compared, allowing a detailed exploration of the role of morality within characterization.
  • S/J: Saul Goodman functions as comic relief on Breaking Bad, while shifting to the central character in the prequel under his real name Jimmy McGill; this video explores how we can understand a character as the same person via different personas, identities, and programs.
  • The Inimitable Kim Wexler: despite both series having a central focus on men and, Better Call Saul’s Kim Wexler has emerged as one of their most captivating and compelling characters; this video explores how the intersection of performance and context has constituted her character.
  • The Sounds of Silent Mike: Jonathan Banks’s performance of the compelling Mike Ehrmantraut is often marked by silence and non-verbal sound; this video considers how silence functions as a character building block and performance technique.

Taken together, these videographic essays offer an overall argument contending that television’s formal systems and storytelling strategies work to prioritize characterization over plot in long-form serialized programs like Breaking Bad; this approach will advance theoretical work around character, narrative, identity, and television form. This conceptual approach builds on my book, Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling (2015), especially the chapter on Character, as well as other theoretical work on characterization in film and television (Smith 1995; Pearson 2008; Vaage 2015; Dunleavy 2017). However, in returning to the material first explored in my book, I will overcome a limit of writing in-depth analyses of television storytelling and characterization. Since detailed descriptions of visual and sonic elements become laborious to both write and read, one key advantage of videographic criticism is the ability to “quote” and write with the program’s images and sounds themselves, avoiding the need for verbal description that merely points toward the original’s form at a distance. For instance, in my book I spent 275 words describing a scene where Walter White silently thinks while drinking coffee, and yet I still could not capture the tonal elements that give the scene power; videographic criticism allows me to quote the scene in a way that conveys the elements I aim to analyze. These videos will explore affective and aesthetic dimensions central to Breaking Bad that critical writing struggles to effectively capture, allowing me to engage with a broader set of ideas and facets from Breaking Bad than I could via writing. Additionally, video essays reach a far larger audience than academic writing; given the massive popularity of Breaking Bad, this project will be poised to reach far beyond those who might be interested in reading an academic book or article, suggesting the important possibilities for media scholars to use videographic criticism to speak to a broader public.

My background, experience and expertise put me in the unique position to undertake this project, with the necessary skills and technological access—I have a strong reputation as a leader within both subfields of television studies and videographic criticism, and thus this project will build on my strengths as well as break new ground. I will spend the twelve months of this fellowship at my home institution connected to Middlebury’s Digital Liberal Arts Initiative (which I have directed for its first four years), where I will analyze the entirety of both series within Adobe Premiere, assembling clips and editing them together into the various videographic chapters (a process enabled by fair use provisions of copyright). I will publish the individual videos onto Vimeo, the preferred platform for the videographic community, while embedding each video as part of the larger collection, presented with textual commentary and contextual material in an open access platform to be determined. At the end of my leave, I will publish, with full open access under a Creative Commons license, what I believe will be the first audiovisual book focused on a single television series, serving as a landmark in both media studies and the realm of videographic criticism.

Bibliography

Better Call Saul, AMC, 2015–present.

Breaking Bad, AMC, 2008–13.

Bateman, Conor. “The Video Essay as Art: Why Process Matters.” Fandor, May 29, 2016. https://www.fandor.com/keyframe/the-video-essay-as-art-why-process-matters.

Berg, Thomas van den, and Miklós Kiss. Film Studies in Motion: From Audiovisual Essay to Academic Research Video. Scalar, 2016. http://scalar.usc.edu/works/film-studies-in-motion/index.

Dunleavy, Trisha. Complex Serial Drama and Multiplatform Television (Routledge, 2017).

Garwood, Ian. “The Place of Voiceover in Academic Audiovisual Film and Television Criticism.” NECSUS European Journal of Media Studies, Autumn 2016.

Grant, Catherine. “Beyond Tautology?  Audio-Visual Film Criticism.” Film Criticism 40, no. 1 (January 2016).

______. “Film and Moving Image Studies: Re-Born Digital? Some Participant Observations.” Frames Cinema Journal, no. 1 (July 2012).

______. “The Shudder of a Cinephiliac Idea?: Videographic Film Studies Practice as Material Thinking.” Aniki : Portuguese Journal of the Moving Image 1, no. 1 (January 2014): 49–62.

Keathley, Christian. “La Caméra-Stylo: Notes on Video Criticism and Cinephilia.” In The Language and Style of Film Criticism, ed. Alex Clayton and Andrew Klevan, 176–91. London: Routledge, 2011.

Keathley, Christian, and Jason Mittell. The Videographic Essay: Criticism in Sound and Image. Montreal: caboose books, 2016.

Lavik, Erlend. “Style in The Wire,” 2012. http://vimeo.com/39768998.

Logan, Elliott. Breaking Bad and Dignity: Unity and Fragmentation in the Serial Television Drama. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

López, Christina Álvarez, and Adrian Martin. “Analyse and Invent: A Reflection on Making Audiovisual Essays.” Frames Cinema Journal, no. 8 (December 2015).

Mittell, Jason. Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling. New York: New York University Press, 2015.

______. “Videographic Criticism as Digital Humanities Method.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities 2018, ed. Matthew Gold and Lauren Klein. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming 2018.

Monaghan, Peter. “Has the Video Essay Arrived?” Moving Image Archive News, March 15, 2017. http://www.movingimagearchivenews.org/has-the-video-essay-arrived/.

Pearson, Roberta. “Chain of Events: Regimes of Evaluation and Lost’s Construction of the Televisual Character,” in Reading Lost, ed. Roberta Pearson (London: I.B. Tauris, 2008), 139–58.

Smith, Anthony N. “Putting the Premium into Basic: Slow-Burn Narratives and the Loss-Leader Function of AMC’s Original Drama Series.” Television & New Media 14, no. 2 (March 2013): 150–66.

Smith, Murray. Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion, and the Cinema. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 1995.

______. “Just What Is It That Makes Tony Soprano Such an Appealing, Attractive Murderer?,” In Ethics at the Cinema, ed. Ward E. Jones & Samantha Vice, 66-90. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Vaage, Margrethe Bruun. The Antihero in American Television. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Vermeule, Blakey. Why Do We Care about Literary Characters? Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

Wanat, Matt and Leonard Engel, eds., Breaking down Breaking Bad: Critical Perspectives (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2016).

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One Response to “My Plans for an Audiovisual Book”

  1. Jason,

    This is really interesting work (of course!). I have two thoughts if useful, one small, one bigger and more intricate:

    (1) I wonder if there is more to do with the way you move the font around…is there something you were trying for in having it trail off to the right? I wonder if other techniques with the font might reinforce your interpretation (breaking up into pieces? layered and overlapping?). That might be overkill, or it might intensify in form the content of your analysis (as a side note, are the subtitles accessible for the visually impaired? Will they be in the a-v book as a whole?)

    (2) Can we give it up for Bryan Cranston’s acting, particularly what he does with his face muscles and eyes!? To my eye he has a set of tactics he uses to move through us through his emotions and give us access to his mind. This accompanies the serial referentiality you bring to the fore here in ways that to me are intriguing to correlate. Cranston turns Walt’s face into an emotional map, in other words (or no words as the case may be!). I wonder if there might be ways of using some of the new facial recognition/mood recognition digital tools to analyze Cranston’s facial acting out of remembering, regret, guilt, rationalization? One could also explore this with frame stills of his face in these scenes too, of course. (Another side note, one could do some comparative digital analysis with the subtle musical sound in these “silent” (non-talking) scenes as well).

    Just some responses if useful.

    — Michael


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