Transformative Retelling?: The Story of Wei Wuxian

(click through to Critical Commons for the video)

For the last couple of months, I’ve been working on several remix projects that synthesize vidding and videographic criticism in different ways. I’m ready to share one of them now–a 30 minute telling of the 50 episode Chinese drama, The Untamed, set to Sergei Rachmaninnof’s Piano Concerto No.2 in C Minor, performed by Valentina Lisitsa & the London Symphony Orchestra.

I set out to bring together these two instances of epic, romantic creative work: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 2, which has been dear to me since I was young, and The Untamed, the hit Chinese web series based on the web novel Mo Dao Zu Shi. I was thinking about questions of genre, and initially, I wanted to see what happened when I brought these two highly emotional and beloved works together, as a ship vid on steroids, in a sense. What type of transformation comes out of this synthesis of very different sources that yet seem to share some inherent ethos?

As I began to work, immediately I realized how much the evolving piece resembled another early influence of mine–silent cinema, at least as we experience it now through scores, either recorded or in person. And so I also began to think about what connections there might be between the way we’ve thought about emotion and engagement with narrative in silent cinema and in contemporary engagement with serial drama (and maybe this is also relevant in terms of the transcultural experience of engaging deeply with a drama when you’re dependent on subtitles because you don’t know the language well/at all).

As I thought about how to retell The Untamed in just thirty (well, thirty two) minutes, and how I would need to focus on certain narratives and characters over others, and whether I wanted a fully linear approach or not, I also began to contemplate the way the narrative structure of The Untamed, with its flashbacks within flashbacks and time shifting, speaks to fans accustomed to moving easily between multiple instances of the same story in fan fiction, fan video etc. And on top of that, with the release of the Special Edition on top of the book, manhua, donghua, and web series, The Untamed/Mo Dao Zu Shi itself offers us various ways through the text just as fanworks do.

And finally, as I edited, I became very aware of the aesthetics and narratives norms of vidding as they might differ from the needs of more traditional storytelling and recapping, and also to some degree of classical music. I found myself torn between very tight, quick editing following the assumed “rules” of vidding and a style that was tied somewhat more loosely to the audio to create the feel of watching a silent movie. I also found this tension between re-editing but reconstructing continuity editing so scenes and actions make sense vs. deconstructing continuity editing to follow emotional and thematic logics, as we more commonly do for vidding. I tried to hold an uneasy balance between these approaches, so that the result would be a synthesis rather than siding with one approach or the other.

If you, amazingly, watch this all the way through, thank you! A 30 minute remix is a tough ask I know. I hope though that this piece can be experienced in part or in whole. I wonder now about the difference between the experience of watching the three sections separately and watching the whole thing in one sitting. I’d love to hear your thoughts on any or all of these questions. Thanks for watching and reading!

Hands in The Untamed: A Supercut Analysis

The Potential Poetics of Algorithmic Deformation?

I enjoyed doing the videographic exercises so much that I went looking for an extra one! In addition to the summer “video camp” workshop, my colleagues Chris and Jason also teach a semester course on videographic criticism, and in that course the students embark upon variations of the five videographic exercises and then some. You can find the various assignments outlined on a past iteration of the course website here. Of note is exercise five, which the students do before their abstract trailer–the algorithmic double feature. I haven’t (yet?) tried the equalized pulse half of this double feature exercise, but I was inspired to try my hand at a supercut. I am fascinated by the notion of algorithmic video deformations and what applying an algorithm of some sort to a media source text can tell us or reveal about that text. The deformative algorithmic approach seems so counter to vidding. I think it’s safe to say that fan vidders most often approach the making of a vid from the start with specific intent–with a meaning or interpretation in mind–and we also choose our order of clips and rhythmic editing based on the musicality and poetic interpretation. Vidders are also often guided by a set or sets of loosely-agreed upon community aesthetic rules, assumptions about what kinds of flow between shots work to orient a viewer and maintain their interest, to captivate a convention audience, or to keep someone watching your video in youtube from start to finish.

 But are these two approaches–algorithmic deformation vs. author driven poetic vidding completely opposed? I was quite inspired to poke at this question. In the back of my mind, I had Kogonada’s beautifully poetic “Hands of Bresson” as evidence that a supercut (though it’s not a strictly algorithmic one) could be deeply poetic rather than only mechanical. In the words of the language of Sukhdev Sandhu, “Hands of Bresson” is a work of “archival criticism that forgoes the language of rigour for that of rapture.”  (Sight & Sound, best films of 2014) 

And at the same time, a friend and I had recently been commenting on the preponderance of hands and hands as a theme in The Untamed. And so I thought–why not make a supercut, an homage of sorts to Kogonada’s video, of the hands in The Untamed? Since this was going to be an additional “exercise,” I limited myself to only the first and third episodes as I had with all the other exercises. This allowed me to keep more of an algorithmic approach. My video could include each and every shot featuring a hand that appeared in those two episodes. Although of course I had to think about what “featuring hands” exactly means. It couldn’t include every full or long shot that happened to have hands attached to bodies included with them; that would have been most of the two episodes! I landed on a middle ground of all close ups and medium close ups of hands plus any medium long shots in which the hands were a key element of focus in the mise en scene and/or were performing a key action.

Then came the question of order–should I keep theme in order or arrange them by theme as Kogonada did in “Hands of Bresson”? In part for the algorithmic angle of things, I decided to keep them in order–also, I rather liked how the shots flowed together and found the interweaving of quite different hand actions/contexts fascinating.

So now I ran into a personal/creative choice. Did I stick with pure algorithm and keep the shot lengths as they were in the original source? The vidder in me won out over the algorithmic purist (or the TV studies/archival purist, perhaps?) I decided that needed at least to edit these visuals for rhythmic alignment with sound. I chose a song that had no lyrics but that did have a sense of driving forward movement that I thought would effectively link the various gestures of all these hands. In the end, I did take one poetic license in order. I wanted to give a certain someone a last word, as I realized that by my qualifications my supercut would feature a key narrative image, and I wanted to put it to good use. For spoiler concerns, I will say no more, but if you watch the series you’ll know what I mean

The inclusion of that shot got me thinking: so much of what’s at the heart of The Untamed was captured through this focus on hands, including this absolutely key moment to the narrative. We see hangs clinging to one another, hands bleeding, hands letting go, hands holding swords, hands being cut by swords, hands performing magic, hands playing magical instruments, hands drinking tea while listening to gossip, hands opening fans to hide behind, hands reaching for masks, hands removing masks, hands holding bunnies, hands holding propaganda. Love, hate, gossip, myth, manipulation, desperation, the pursuit of power, hiding oneself, revealing oneself, these are all I would argue, key themes of The Untamed (and Mo Dao Zu Shi, the web novel it’s based on), distilled through this algorithmic videographic lens.

Videographic Criticism for Whom? 

Of course some of these elements and their connections to the larger The Untamed text are only evident to fans, or at least to those who know the show and/or book well. But that too gets at another key tension as we consider vidding and videographic criticism, one I don’t believe I’ve discussed yet. Within vidding history and meta vid discussions, fans in the past distinguished between “con vids” and “living room vids.” Living room vids are vids meant a) for people who already know the source text deeply and b) were meant to be watched multiple times for viewers (fans) to unfurl more and more subtle meanings. Con vids, on the other hand, were to be shown to a multifandom audience at a fan convention and thus a) needed to be accessible and compelling to people who might not be familiar with the source and b) needed to make an impact in one viewing. These different contexts result in very different aesthetic logics and priorities. Now we can once again see this duality in vids on YouTube, some of which are meant to speak to intimate already-invested communities, and others meant to be “pimp vids” intended to entice viewers to become fans of an unfamiliar source.

Is there room for both “Living Room” and “Con” videographic criticism, so to speak? Or to put it another way, as we begin to merge videographic criticism and vidding, what would vidcrit mean if made for/assuming an audience of fans/viewers who are familiar with the source text? Conversely, could there be pimp-videographic criticism? Do both equally exist at the moment?

Interdisciplinary Introspection: Fan Studies Meets Videographic Criticism (and my FSN Premiere)

With this project, I’m not just bringing together vidding and videographic criticism, but also fan studies and videographic criticism. And this is a fascinating but challenging combination. There’s something potentially vital in the interdisciplinary synthesis of fan studies and videographic criticism. Fan studies is an introspective field — acafan or scholar fan perspectives advocate for considering your own personal investment in media, participation in fandom, and fannish history. And like fan studies, videographic criticism asks that we bring the personal to academic study to some degree, even if the personal in this case is our personal creative exploration of the text, our visual preoccupations, our aesthetic sense, or even our own voice. How do these two areas’ emphasis on the personal and the emotional intersect, and how do they differ? What can videographic criticism offer fan studies specifically? What new insights into fandom, fan engagement, and fan affect can videographic explorations help us to access? Do we need to deploy the tools of videographic criticism differently when working with questions of fandom, or with fan works themselves? Conversely, does fan studies offer up new avenues for videographic criticism?

Emotional and explorative dimensions of videographic criticism can help you understand why you love something, and your love can tell you something about the source itself. But can it tell you something about fandom–perhaps with you as proxy—as a very specific example of a fan with particular transcultural and personal placement?

And indeed what about doing videographic work with fan work itself, with fic, or art, or vids? I’ve tried three times myself (here, here, and one a draft video I’m not quite ready to share), and have found that I have to fight a discomfort in reworking a fan work, a feeling that paradoxically doesn’t come up for me when I’m videographically reworking the source itself. There’s a palpable affective difference, for me at least, in implementing videographic tools on fan works. I thought it might be more clear cut if I were performing a “videographic deformation” — enacting an algorithm of sorts on a body of fan work — but actually I found it more compelling when I was working in poetic conversation with other fan works, as I did in my FSN-NA premiere, “No Limits.”

I’ve found working with fan texts videographically to be a challenging but also potentially rewarding undertaking. I do think there’s something there, something for us to learn, by digging creatively into the materiality of fan texts themselves. I’d like to think and write more about this–what questions can we ask of fan texts, videographically? What videographic tools could we deploy, and in hope of what insights/with what purpose?

I’ll close with my FSN NA 2019 vid/eographic premiere, “No Limits.” In this video I wanted to get at the multiplicity of poetics in fan vidding–both aesthetic patterns and the significance of the multiple reiterations, with difference, of beloved images within a given fandom that we see in fanvids shared on YouTube. I can’t imagine getting at these ideas *without* working with fan works… I used some of my own vids as well here to position myself within rather than outside of these patterns of authorship and media engagement.

The Untamed – Pechakucha

So the first exercise, the videographic pechakucha, I found curiously both quite restrictive and almost too open, though I think this is very much by design.

Basically, once you’ve identified your source (in my case, two episodes of The Untamed), then you need to find 10 six second clips, and set them against 1 minute of uninterrupted audio from the series. The exercise description doesn’t specify what guidelines you might use to choose the clips or the audio—and so you can be as free-wheeling or as rule-imposing as you choose as you set about the process.

I actually struggled with this quite a bit at first, and made an initial pechakucha that I didn’t share (okay until now, I’ll link to it here just for the purpose of comparison…). My initial instinct was to use the audio from the opening sequence of The Untamed, in which we hear of the myth of the notorious Yiling Patriarch (who actually turns out to be our lovable and not really that fearsome main lead, Wei Wuxian) told through gossip and through a teacher’s lecture. I thought it would be interesting to juxtapose this gossip/myth making with intimate or daily moments of Wei Wuxian’s life that showed him to be more human and less devil incarnate/stuff of legends.

BUT I ran into a problem that had everything to do with my (trans)cultural situation as an English speaker, non-Chinese speaker, as well as with the distribution of The Untamed. The only video files that existed had the Chinese hardcoded into them, and if I wanted my English-speaking audience (and myself) to understand, I would need the English subs as well, which I burned in so both would be visible. And then on top of that I wanted my audio selection to have subs too, so that the remixed visual and audio could speak to one another, so I created those subtitles myself. This amount of layered audio-visual information (my own manual English subs for the audio, and the Chinese and English subs for the video) turned out to be serious information overload for my test viewers, and also warred with my vidder aesthetics, where I’m always seeking out the most HQ, least busy, logo-less, sub-less source I can find. In the end I had lots of ideas in mind with these juxtapositions, but the video that resulted really just felt like a hot mess.

So I went back to the drawing board with a more instinctive approach. I let myself leave out the English subs and crop out the Chinese subs. I realized that I could engage with those transcultural layers elsewhere—that not every video had to do everything. And I turned back to the spirit of the exercise, which seems designed to let patterns emerge from the source itself and to maybe more intuitively see what limitations you yourself bring to your clip choosing process. This time, I chose audio that was instrumental only, no dialogue, and I chose clips that felt like we were sweeping in and out of the show, high angles and low angles, long shots juxtaposed against close ups, for a sense of movement. I really like what resulted—I felt like it conveys a sense of the series emotional range and thematic and visual preoccupations, all compressed into that 1 minute.

And if my initial version wanted to juxtapose the grand myths being told about Wei Wuxian with his more human reality, then really my preoccupation with the sweeping and intimate found its way into my pechakucha anyway, just more intuitively through my formal choices and through the makeup of the source text itself, rather than through didactic intent.