Experiments in (fan)videographic criticism

For years I’ve been dancing around doing the five videographic exercises offered by my colleagues Jason Mittell and Chris Keathley as part of their recurring Workshop on Scholarship in Sound and Media in (affectionately known by participants as Video Camp) and most recently in the new edition of their book The Videographic Essay: Criticism in Sound and Image (Caboose, 2019). I actually took a stab at the exercises once before, about a year ago, with Twin Peaks: The Return, but ran into a wall with the voiceover exercise, and then the semester began, and well, you know how that goes.

But now, I’m on sabbatical, and beginning to dig into a large multimodal project on transcultural fandom and fan video, and doing these exercises seemed like the perfect way to kick start this project. And wow, was it ever. If you’re stuck with a media-related project (be it academic of fannish), or having trouble in some way, I cannot recommend these more! I feel like they’ve ignited my brain and my creativity, my academic work and my vidding.

So I thought I’d share my exercises here, one by one, and some of my early thoughts on them and the ideas they touch on. If you click through to each exercise’s individual post, I’ll include additional thoughts on each one there.

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, and if you decide to do the exercises yourself, please do share the results (if you feel comfortable doing so, of course)!

Videographic Exercise 1: The Pechakucha

GUIDELINES: 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.

Videographic Exercise 2: Voiceover

http://www.criticalcommons.org/Members/Lstein/clips/the-untamed-videographic-voiceover/

GUIDELINES: Voiceover. Produce a short (3 minute max) video on your selected film using your own voiceover. The voiceover should relay an anecdote, tell a joke, read from some piece of writing, or otherwise provide an independent channel of material not overtly related to your film. The content can be your own original material or reading something others have written / spoken. 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.

Videographic Exercises 3: Epigraph

GUIDELINES: Epigraph. Select a sequence from your film, 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 or effects. Either replace or significantly alter the soundtrack. The quotation should appear onscreen in some dynamic interaction with the video. The video should not be longer than 3 minutes.

Videographic Exercises 4: Multiscreen

GUIDELINES: Multiscreen Video. Use a multiscreen process to create a short piece (3 minute max) responding to at least one other video.. The video must contain moments of both fullscreen and multiscreen, with including images from the video(s) you are responding to. All audio and visuals must come from your film or the videos you are responding to. (I’ve adapted here for beyond the camp/class context, and yes, whoops, I didn’t follow that last rule…)

Videographic Exercise 5: Abstract Trailer

GUIDELINES: Videographic Abstract Trailer. Produce a short (no more than 2 minute) abstract trailer of a larger videographic project. This videographic abstract trailer should convey the topic, approach, and tone of the larger project to be (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 the larger project. It might also function as a kind of “proposal” that will help you develop the larger project. Think about parameters. (Again, I’ve adapted this slightly to work beyond the class/camp context.)

The Untamed – Abstract Trailer

For my videographic abstract trailer I decided to work with fan videos for The Untamed, rather than with The Untamed itself. I did not try to be comprehensive, but just chose five of my favorite The Untamed fan videos (and ones that I thought would work well for this) in combination with two of my own videos.

I was somewhat torn by how to work with these pieces—how much to cut into and control them. My strong impulse was to leave them intact because what is a vid if not its editing? (Well, and its song, so I’m disrupting that too!)

In the past I’ve made one video/vid which was almost like a deformation, in which I attempted to keep both song and structure as much as I could. I brought together a plethora of vids made from a wide range of fandoms to Florence and the Machine’s “Cosmic Love,” and attempted to keep the visuals from the vids with their original musical association, selecting from where they appeared in each fan vid in relation to the song (though this was complicated somewhat by the fact that I was using a remix of the song :D) Within this structure, I attempted (with the connecting thread of Florence herself) to create an emotional and even semi-narrative flow & meta argument about fandom.

But that approach is very restrictive and can only get you so far, so in the spirit of videographic experimentation, I’ve decided to take a looser approach here and see what poetic exploration might teach me about vidding, transcultural fandom, and The Untamed. I’m happy with how the trailer came out, and excited to dig into the larger piece, which I believe will feature a careful dosage of multiscreen images as well… Stay tuned for that!

The Untamed – Multiscreen

Where to start with this? The Multiscreen exercise asks you to use multiscreen techniques to put your source in conversation with other sources, specifically the sources used by others in the video camp or class cohort. Now, I didn’t have a cohort exactly, doing these as I am on my own from the porch of my house in Vermont. I’m in the right town, wrong time. So I thought: who is my cohort? And I immediately thought of at least one: Lori Morimoto, who did these exercises herself back in 2015 and posted about them here.

But rather than work with her exercises specifically, I had sudden inspiration, and I knew exactly what I had to use: her video essay, entitled hannibal: a fanvid, that I had been one of the open reviewers on for In Transition. hannibal: a fanvid considers affect in the televisuality of Hannibal itself, as the title suggests arguing that the source itself has fanvid-like capacity, but at the same time Morimoto’s video essay argues through its form for a consideration of what videographic criticism and vidding might share, as aesthetic forms. So, Morimoto’s piece is very closely related to everything I’ve been thinking about here. BUT on top of both of those (and perhaps related to the first) both series have key climactic scenes in which one or both main characters fall from cliffs, with cinematography that lovingly dwells on their faces and bodies while also taking in the sweeping mountainous landscape. So clearly these were the scenes to juxtapose—or rather, Morimoto’s vid zeros in on that climactic scene in Hannibal, and so I zeroed in on its counterpart in The Untamed, and let the parallels and disjunctures emerge from there. I was so excited about this parallel that I forgot that the exercise asked that I used some moments of full screen as well, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to interrupt the visual parallels to do so. I realize though that the constant divergent double images might lose some viewers, especially those not familiar with both or either text.

Multiscreen is actually a technique I especially want to dig into in this project. It’s a technique used frequently in videographic criticism and video essays to show parallels and map visual or thematic relationships, but it is rarely used in vidding. I can think of very few exceptions, but I would be remiss not to point to Sisabet’s stunning Twin Peaks: The Return vid, Digital Witness. This vid is a masterpiece, and I’m constantly fascinated upon each rewatch with how the different images speak to one another and guide your eye from one to the next. But I’m curious as to why fan video in its many forms has for the most part resisted multiscreen, and what multiscreen vidding could look like.

Re: the quotes—I made an epigraph out of this as well, or a dual epigraph, and I don’t know how successful that is, but these are exercises, and I’m also using them to work through my thoughts about this project. I opened with the quote from “An Inventory of Shimmers” about variations and journeys of affect and bodies and touch because I wanted to plant a seed about how the images from both series depict the emotional, intimate physicality of two main characters in a moment of epic crisis, bodies mapped on landscapes, and further about how we as viewers in diverse contexts respond to these visuals both in the source and in their repetition (and those images are much repeated, as you might imagine!) in fan video.1 I closed with Bertha Chin and Lori Morimoto’s quote from “Towards a Theory of Transcultural Fandom” about the various investments that could drive transcultural engagement; I was stuck by the parallels between these stylistically visualized elements of intimate physicality, emotion writ large (pain & love) shared across these two texts, one a US television series based on a series of American suspense novels, and the other a Chinese web series based on a Chinese Danmei (Boys Love) Xianxia web novel. What identifications might both of these sets of affective images evoke in viewers coming from a range of national and cultural locations?2 Despite their national and genre differences, both Hannibal and The Untamed have active fandoms, and this multiscreen juxtaposition might start to get at some of the reason why.

Finally, the music, Veronica Zanchi’s beautiful cover of “Love Crime”: I wanted to pay homage to Morimoto’s video essay and to Hannibal itself (and the notion that this song by Siouxsie was created for Hannibal itself), but I also wanted to deviate, to offer a different tone. I discovered this cover by Veronica Zanchi and fell in love with it immediately. There’s something about this cover—how it’s ethereal yet throaty, soaring yet intimate: I felt it created the perfect audioscape for this piece, and I loved that again it was one re-creator beyond the source, so that the whole piece is composed of adaptive ripples of The Untamed, Mo Dao Zu Shi, Hannibal, “Love Crime,” and Lori Morimoto’s video essay work.

(I loved the song so much BTW that I couldn’t resist also making a vid to the whole song, since I only used half the cover here. You can find the vid here.)

  1. Seigworth, Gregory & Melissa Gregg. “An Inventory of Shimmers.” The Affect Theory Reader. Ed. Gregory Seigworth and Melissa Gregg. Durham: Duke UP, 2010. 1-28.
  2. Chin, Bertha and Lori Morimoto, “Towards a Theory of Transcultural Fandom,” Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies, 10(1): 92-108 (2013).

The Untamed – Epigraph

My epigraph quote is from Petra Rehling’s essay, “Harry Potter, wuxia and the transcultural flow of fantasy texts in Taiwan,” which looks at the transcultural reception of Western fantasy novels in Taiwan. This essay considers how the Wuxia traditions of traditional Chinese fantasy map on to the fantasy traditions in Harry Potter and Lord of The Rings. I was drawn to use this quote and this essay for a couple of reasons:

1) In a way, the essay offers the flip side of what I’m looking at in the reception of Xianxia fantasy (a modern offshoot of Wuxia) in English language fandoms, thus suggesting a larger uneven transcultural circuit of myth and fantasy.

2) The epigraph quote offers an alternative to Hiroki Azuma’s contention in Otaku: Database Animals that contemporary fan culture (specifically, Japanese otaku culture specifically, in the early 2000s) represents an abandoning of the “grand narrative,” in favor of a “animalistic database.” While I find much compelling in Azuma’s larger imagining of the database, I’ve been thinking about how fans create and reiterate new myths through and within the database, how fannish database(s) seem to me the space for fostering the birth and growth of new myths. This is likely part of why I’m drawn to these sweeping, epic narratives like The Untamed and Guardian, and the many mythic fan works that they as a result inspire, and also why this quote from Rehling’s essay resonated.

Finally, my music choice:

I’ve loved Rachmaninoff’s second concerto since I was very young. It was one of my first pure musical experiences and loves, at least that I can remember. Its sweeping mix of religiosity, romanticism, and moments of quiet intimacy seem the perfect match to The Untamed and the perfect sonic landscape to explore the creation of new yet quickly beloved romantic myths through popular culture.

Actually, after I’d only seen a couple of episodes of The Untamed, I had already decided that I wanted to vid all fifty episodes to the full concerto in a sort of vid-recap, which I still hope to do as part of this project. So this was my first test drive, to see how the piece works with the visuals and with the series’ thematic preoccupations and emotional tone. What do you think, should I go for the whole long-form vid?

The Untamed – Voiceover

While this video is under dispute on YouTube, it thankfully can reside at Critical Commons, here:

http://www.criticalcommons.org/Members/Lstein/clips/Beloved-the-untamed-videographic-voiceover

The voice over videographic exercise was the one that tripped me up when I first tried to do the videographic exercises to Twin Peaks: The Return last year. There definitely is something challenging about hearing your own voice recorded, and while I’ve done the occasional podcast interview and obviously I get up in front of a classroom to speak all the time, recording audio to edit in my own creative work was basically a non-starter the first time round.

But this time, I changed my approach. I decided I wanted to do something more conversational and more personal. I love that this assignment asks for your voiceover to be about something specifically other than your visual source. Once I fully let go and let the voiceover be its own thing, it actually came quite easily. Of course this means that there will necessarily be seeming disconnect between the visuals and the audio, especially since you’re not supposed to cut into the video, though you can manipulate it. I took advantage of the manipulate clause to lower the opacity and add in some VCR-esque effects; this allowed me to cut out an annoying side character who was really disrupting the piece 😀 and also helped to merge the aesthetic of The Untamed with my memories of watching Dirty Dancing on VHS.

I also made this a bit of a (very rudimentary) epigraph, but with a quote from a space of public media scholarship (rather than a formal academic essay), The Mary Sue. I thought Abby Norman’s piece was a wonderful meditation on how our fannish engagement changes and yet sometimes stays the same over our personal histories. And that is akin to the ideas I hope to get at in this piece: the uneven and messy ways in which I’ve been drawn to different media and characters over time, the complexity of identification, our capacity to identify with multiple characters, our capacity to identify across cultural chasms, the messy space between self-recognition and identification.

And did I have mapped out in my head a whole comparison between Dirty Dancing and The Untamed? Hmmm, not one that holds up if you poke it with even a short stick, but I’d love to read this AU if someone ever writes it!

On vids and videographic criticism, some initial thoughts

My larger project (and by extension, these exercises as well), explores what happens when we put into conversation two forms of media authorship are arguably quite distinct but also share some key commonalities in intent and sometimes in aesthetics: fan video and videographic criticism.*

Fan video, sometimes known as vidding, (or these days FMVs), has a long history, arguably dating back to the Star Trek slide shows of Kandy Fong, although we could also trace alternate histories, most especially those of Anime Music Videos. I have written a fair amount on fan video because it’s a favorite preoccupation of mine: for example here and here. Fan videos (or vids) re-edit popular media texts (TV, Film, web series, video games, sometimes even fan art itself) set to popular music. (A subset rework the sound of the source as well.) Fanvids usually use full or somewhat shortened songs, often songs that will be familiar to viewers, though some are set to classical music or to more obscure musical artists. Some fan videos make critical arguments about the source text, others combine multiple sources to make larger cultural arguments, others function as character studies, narrative journeys, or emotional punches in the gut (sometimes all at once.) I’m painting in broad strokes here, but there has been much good work on the history of fan video and fan video as a form, with plenty of new avenues for scholarship in the works. (Here’s an in-progress working bibliography on Fan Video; please let me know of any resources I should add!)

Videographic criticism is a newer and also still evolving form. It has at least some of its roots in my very own home department of Film and Media Studies at Middlebury college, where Chris Keathley and Jason Mittell have created the summer workshop I mentioned earlier, as well as a college class dedicated to exploring the form. [In]Transition: The Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies is another key space for the development of videographic criticism. Videographic criticism seeks to discover and present new insights through experimenting with editing media; the exercises outlined in the book insist upon somewhat arbitrary rules and discourage over-thinking, with the idea that the combination of rules and source text will reveal new insights about the media texts in question. Mittell and Keathley encourage fledgling videographic critics to avoid going into these exercises with an already clearly worked out critical argument that they’re just deploying in video form, but rather to use the video and audio editing as part of the creative critical process, a process of research and discovery rather than one solely intent on explanation of known information. While videographic criticism can also look like the more widely known “video essay,” it often includes more experimental and poetic (and less explanatory) dimensions as well.

I find this approach especially compelling because it destabilizes the ideas that as scholars we already have concrete, unchanging knowledge, instead casting us in the position of learners and creators, participating in dialogue and reworking and revision and introspection.

There are many ways we could compare these two forms (vidding and videographic criticism): aesthetic norms, critical purpose, cultural distribution, use of visual vs audio, perceived cultural legitimacy, status re fair use, and I do want to talk about all of these eventually, but I want to start with this topic of learning through process in regard to vidding as well as videographic criticism.

Now, I don’t want to make any overarching statements about vidding in comparison because the practice is so diverse in intent and form, but, in my experience at least, (and here I am in part speaking as a vidder and participant in vidding communities myself) vidders often go into projects with either a concept (argument, focus, intent) in place or at the least a song that we’ve chosen in part because it offers a particular argument or interpretation of a character or the source text. That is, we often go in to editing with a purpose in mind and less of an exploratory spirit. There is certainly the thrill of discovering what a new source text had to offer visually when you start vidding a new TV series or film, but usually this is a side experience at the most and the process is about Making The Thing. When I started vidding back in 2006 (or 2000 if you count my now buried experiments with Windows Movie Maker and Smallville, about which perhaps the less said the better), I think I had a less purposeful, more experimental approach. But now I generally vid with a purpose from the start. I feel that videographic criticism as a practice seems to be offering me a bit of a reset, helping me to rediscover that it’s in the process of creativity that insight happens.

*This topic of the relationship between fan video and videographic criticism has been a preoccupation of mine for a while now; I moderated a conversation on this topic in Cinema Journal with Corey Creekmur, Melanie Kohnen, Jonathan McIntosh, Lori Morimoto, Katie Morrissey, and Suzanne Scott, which you can find here. Lori Morimoto and I also curated a vidshow at the Fan Studies Network North America 2018 conference that showcased videos that merged the two forms in some way.