Great art inspires further art. This inspiration can be found within films, but the criticism and analysis of film can also be viewed as artwork itself. Online Video has allowed talented and thoughtful people an accessible outlet to describe their experiences with various creators, and document their responses towards it.
Without going into a full deconstruction of the online Video Essay (which can be found here), it allows for a combination of film criticism and filmmaking, combining entertainment and insight into a single entity. While obviously, as in any emerging medium, multitudes of content makers whose talent does not match their eagerness exist, I have listed several whom I believe make appreciation and understanding of films better through their own creations.
The above image is from a Video Essayist examining the film Drive (2011) using the Quadrant system. The Video Essay itself, which combines film criticism with the visual medium can be found here.
15. Folding Ideas
On every list, there is the dreaded position of being last, and this time that unfortunate lands on Dan Olson of Folding Ideas. This is not because I find Olson sloppy or unintelligent, truly he might be the smartest media analyst on this list, but he falls to the final spot for not really being a Video Essayists. Olson is an academic, explaining and deconstructing visual storytelling to teach his audience, rather than analyse particular content. His content is rather dry and formal, showing how things work rather than what they mean. But this is important work, and his breakdown of narrative techniques provides fascinating insights into essential components of the visual medium, beneath their surface, and how they unfold in our minds.
Favourite Video: The Art of Editing and Suicide Squad
Olson systematically deconstructs David Ayer’s Suicide Squad to reveal the straining foundations beneath the film’s flashier, tangible, surface-level problems. This video demonstrates how the misuse of film language can subconsciously make us feel uneasy about a film without precisely knowing why, and how missteps and rewrites of a movie can irrecoverably damage the core of a product.
14. Thomas Flight
Audience’s reactions to films cannot be wholly quantified, but of chief concern to Thomas Flight is exploring how filmmakers specifically intend to create a response to their creations. Flight’s analysis and style can sometimes be fairly standard, but the content he creates is certainly useful, and the insights he gives certainly productive.
Favourite Video: Nightcrawler Incriminates Its Viewers
Flight’s essay on Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler examines one of the film’s most fascinating aspects; the way it commentates and reflects upon its audience. Flight looks at several aspects of the film, detailing how and why the directors used Nightcrawler’s main character to explore the system he participated in, and the world around him that we, as an audience, contributed to.
13. Royal Ocean Film Society
Andrew Saladino purposefully set out to make a pretentious sounding name with the Royal Ocean Film Society. But his perchance for pretention and obscure filmmakers and movies should not distract from the in-depth content he provides. Saladino intentionally examines less popular creators and topics to broaden the landscape, and while his ‘outsider’ approach doesn’t exactly translate to his own style (Saladino very much operates within the tried and tested method of ‘talking over film clips’), the effort to introduce new ideas to what can seem a very self-referential market is commendable. While it cannot hope to change the tides of modern online film discourse, the Royal Ocean Film Society is able to charter new land in what can be discovered.
Favourite Video: The Rise (or Return?) of Christian Films
Saladino’s exploration of the Independent Christian Film market encapsulates his desire to examine overlooked aspects of the film landscape. Modern Christian films are immensely successful, yet received hardly any discussion, and Saladino dissects both the reasons behind this quiet shift in the film industry, and its future repercussions.
12. Now You See It
Rather than focusing on an individualistic movie or filmmaker, Now You See It is more focused on exposing the common tropes and story conventions found throughout films. The different effects of using the same techniques and themes, whether it be Gangsters, Endings, Swearing or Milk, are analysed in a condescend format, showcasing the similarities and contrasts in their usage. The magical power of a topic is demonstrated once you understand the context and intent behind its implementation. Now You See It sets out to reveal what is hiding in plain sight in films, encouraging us to see their importance, rather than just watching it.
Favourite Video:Milk in Movies: Why do Characters Drink It?
I wasn’t kidding about the Milk video. It also happens to be my favourite. Now You See It undertakes a seemingly innocuous and underused narrative device, the drinking of Milk, and deconstructs the narrative logic behind its place in the script. This also leads to a unexpected but quite accurate description of Mad Max: Fury Road. Drawing on both social context and audience reactions, Now You See It demonstrates with this video how no topic, or liquid, is small enough to be dismissed without worthwhile insight.
11. What it All Meant
Sometimes more than fancy editing or unique voice or profound reinterpretations, we merely want to understand what a particular film is going for. This is the service What it All Meant provides, giving succinct and rather blunt analysis of various famous movies. There is something effective about his understated delivery and visuals, laying out an explanation paired with multiple examples makes the underlying meaning seem apparent. In other ways, What it All Meant seems to most utilise the video format, matching a thematic musing to it the film purely through what is seen, not what is being said. The connection between the two, what grafts meaning onto the artwork, is done by us.
Favourite Video: Pulp Fiction
What it All Meant takes a single through-line in it’s analysis of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction; Respect. Proceeding to show how this single concept is an undercurrent in the film, and how a film as wild and tangential as Pulp Fiction can really be unified in this collective theme. This video also showcases a greater dexterity with editing and visuals than the standard ones, utilising split-screens and diegetic dialogue to further illustrate his points. As he points out in the video, maybe there is no one definition of respect, like there is no one meaning of Pulp Fiction, or any film, merely a collage of human experience and concepts into a soft, shapeless, pulpy mess.
10. Needs more Gay
One of the greatest things online content can provide is fresh perspectives on culture you personaly cannot relate to, or have even thought about. By focusing upon Queer theory and LGBTQ+ themes in Popular Culture, Needs More Gay fills a crucial gap in my hetero-normative knowledge. The host Jamie Maurer (or ‘Rantasmo’) investigates LGBTQ+ culture’s representation in both mainstream media (going from current TV/Films to classics like The Wizard of Oz) to completely low-budget obscure sub-genre films exclusive to the gay community. Even where you think no analysis can be gained, Needs More Gay demonstrates discussions of sexuality are pervasive and relevant throughout most of media.
Favourite Video: Top Gun
The supposed ‘gayness’ of Top Gun is something that has been circling around the film’s reputation for a while now, and Maurer investigates both the origin of this claim, and it’s legitimacy. He both dissuades and affirms the validity of the film’s supposed homoerotic undertones, revealing how the male gaze and masculine expectations play into this view on it. Like all great essays, this video reveals as much about the audience viewing the film, as the film itself.
Wisecrack has become the premier of commercialised Video Essays. Making their beginnings with Thug Notes, which broke down classic literature from a ‘street smart’ angle, through to Earthling Cinema that used an alienated perspective to movies, Wisecrack uses subversive comedy to explain high-concept art in universal languages. While this style can appear patronising at times, Wisecrack possesses a deep and rich empire of content, bringing down intellectual concepts to a level everyone can understand and appreciate.
Favourite Video: The Philosophy of Kanye West
There are really far too much Wisecrack videos to pick a representational or favourite one, but I think their dissection of Kanye West highlight’s their interest in Popular Culture and knowledge in philosophical history. The research of both their subject and philosophical thesis emerges from the video, which places Kanye’s music and public personality as an existentialist demand for purpose and meaning. However much you may disagree with their conclusions, Wisecrack demonstrates the wit and wisdom to make a convincing argument.
8. Innuendo Studios
An innuendo is an allusion, pairing one meaning with another, more oblique, one. What Ian Danskin aims to do with Innuendo Studios is match high concept ideas with culture that is normally not perceived that way, creating links that transcend society. Most often this analysis focuses on Video Games, but always with a focus on storytelling techniques and the cultural context surrounding it. Danskin’s series on the Gamergate movement is essential viewing for its deconstruction and historical breakdown on the harassment and anger within it. The content Danskin produces is always highly learned and insightful, if sometimes infrequent, and like all good innuendos, will mean you cannot look at the same thing the same way again.
Favourite Video: It’s Not Easy Being Blue
I never really cared about ‘90s icon Sonic the Hedgehog, but after this video I did. Danskin manages to breakdown the paradox of Sonic’s iconographical status, being both a relic of the past yet also constantly reinvented for the present. Beyond the surface however, Danskin tells the tale of a mascot who wants to satisfy everyone, but in trying to do so disappoints them all individually. Somewhow, Danskin turns Sonic into a beautiful metaphor for the strained artist, doing all he can to please his large audience, not understanding that in the modern age, those audiences have split into followers.
7.Lessons from the Screenplay
While many naïve filmgoers may view the screenplay simply as the lines and actions which the Directors and Actors follow, Michael Tucker understands the strategy and differences that comes from the screenplay. By comparing the screenplay to the finished product, Tucker explores how differences emerge from the reinterpretation by the director, and how the story is structured around specific points of writing. By unearthing the originating point for the films examined, Tucker teaches us what can be gained from the root of the story.
Favourite Video: The Social Network – Sorkin, Structure and Collaboration
Tucker dissects a heavily requested video from a widely known screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin. This video does a good job of understanding why Sorkin is such a notable and memorable figure, revealing the strong foundations beneath Sorkin’s noticeable flare. The breakdowns of individual scenes, and how the screenplay balances character motivations with exposition and witty dialogue to transform a Facebook biopic into one of the greatest films of the 21st century. Tucker also does a fantastic job of highlighting how a great screenplay is paired and adapted with a great director in David Fincher, and how his specific creative vision is paired with Sorkin’s unique style, into a collaborative masterpiece.
6.Movies with Mikey
Beyond style or format or even ideas, it is the personality and enthusiasm of the creator which draws you into their artwork. The energetic, tangential and rapid breakdowns from Mikey Neuman are a pure celebration of his favourite cinema, even if he admits they are not all the greatest films. His wonderful, sometimes lyrical, occasional annoying scripts weave over his best experiences of film, and his pure energy eclipses any failings these films may have as only slight hindrances. You shouldn’t assume his informal, quick delivery and style is laziness however, as Neuman demonstrates his talent and commitment to these videos with his editing and research, which is inserted elegantly within the videos. Movies with Mikey remains a fresh, wholly positive outlook on current cinema, that has no intention of slowing down.
Favourite Video: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
One of the best things these videos can do is change your opinion on a film, rather than simply reaffirm it. I never particularly cared for the 2005 adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but Mikey unravels and deconstructs how forced competition between versions of stories is not only meaningless, but actively destructive. This video almost serves as a thesis for Movies with Mikey, elaborating on the positive aspects of film in fresh styles, aiming to share joy with others, and avoiding being the best or ‘correct’ so that we can be happy with what we have.
5. Kaptain Kristian
While the content of videos is obviously important, the flare and presentation can be impressive in itself. Purely aesthetically, Kristian Williams‘ creations are visual love letters to all aspects of media; film, comics, music and television. The respect for artistry, and revere for cultural impact is found with his work, and his crisp, flowing editing style consistently engages the viewer with whatever topic is explored. On a visceral level, the elegance of Williams’ essays heightens the subject matter, rendering the content greater by the images and sounds, as well as the words.
Favourite Video: Who Framed Roger Rabbit – The 3 Rules of Living Animation
Krisitian Williams looks at how live-action and animation were combined in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and establishes the effort placed into minute details to make the combination as effective as possible. Typical of Williams’ videos, smooth music underlines script notes, annotated clips and exterior references to collage a complete picture of the process. While discussing the seamless nature of Roger Rabbit’s animation, Williams also highlights the tight, smooth process of his own creations.
Rather than the previous quick, stylised and somewhat flashy video essays, Lindsay Ellis operates from a standpoint of experienced knowledge of filmmaking. Beginning as a more comedic reviewer as the ‘Nostalgia Chick’ on That Guy with the Glasses (now Channel Awesome), Ellis outgrew these limitations to grant detailed explanations and applications of film theory. She presents both long-formed explorations of specific films and genres, while also regularly producing Loose Canon, where the representations of iconic characters across time and media are examined. Her series The Whole Plate, a 12-part (!) dissection of Michael Bay’s Transformers films and their relation to film studies, is also essential viewing. Ellis’ dry wit and clear intelligence makes her dives into studies of cinema both impactful and meaningful.
Favourite Video: How Three-Act Screenplays Work (and why it matters)
I’m not certain this is really Ellis’ best work, as her divulgence into Mel Brook’s use of satire and TheProducers greater demonstrates her skill and historical knowledge of film, and her demolition of Joel Schumacher’s Phantom of the Opera is visceral fun, but this video serves as a useful introduction to both Ellis’ style and knowledge. She outlines the fundamentals of film theory, and how they are implemented in various movies, which still holding her signature delivery. Appropriately, her explanation of the foundation of most mainstream movies provides a neat primer for the rest of her extensive oeuvre.
3. The Nerdwriter
Evan Puschak’s ‘The Nerdwriter’ may be the frontrunner of the current Video Essay phenomenon. While others have been creating before him, few do so with the frequency and diversity of Puschak’s content. He grapples not only with all forms of art (including films, TV, comics, painting, poetry and music), but has gained large success with his sociological and political analysis. What stands out to Puschak for me however is not only his obvious skill with editing and research, which grant each of his videos a captivating essence, but the tender way he gently unravels the layers of artwork he adores. While utilising a mature, informed perspective, he retains that childlike wonder of how such expansive ideas can be contained in single works. The passion and inquisitiveness of being a ‘nerd’ has never felt so appealing.
Favourite Video: A Serious Man: Can Life Be Understood?
Puschak’s catalogue of videos is so expansive and diverse that picking one favourite was extremely difficult (other recommendations are of Casey Neistat, Mulholland Drive, Vertigo, The Prisoner of Azkaban, The Prestige, In Bruges and many, many more), but this penetrating, but also lyrical, look at the Coen Brother’s A Serious Man highlights many of Puschak’s strengths. Starting from the text of the film itself, he magnifies the character’s searches for meaning within the film into an existentialist musing on the desire for interpretation itself. Minute details and grandiose themes are paired together with style to create a solid, if implicitly futile, explanation of a fantastic film.
2. Kyle Kallgren (Brows Held High/Between the Lines/Summer of Shakespeare)
I feel that often ‘pretentiousness’ is used as a deflective from further investigation, a shield from trying to actually explain what ‘Art House Films’ are attempting to say. Kyle Kallgren, while often commenting on the absurdity, is unafraid of immersing himself in obscure and purposefully bizarre topics. Kallgren began on Channel Awesome with comedic-centred recaps of Art House films, providing humorous reactions to their grotesque content, but transferred into a genuine attempt to explain why these films were created, and why they mean something. His Brows Held High examines the nominal highbrow movies, while Between the Lines gives a broader analysis of how topics in popular culture (from Washington D.C., to Superheroes, to Dictators) have mutated over film history, and his Summer of Shakespeare videos look at how Shakespeare has been adapted into the cinematic medium. In doing these videos, Kallgren provides incredibly rich insights, which encourage film audiences to venture into more obscure territory, and keep their sights set upwards.
Favourite Video: Brows Held High – Holy Motors: Man without a Movie Camera / Between the Lines – Inception and the Surreal / Summer of Shakespeare – Jean-Luc Godard’s King Lear: A Movie About No Thing
I am really cheating with these selections, but using an example from each of Kallgren’s shows hopefully demonstrates the range of insights and topics he can cover. His deconstruction of Holy Motors tackles an extremely difficult French Art House movies, picking apart not only the context behind the filmmaker, but how it relates the understanding of filmmaking itself.
Meanwhile his breakdown of Inception is one of the best I’ve ever seen, understanding the origin’s of Nolan’s film coming from other Surrealist movies, creating an instructive and strangely personal video that grants renewed appreciation for the movie.
Finally, the analysis of Godard’s King Lear takes a purposefully nonsensical film, and extrapolates both the likely intention from the famous auteur, and how it closely pertains to it’s original Shakespearian source.
1. Every Frame a Painting
Of everyone on the list, Tony Zhou is one of the most influential creators here. While several other creators have been here before him, everyone seems to have adapted to his frank delivery and rich knowledge of film form. It is this examination of form, how camera techniques or soundtracks or whatever are utilised that separates Zhou from a mere descriptor of a film’s themes, to a curator of how these themes are reinforced by the medium. By forcing his viewers to inspect not only what filmmakers do, but how they do it, and how the craft on a single scene can embody the skill used throughout their entire creation.
Favourite Video: Jackie Chan – How to do Action Comedy
Every Tony Zhou video is worth watching. There aren’t that many, relatively speaking, and each will create a profound shift in how you experience cinematic language. But personally, his tribute to Jackie Chan’s use of editing and composition demonstrates both his understanding of the form, and how Zhou is able to effectively communicate these ideas to the audience. Using multiple examples (and counter-examples), Zhou demonstrates how the efficiency of Jackie Chan’s action is not only in his personal skills, but how the film form bends to accommodate his techniques.
About Bruno Savill De Jong
Currently studying English at University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Have a passion and interest for vivisecting and reassembling all forms of media, from plays to films to comics. Also for using nice and fancy words like 'vivisecting'.
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Like many of you, I've been thinking a lot lately about how we can better prepare students to be thoughtful, responsible, and critical consumers and creators. While I don't have all the answers, I've come to one conclusion: Media-literacy education must deal with YouTube. Ninety-one percent of teens use YouTube. That's 30 percent more than use Snapchat (61 percent), the next closest social media competitor, and even more than use tech we think of as ubiquitous, like Gmail (79 percent).
I've come to one conclusion: Media-literacy education must deal with YouTube.
What's more, YouTube is a unique beast and can't just be tacked on. It has its own celebrities, culture, norms, and memes and has even given rise to the dreaded "YouTube voice." But what I find particularly fascinating is that YouTube has its own genres and types of videos. One of these -- the video essay -- is something I think can be a great tool for media-literacy education. Here's why.
What Are YouTube Video Essays?
YouTube video essays are long-form (relative to many other internet videos) critical videos that make arguments about media and culture. They're usually meticulously narrated and edited, juxtaposing video footage, images, audio, and text to make an argument much like a writer would do in a traditional essay. As former YouTube talent scout Jeremy Kaye puts it, video essays "take a structured, in-depth, analytical, and sometimes persuasive approach, as opposed to the quick 'explainer' video style."
Why Are They Great for Learning?
It's easy to dismiss a lot of what circulates on YouTube as frivolous, silly, or even obnoxious, but video essays are the opposite. They demand students' attention but not through cartoonish gesturing, ultra-fast editing, and shock value (which even some of the more popular educational YouTubers fall prey to) -- there's room to breathe in these essays. To capture attention, video essays use a time-tested trick: being flat-out interesting. They present compelling questions or topics and then dig into them using media as evidence and explication. This makes them a great match for lessons on persuasive and argumentative writing.
Video essays model for students how YouTube can be a platform for critical communication.
But what I really love most about video essays is that they have something at stake; they ground their arguments in important cultural or political topics, exposing the ways media represents gender or race, for instance, or how media evolves over time and interacts with the world at large. Most importantly, video essays model for students how YouTube can be a platform for critical communication.
How Can They Be Used in Classrooms?
First, a caveat: Most of the channels below offer content that'll work best in an upper-middle or high school classroom. Some videos can also be explicit, so you'll want to do some browsing.
- Conversation starter or lesson hook: Many of these videos serve as great two- to 10-minute introductions to topics relevant to classrooms across the curriculum.
- Active viewing opportunity: Since video essays present often complex arguments, invite students to watch and rewatch videos and outline their theses, key points, and conclusions.
- Research project: Have students find more examples that support, or argue against, a video's argument. Students could also write a response to a video essay.
- Copyright lesson: Video essays are a great example of fair use. Show students that by adding their own commentary, they can use copyrighted material responsibly.
- Assessment: Have students create their own video essays to demonstrate learning or media-creation skills like editing.
Channels and Videos to Check Out
This is an eclectic channel that's hard to pin down. Basically, the video topics focus on whatever intrigues the channel's creator, Evan Puschak. There's everything from an analysis of painting to MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech to film to the history of the fidget spinner.
Vox runs the gamut of issues in politics, culture, and pop culture. Their explainer-style videos can serve as conversation starters, and since they publish multiple videos a week, there's no shortage of choices. Also, make sure to check out their playlists offering essays on everything from music to climate change.
This channel does a masterful job of uncovering the layered meaning -- social, political, and cultural -- in hip-hop and other music. While most of these videos are mature and only suitable in very particular high school contexts, there's brilliant work on everything from the poetic rhythms of the hip-hop group Migos to Kanye West's stagecraft to music video minimalism. Any one of these videos could inspire a great lesson or unit.
Video essays are just one thing Lindsay does on her channel, and she's really good at them. Her videos often deal with heady topics like "the other," but she boils them down in accessible ways. She also isn't afraid to throw in a few jokes to keep things interesting.
There's tons here focused on music, with a specific emphasis on hip-hop lyrics. One of my favorite series is called Deconstructed. While Deconstructed videos aren't typical video essays, they present color-coded breakdowns of the rhyme schemes in hip-hop tracks. Students could apply this technique to their favorite songs or poems.
Every Frame A Painting
This now-defunct channel has 30 videos with some of the best film analysis on YouTube. If you're looking to help students analyze the language of film, this is the channel to check out. One of my personal favorites focuses on the work of a film editor.
Kristian focuses a lot on cartoons and comics, which is a nice entry point for younger kids. Each of his videos touches on big ideas in storytelling. For instance, his examination of Pixar movies delves into their rich themes that break the often rote themes of other animated movies. This video would pair well with creative writing lessons or literary analysis.
One of the more long-running essayists on YouTube, CGP Grey has a fast-talking style with a lot of animation but does a good job of answering head-scratching questions like, "What if the electoral college is tied?" or explaining complex issues like copyright in a digestible way.
Lessons from the Screenplay
While this channel focuses on how screenwriting underpins film, the lessons offered in each of this channel's video essays are broadly applicable to the craft of writing in general.
I saved this one for last because it's the least traditional. Kogonada is a former academic turned filmmaker who gained popularity through his Vimeo video essays that, for the most part, elegantly edit together film clips without any narration. These videos are great if you're teaching a video- and film-editing class or film appreciation/criticism. Creating a narration-less video would be an excellent final project for students.
Image courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.