Post by Melanie Kohnen, New York University
I spent the last two weeks of June at Scholarship in Sound & Image: A Workshop in Videographic Criticism at Middlebury College. A generous grant from the Office of Digital Humanities at the NEH made it possible for fourteen scholars to live and work together for two weeks, resulting in an experience that is among the most rewarding of my entire career.
Our hosts Chris Keathley and Jason Mittell, both faculty members in Film & Media Culture at Middlebury, designed a workshop that conveyed technical skills and stimulated discussions about how to craft scholarship in the form of the video essay. The combination of carefully planned exercises and informal conversations at our shared dorm, at the dining hall, or at the computer lab made this a truly unique and intensely lived experience.
We spent the first week learning how to use Adobe Premiere (or, in some case, refining existing skills) through a series of five exercises. Starting on Day 2, we spent the mornings in small groups discussing our finished exercises and then usually screened everyone’s videos, followed by receiving our next assignment. Afternoons consisted of learning new aspects of Premiere and starting our video of the day. The assignments included a videographic Pecha Kucha, a trailer, a video with voiceover, a response to someone else’s video using multi-screen technique, and a video using epigraphs (see Jason Mittell’s post Making Videographic Criticism for more details on these daily exercises). Considering that as academics, our attention is often divided between many different tasks, it was wonderful to focus on finishing only one project at a time.
Each participant selected one familiar text to work on during the entire first week, ranging from The Water Nymph, Trouble in Paradise, The Magnificent Ambersons, Imitation of Life, Belle de Jour, The Stepford Wives, Suspiria, to La Ciénaga. I worked on the web series Husbands. I had closely analyzed the series before in traditional academic writing, but cutting up and rearranging it revealed new aspects about content and characters. For example, I re-evaluated my previous rather harsh critique of the queer representation in the series, and I realized that one of the protagonists is on screen more frequently than the other. At the end of the week, I also knew far more about video and sound editing than I had anticipated (shout-out and thank you to Ethan Murphy, Film & Media Culture’s Digital Media Specialist, and Stella Holt, a recent graduate of Film & Media Culture, who were always around to provide technical advice).
During the second week, we worked on drafting a video essay, and we had videographic experts Eric Faden, Catherine Grant, and Kevin B. Lee join our workshop. It was immensely useful to hear Eric, Katie, and Kevin talk about their approaches to creating video essays and to be able to get their feedback on our drafts. I talked to both Katie and Kevin at length about how to structure my video essay on Husbands since I didn’t want to include a guiding voiceover but rather wanted to let the argument emerge mostly through editing and select on-screen text. My intention to skip the voiceover—a staple in many video essays—certainly stems from my familiarity with fan-made remix videos that excel at cultural critique through the use of editing and music alone.
Spontaneous screenings of works-in-progress in small groups provided further suggestions. This intensely collaborative atmosphere set the workshop apart from the often solitary work of Humanities scholars and makes me wish that we could create scholarship in collaborative ways more often.
The second week ended with a four-hour screening and discussion of our video essay drafts. The range and creativity in the presented works was impressive, especially considering that most of us had never used Premiere before arriving at Middlebury. A selection of these video essays will be revised for a special issue of [in]transition, a peer-reviewed journal of videographic criticism. We have also begun talking about a workshop for the upcoming SCMS ’16 conference. I certainly hope that another iteration of this workshop will happen again, either at Middlebury or at another institution. What we learned during the two weeks at “video camp” is too valuable not to share more widely. There is also much left to explore regarding the format of the video essay and which kinds of scholarship it suits best. For form and content analyses, the video essay is a rich tool, but I still wonder how the video essay can work for Media Industries Studies, for example, which is a field of inquiry dedicated to exploring the production, circulation, and reception of media texts. How can you represent a para-textual analysis in the format of the video essay?
To my fellow videographers, I’m already looking forward to our reunion at SCMS next year, and remember: we’re all winners, baby.
Select work produced by #videographic participants at the workshop:
Corey Creekmur’s AmbersonsBachelard
Allison de Fren’s Stepford Wives Trailer
Shane Denson’s Sight and Sound Conspire: Monstrous Audio-Vision in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931)
Liz Green’s Velvet Elephant
Patrick Keating’s Epigraph Exercise: Trouble in Paradise
Jaap Kooijman’s Close|Up
Jason Mittell’s The Logic of Mulholland Drive