mediaesthetics : Videographic Film Studies

Volker Pantenburg

1. Introduction

“We […] might ask if the filmic text should really be approached in writing at all,” wrote Raymond Bellour in 1975 towards the end of his much-quoted essay about the “unattainable text” (Bellour 1975: 26). Bellour’s considerations aim at a basic dilemma whenever one analyses a film: where analysis (or theory, interpretation, description) is, the film cannot be. The object of study is per definition absent. In this respect and to varying degrees of concreteness and abstractness, verbal description, still images, transcribed sequences, diagrams, and, ultimately, any other resources are always aiming to evoke the absent object. In the same breath, in fact, Bellour points to a possible way out of the dilemma: he cites two examples from André S. Labarthe and Janine Bazin’s television series CINÉASTES DE NOTRE TEMPS (FR 1964–1972), which show individual shots and sequences from films – Max Ophüls’ LE PLAISIR (FR 1952) on the one hand, and Sam Fuller’s FORTY GUNS (USA 1957) on the other – and analyze them at the same time. “Here there is no longer any divergence, no need of narration,” rhapsodizes Bellour. “A true quotation, in all its obviousness.” (Bellour 1975: 26)

Over the past few years, alongside Laura Mulvey’s concept of a “delayed cinema” facilitated by DVD technology (Mulvey 2006), Bellour’s short text has become an important reference point for a field of research that has solidified under different names with equally different implications. The terms “video essay” and “audiovisual essay” call on the essayistic tradition in literature, film, and cultural history (The Audiovisual Essay 2014–2016) and the concept of videographic film studies raises a claim for compatibility with other academic disciplines (Audiovisualcy 2011 ff.). In contrast, the notion of “filmvermittelnder Film” – a hard-to-translate term whose reach is therefore limited that literally means “film-educating film” – emphasizes overlaps and similarities with educational contexts (Kunst der Vermittlung 2008–2011). Independent from the labelling, what is meant is the creation and circulation of videos that are primarily short, sometimes more, sometimes less analytical, cinephilic, didactic, and academic, videos that perform film analysis with the means of the film medium (image, sound, speech) – “thinking about film almost from within the film itself” (Färber 2010: 186). The scope of what is included here encompasses, depending on one’s interpretation, montages of recurring motifs, “supercuts” and remixes, analyses of single films, stylistic studies of individual filmmakers with or without explicit commentary, and the widest variety of visual configurations or other reconfigurations of films. Christian Keathley proposed a concise definition when he described video essays as “short critical essays on a given film or filmmaker, typically read in voice-over by the author and supplemented with carefully chosen and organized film clips” (Keathley 2011: 180).

The enormous proliferation of these formats since around 2007 can be traced back to the convergence of online platforms like YouTube and Vimeo, inexpensive editing software, and social media (blogs, online journals, Twitter). This conjunction of developments in technology, media, and film culture undoubtedly contributed to their wide dissemination. It would be to misunderstand the historical, institutional, and material backgrounds of this mode of analysis, however, if the video essay is seen merely as the epiphenomena of digitization or “convergence culture” (Jenkins 2006) and as a symptom of “film culture in the age of digital networks” (Hagener 2017). “A new historical substance does not emerge simply because what is known flows a little better,” noted Diedrich Diederichsen in another context (Diederichsen 2017: 44). Still, antecedents to this specifically analytical format – which encapsulates at once a history of media such as Steenbeck editing tables, VHS recorders, and DVDs – remain unknown – not least because the discussion is dominated by Anglo-American voices.

2. The Emergence of Videographic Film Studies  

Early developments occurred between approximately 2007 and 2010 primarily on private blogs during the emergence of a web-based “new cinephilia” (Rosenbaum 2012). Kevin B. Lee’s encyclopedic project Shooting Down Pictures and a blog founded by Matt Zoller Seitz, The House Next Door, are notable examples of a critical, cinephilic engagement with films that were occasionally supplemented by montages with voice-over narration.(1)

(1) In the blog accompanying his residency at the Harun Farocki Institut in Berlin from February till March 2017, Kevin B. Lee revisited his more than 300 video essays and commented upon them with year-by-year commentaries (Lee 2017). For contemporary self-evaluations of their own projects, see Lee 2009 and Zoller Seitz 2009.

In the following years – 2010 to around 2012 – journals, streaming platforms, and other actors in the field of film and culture noticed the potential and range of these informal, decentralized, and non-institutionalized currents. Soon thereafter, their inclusion in existing or emerging film circulation infrastructures began. In 2009, Matt Zoller Seitz had already produced an elaborate, five-part stylistic analysis of the work of Wes Anderson for the website of New York’s Museum of the Moving Image (THE SUBSTANCE OF STYLE); established journals like Sight & Sound also began commissioning video essays for their online platforms, which often accompanied film series at the British Film Institute. At this point, a consolidation and professionalization could be noticed, which entailed the introduction of video clips into commercial contexts and, next to their interpretative-analytical dimension, their new role as advertisements for film programs in cinemas, on DVDs (Criterion), and streaming platforms (Fandor, MUBI). In April 2011, Catherine Grant, one of the field’s most important researching and practicing representatives, founded the Vimeo channel “Audiovisualcy: An Online Forum for Videographic Film Studies,” which, at the time of its launch, collected 28 video essays. The channel grew rapidly over the next few years. The success of the concept of Videographic Film Studies is closely connected to this Vimeo channel as well as various other initiatives started by Grant, who has managed like no one else to organize exchanges between cinephilic networks and the academic sphere. Primarily through the efforts of Grant, Jason Mittel, and others (organizing conferences, panels at international symposiums, practice-oriented workshops for new video essayists, etc.), since at least 2012, the film and cultural establishment has made room for the format’s ever-expanding perception within the academic film community. The video essay is now no longer viewed solely as a lyrical gimmick and paratextual ornament accompanying films, film series, and favorite filmmakers. It began to be used increasingly as a tool for academic film research and teaching, even while the standards for measuring a video essay’s success – as with other forms of “artistic research” – remained unclear at first. By which criteria should this practical form of research be evaluated? What does this mean for academic infrastructures and scholars communicating about their research?

Thematic issues (Frames Cinema Journal 1/1 [2012]) and even entire journals were published transposing aspects of scholarly methods (above all, peer reviews) to the field of audiovisual research ([in]Transition 2014 ff.), and media studies journals (such as zfm) start blogs for testing the potentials and boundaries of videographic research practice (Videography 2023 ff.). Relevant introductory film studies texts also reacted to the trend, supplementing new additions with chapters on the influence of digital media (Elsaesser/Hagener 2015: 194–218) or presenting video essays about theoretical approaches on accompanying websites, and the first broad reflections on the subject also appeared (Keathley/Mittell 2016; Kiss/van den Berg 2016). At the same time, the production of video essays found its way into the curriculums of film and media studies departments so that analytic essays began to emerge from different German and international universities as well as film and art schools (Baute 2014). Internationally, the two-week “Workshops on Videographic Criticism” at Middlebury College in Vermont, organized by Jason Mittell and Christian Keathley, proved especially productive and influential. (2)

(2) It would be worthwhile to devote a separate discussion to the question of whether or not videographic techniques could fulfill an even more important function in teaching than in research.

As this short overview shows, the video essay marks the intersection where film culture (festivals, journals, blogs, etc.) and university audiences (scholarly film journals, symposiums, lectures), amateur and professional practices, and theory and praxis overlap in specific ways. These initiatives come with a correspondingly broad range of expectations and ambitions. To a certain degree, some celebrate the upholding of utopian ideals or the discipline’s re-birth under the sign of digital humanities (Grant 2012), while others see in this method, with its shifts between theory and practice, a potential with specific benefits for research and teaching that also has its limitations. Against the backdrop of this briefly sketched development, what follows will primarily describe the possibilities and limits of the format in the field of film analysis.  

3. Videographic Operations

The basic question is simple: what happens when instead of text – accompanied by static screen shots or illustrations – films themselves or, more precisely, their digital facsimiles provide the material and tools for film analysis? When the film text, as Bellour describes with a glance at CINÉASTES DE NOTRE TEMPS, becomes “quotable”? The first thing to note is that using moving images and arranging, editing, recombining, and commenting on them generates a basic dynamic that can be used in a plethora of different ways. Listing the most important elements of video essays should suffice to clarify the diverse vectors and power relations interacting in them. Video essays seek out confrontations between image and image, between (written and spoken) text and image, and between image and (diegetic and non-diegetic) music and sound. Since modern editing software also allows moving images to be re-arranged in a variety of ways on the screen’s surface so that comparisons such as split screen, spatial positioning, and diverse modes of “soft montage” (Farocki 2009) up to and including simulations of computer desktops in “desktop films,” are now possible,(3) references and the mutual forces of attraction and repulsion at play are multiplied. Despite the overwhelming abundance of video essays(4) that have since appeared, several identifiable and recurring basic operations can be discerned.

(3) Harun Farocki uses the term “soft montage” to describe two or more images that are placed side by side but do not displace each other but comment on each other alternately in the spatial arrangement so that their interaction produces “more trial, less assertion” (Farocki 2009: 73).

(4) The Vimeo channel Audiovisualcy, which has admittedly a broad conception of videographic film studies, hosted 2437 videos as of October 2023. 

3.1 Compiling

A widespread operation that remains tendentially below the threshold of explicit analysis involves linearly compiling sequences selected based on parameters such as related motifs, compositional similarities, stylistic particularities, and much more. These methods resemble found footage techniques in experimental film history, practiced, for example, by Matthias Müller and Christoph Girardet (HOMESTORIES, GER 1990; MANUAL, GER 2002; PLAY, GER 2003) and Mark Rappaport (ROCK HUDSON’S HOME STORIES, USA 1992; EXTERIOR NIGHT, USA 1993). Some canonical essays (as measured by clicks and popularity on social media) by kogonada result from this method. In STANLEY KUBRICK // ONE-POINT PERSPECTIVE (2012), kogonada compiles shots from Kubrick films that use central perspective, laying schematic pattern over the image at regular intervals (Fig. 1). In WES ANDERSON // CENTERED (2014), he references the obsessive symmetry in Wes Anderson’s compositions by drawing a mirror line through the middle of the shots. The analytic surplus of these montages – which, through their use of strongly rhythmic, extradiegetic music, want to be seen as art in and of themselves – remains limited. Rather than analysis, this type of video essay is instead an often technically perfect but schematic series of bits of evidence supporting an observation that could just as easily have been conveyed in writing or still images, but that is lent a special suggestiveness and critical value by audiovisual montage. In the case of form-oriented filmmakers with strong handwriting, this procedure can also be used for very different series of motifs (OZU // PASSAGEWAYS, 2012; HANDS OF BRESSON, 2014; both by kogonada).

Fig. 1: Still from STANLEY KUBRICK // ONE-POINT PERSPECTIVE (kogonada, 2012), min. 1.
Fig. 1: Still from STANLEY KUBRICK // ONE-POINT PERSPECTIVE (kogonada, 2012), min. 1.

3.2 Commentary

Alexander Kluge suggested commentary should be understood as the “basic form of text” (Stanitzek 1998). One could go a step further and consider any placement of different elements (in the case of film: image, sound, text) in relation to one another as a form of commentary. Commenting via writing or voice-over would therefore only be an especially clear and explicit case of a more general basic operation. In essayistic modes of filmmaking, i.e., the work of Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, Johan van der Keuken, Harun Farocki, Hartmut Bitomsky, or Agnès Varda, the use of the poetic as well as the analytic-epistemic powers of the image has long been suggested, countering the usual hegemonies with the “logic of images.” Discourses around the “pictorial turn” (Mitchell 1992) or the “iconic turn” (Boehm 2004), primarily in the domain of art history and visual culture studies, have long been accompanied by a parallel history in the audiovisual medium. Here too, in practical and research work with moving images (and sounds), the individual logic of images makes itself felt. On occasion, the belief in images’ evidential power has provoked claims that descriptions of what can be seen in an image, for example, are superfluous given the presence of the actual sequences. “Audiovisual essays should make us rethink the role of description in film criticism,” note Cristina Álvarez Lopez and Adrian Martin. “We rarely – if ever – need to evoke, describe or summarise it, at least not in the same, old, often devious ways that film reviewers have always done in print, or on radio” (Martin/Álvarez Lopez 2017).

One counterargument to such skepsis of linguistic accompaniment is that the verbal description of an image already entails an analytical potential and has an array of implications that it would be unfair to describe as duplications or redundancies. “There is no question of a description leading directly to the comprehension of a film,” explains Helmut Färber to his conversation partner Hartmut Bitomsky on the 1974 West German television program KINO/KRITIK: ÜBER DIE WÖRTER, DEN SINN UND DAS GELD VON FILMEN (Hartmut Bitomsky, GER 1974). Of the many visual elements, what is chosen and therefore emphasized? At which precise moment does description enter? Does it anticipate something that will first appear in the image shortly thereafter? How do the rhythm, temporality, and dynamics of speech function in relation to the rhythm, temporality, and dynamics of images and editing? What difference does it make if a male or female voice comments on the images? Are gender neutral title cards or subtitles used instead of a spoken commentary, as in Kevin B. Lee’s LOOKING VS. TOUCHING: A COMPARISON (2012)? 

If one restricts the commentary narrowly to linguistic interventions placing a text in relation to moving images, then with every word, clause, or mode of speech, the proximity or distance, complementarity or antagonism, and the close, loose, or non-existent relation to the images is put into question. The modes of quotation between text and image are correspondingly diverse: from duplication to anticipation, memory, and confirmation as well as negation, everything is conceivable. In dealing with such questions, the textual work in video essays is closely related to practices of ekphrasis as well as the different technologies of visual description within iconology throughout art history.

A perfect example of this variety is found in Alain Bergala’s twelve-part series LE CINÉMA, UNE HISTOIRE DE PLANS, which began in 1995 as part of the hundredth anniversary of cinema and was distributed in 1998 on VHS for use in French schools. The series relies on a simple principle: at a simulated editing table, an off-screen dialogue comments on a single shot. Bergala describes the structure of the individual episodes like this:

1. You see the title, the director’s name, the film’s country and production year. The names of the actors in the shot. The names of the actors today who are speaking the dialogue over the shot. 2. The full shot, sound and image, with hard cuts at the start and finish. Nothing more than this shot, uncut. 3. A sequence of several minutes in which two voices talk about the shot. In the image, this is accompanied by the shot alone, without cutting and merely with slow motion, speeding up, rewinding, and freeze frames as possible interventions; the way you analyze a shot on an editing table. 4. The shot, repeated in its entirety, as described in point 2. (Bergala 2009 [1998])

Following this procedure, films by the Lumière brothers (in which the shot is identical to the film), Ozu Yasujiro’s I WAS BORN BUT… [UMARETE WA MITA KEREDO] (JP 1932), and Jean Renoir’s THE RULES OF THE GAME [LA RÉGLE DU JEU] (FR 1939) as well as Jean-Luc Godard’s MY LIFE TO LIVE [VIVRE SA VIE] (FR 1962), Jean Eustache’s THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE [LA MAMAN ET LA PUTAIN] (FR 1973), and Abbas Kiarostami’s THE TRAVELER [MOSSAFER] (IR 1974) are subject to this form of analysis. Off-screen, actors (including Michel Piccoli, Fanny Ardant, Catherine Deneuve, Anna Karina, Bulle Ogier, and Michael Lonsdale) converse about what is seen while the shot is slowed down or paused, moved forward or rewound. In the simplicity of their structure, Bergala’s shot analyses demonstrate that the close reading of even a single shot – and therefore prior to the level of editing and montage – can unveil an overabundance of text-image relationships: the observations can be of a sociological nature (if the head coverings in a Lumière film are read as indicators of the social order around 1900) or they can address moral aspects (when the question is raised whether or not the director actually hit the pupil in MOSSAFER on set and, if so, whether or not such an act of violence is aesthetically justified). They can address the film text and its properties or speculate about the production history. A decisive part of this procedure is the simultaneity (performed and constructed in the dialogue) between the observations and the linguistic relationships that generates the impression of mutual discovery.(5)

(5)Seven German translations of analyses from LE CINÉMA, UNE HISTOIRE DE PLANS can be found in the Dossier Filmvermittlung und Cinéphilie: Alain Bergala (Kunst der Vermittlung 2009).

Last but not least, LE CINÉMA, UNE HISTOIRE DE PLANS also demonstrates the productive power of repetition when – in this case with an overtly didact intent – the shot shown first without commentary is shown once more, again without commentary, following the analysis, making it evident how much the film excerpt has now been enriched by the hermeneutic operation of talking over and reading into it. Above all, LE CINÉMA, UNE HISTOIRE DE PLANS does not present its insights and knowledge about aesthetic techniques, production histories, or ethical and historical questions as the result of a sealed-off, complete analysis. The dialogues are indeed written by Bergala, but they are staged as a dialogical back and forth of discoveries and inspections, as a speculative process: an open conversation – potentially including the viewer as well (Baute/Pantenburg 2007).

3.3 Constellate 

In essays and books, it has long been possible to work with visual juxtapositions, to clarify the development of sequences, make comparisons, or visualize spatial configurations in films. The grouping and “soft montage” (Farocki) of film sequences expanded this possibility and lent it additional evidential power. The implications of producing a direct comparison by placing two or more sequences side by side, are potentially endless. Recurring motifs can be connected, references to film history made plausible, and dramatic or iconic repetitions and other structural particularities of one or more films displayed in one glance. Two images showing “before and after” is also part of the standard repertory in presenting restoration projects.

In 2011, the Basque film student Aitor Gametxo, at the time 21 years old, made a particularly impressive demonstration the potential of multiplying images on the computer screen through his spatialization of D.W. Griffith’s film THE SUNBEAM (USA 1909). Gametxo only uses footage from Griffith’s Biograph film, whose plot plays out entirely in a two-story house and is consistently filmed from a frontal camera perspective. In his re-edit, entitled VARIATION ON THE SUNBEAM (2011), Gametxo places the film’s five locations – hallway with staircase, two first floor rooms with right and left borders, and the second floor with two more rooms – in their actual orientation above and next to each other (Fig. 2). The diegetic space is therefore mapped directly on the computer screen, transposing Griffith’s temporal montage into a spatial order. This technique, similar to Farocki’s installation ON CONSTRUCTION OF GRIFFITH'S FILMS (GER 2006) but without a text providing commentary, clarifies how Griffith preferred to film his subjects frontally at the time and how the shots precisely framed the interiors so that the doors between rooms also function as passages between the images.

Fig. 2: Still from VARIATION ON THE SUNBEAM (2011) (Aitor Gametxo, 2011), min. 2.
Fig. 2: Still from VARIATION ON THE SUNBEAM (2011) (Aitor Gametxo, 2011), min. 2.

In an exhaustive blog post at the time, Kristin Thompson expressed her fascination with Gametxo’s work. At the same time, however, she pointed out that VARIATION ON THE SUNBEAM did not produce any truly new knowledge for Griffith experts: “[T]he three main techniques he works from have been known to Griffith scholars for years. VARIATION offers a new way of examining and explaining those techniques” (Thompson 2011). What is it exactly that video essays can do when analyzing a film? Are they meant to produce new disciplinary knowledge? Or instead, other, genuinely visual clarifications and reworking of findings? Are they gestures of epistemology or deixis? A similar reservation can be made regarding one of the best-known video essays used in film courses, kogonada’s WHAT IS NEO-REALISM? (2013). The five-minute clip, produced by Sight and Sound to promote a film series (“The Roots of Neo-Realism,” BFI Southbank, May/June 2013), places TERMINAL STATION [STAZIONE TERMINI] (Vittorio De Sica, USA/I 1953) and INDISCRETION OF AN AMERICAN WIFE (David O’Selznick, USA/I 1953) side by side – a film existing in two different versions with identical plots and characters. The side-by-side comparison makes it clear that De Sica allows the sequences their own temporalities, whereas Selznick’s edit emphasizes a stronger, tighter narrative. While De Sica lets the camera pause on marginal characters even after the protagonists have left the shot, Selznick cuts. Kogonada’s elegant and technically perfect crescendo may be a fitting introduction to the basic aspects of neo-realism. However, it seems that this gain in evidence corresponds to a loss in complexity. Even the hyperbolic title “What is Neo-Realism?” promises something that cannot be delivered in the short running time and reduction to this one example. This mode of simplification can also be sensed in the evocative keywords that at different points inscribe individual features of neo-realism into the image (“different kind of cinema,” “in-between moments”).

It is precisely these kinds of uncommented side-by-side shots, often with homogenizing music laid underneath them – the paradigmatic demonstration would be the successful series FIRST AND FINAL FRAMES (Jacob T. Swinney, 2015), which shows first and final shots side by side in split screen – that may represent a starting point for analytic considerations but hardly ever the analysis of a film itself. Kevin B. Lee submits the film THE DAY HE ARRIVES (Hong Sang-soo, KR 2012) to an advanced and productive analysis in VIEWING BETWEEN THE LINES: HONG SANG-SOO'S THE DAY HE ARRIVES (2012). In this video, Lee revives a method developed in the 1990s by film critic, teacher, and author Helmut Färber. In DREI MINUTEN IN EINEM FILM VON OZU (Helmut Färber, 1988), the sequence in question is first shown on a monitor in a TV studio without any intervention. At the end, the form and content of the shots, reduced to one or, in the case of shots with movement, two frames, are described in succession. Finally, the viewer experiences the sequence a third time, now, however, as a diagrammed layout on the wall of the studio (Färber 2009 [1988]) (Fig. 3). Only then, in the spatial, architectonic layout of what in the film is a temporally linear series of actions, can the conceptually rigid but seemingly free structure of the Ozu excerpt be deduced. 

Fig. 3: Still from DREI MINUTEN IN EINEM FILM VON OZU (Helmut Färber, 1988), min. 1.
Fig. 3: Still from DREI MINUTEN IN EINEM FILM VON OZU (Helmut Färber, 1988), min. 1.

In Lee’s look at Hong’s film, a computer screen and the timeline of the editing software Final Cut Pro stand in for the TV studio. Lee arranges sequences instead of photos, placing them in the program’s timeline window so that the similarities and differences in the symmetries and repetitions of Hong’s film become visible. The possibility of turning the surface of one’s desktop – here: Final Cut Pro’s interface – into a stage upon which analytical work unfolds in what feels like real time, has been developed, especially by Lee, into the “desktop documentary,” where Wikipedia research, shooting locations identified on Google Maps, and YouTube footage are integrated into a contemporary form of production studies of which TRANSFORMERS: THE PREMAKE (Kevin B. Lee, 2014) is prototypical (Lee 2017). More recently, Chloé Galibert-Laîné’s complex desktop films WATCHING THE PAIN OF OTHERS (2018) and FORENSICKNESS (2020) have garnered her recognition at film festivals and in the video essay scene.

3.4 Convert

Unlike contemporary, quantitatively oriented analytic methods, most video essays operate on this side of the interface and within the logic of images rather than on the levels of data and algorithms. However, there are modes of “videographic film scholarship” that go beyond image content and react to the fact that, today, we almost always encounter images as epiphenomena of algorithms and data. Kevin L. Ferguson, for example, has developed the idea of a “volumetric cinema” (VOLUMETRIC CINEMA [Kevin L. Ferguson, 2015]). Starting from the observation that central metaphors and concepts of film theory – frames, windows, mirrors – remain two-dimensional, he speculates about the possibilities of placing spatial depth within the image and, above all, the aspect of temporality. “Imagining the film arranged not as a succession of frames on a strip, but stacked up in a cube, I want to watch film sideways, and see what comes of it,” Ferguson describes his approach (Fig. 4). He refers explicitly to Lev Manovich’s “cultural analytics,” Michael Kipp’s ANVIL software, Barry Salt and Yuri Tsivian’s “CineMetrics,” and Frederic Brodbeck’s “movie fingerprints,” which diagrammatically compress color and motion dynamics in film shots into a single image. Ferguson uses freeware, primarily ImageJ, which is typically used in medical science (radiology, tomography). This produces a new approach that is at once derived from and connected to dreams and visions from throughout film history of a spatial, multidimensional image (the holographs in STAR WARS [George Lucas, USA 1977], MINORITY REPORT [Steven Spielberg, USA 2002], and BLADE RUNNER [Ridley Scott, USA/HK/UK 1982]). It remains open for debate which new questions these forms of representation enable and to which analytical needs they respond.

Fig. 4: Still from VOLUMETRIC CINEMA (Kevin L. Ferguson, 2015), min. 18.
Fig. 4: Still from VOLUMETRIC CINEMA (Kevin L. Ferguson, 2015), min. 18.

3.5 Combine

It goes without saying that within the genre – if one even wants to view the video essay as a genre – every conceivable combination of these basic operations (and other, different approaches) is possible and occurs. Interconnected motifs can be traced through film history via split screen, i.e., the topic of “childhood” in Catherine Grant’s INTERPLAY (2015), and a supercut-style montage of a specific close-up can be linked to historical derivations and a look at a filmmaker’s development as in Kevin B. Lee’s THE SPIELBERG FACE (2011).
Furthermore, established film scholars now use the format to analyze and clarify specific film approaches. David Bordwell’s CONSTRUCTIVE EDITING IN ROBERT BRESSON'S PICKPOCKET (2012), for example, contrasts Bresson’s editing with the more conventional methods of the American studio system, doing so using schematic representations such as explanations of eyeline matches. Last but not least, reflections on the format itself have been made both inside and outside the video essay format, i.e., WHAT MAKES A VIDEO ESSAY GREAT? (Kevin B. Lee, 2014) and Conor Bateman’s article “The Video Essay as Art: 11 Ways of Making a Video Essay” (Bateman 2016). Since 2018, this canonization has also led to the annual poll of “Best Video Essays,” to which the journal Sight and Sound invites actors in the field to contribute.

4. A Pre-History of Videographic Film Studies 

Video essays are in no way, as some assume, a “relatively recent endeavour” (Martin/Álvarez Lopez 2017). Among various precedents, an analytic, essayistic examination of film in audiovisual media has taken place in other institutional and discursive contexts for quite some time. Primary forerunners of the essay film tradition include prominent representatives such as Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker on the one hand and the experimental, “found footage” film movement on the other. Almost equally important, however, are the impulses from influential film educators outside of cinema, primarily in Europe.

Television plays a central role here. In different countries, it has been offered various possibilities for seriously examining films and film history with a close attention to the material.(6) From 1970 onwards, the film producers at the Cologne-based television station Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) increasingly commissioned “film-related programs” from filmmakers and critics such as Enno Patalas, Frieda Grafe, Rainer Gansera, and Hartmut Bitomsky (Pantenburg 2019). On the other hand, an intimate connection between cinephilia, critical thinking about film, and educational policy initiatives could already be observed in 1960s France, leading directors such as Eric Rohmer and Jean Eustache to film contributions for school television networks and film critics such as Jean Douchet to conceive of analytic programs for schools and universities. A series such as Douchet’s IMAGE PAR IMAGE (FR 1987–1989), which devoted 45 minutes to films such as CITIZEN KANE (Orson Welles, USA 1941), BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN [BRONENOSETS POTEMKIN] (Sergei Eisenstein, RS 1925), M [M – EINE STADT SUCHT EINEN MÖRDER] (Fritz Lang, GER 1931), and LA RÈGLE DU JEU, already made use of approaches such as split screen, the schematization of camera movements, and the spatialization of temporal sequences (Fig. 5).

(6) Cf. in Great Britain, the work of Noël Burch who, aside from contributions to CINÉASTES DE NOTRE TEMPS, produced illuminating analyses of early cinema for Channel 4, including WHAT DO THOSE OLD FILMS MEAN? (UK, 1985) and CORRECTION, PLEASE OR HOW WE GOT INTO PICTURES (UK, 1979). Also noteworthy in this context is Mamoud Hassan’s television program MOVIE MASTERCLASS (1988,1990), a style of analysis at a Steenbeck editing table that Hassan developed as director of the National Film & Television School. A website dedicated to the series and the filmmaker who died in July 2022 offers reviews and excerpts from the series: 

Fig. 5: Still from IMAGE PAR IMAGE: LA RÈGLE DU JEU (Pierre Oscar Levy / Jean Douchet, FR 1987), min. 33.
Fig. 5: Still from IMAGE PAR IMAGE: LA RÈGLE DU JEU (Pierre Oscar Levy / Jean Douchet, FR 1987), min. 33.

5. Affinities

Are there topics and subjects that can be appropriately analyzed only today within the conditions of the video essay and using videographic methods and approaches? Do there exist questions or entire fields that must remain inaccessible to written analyses that are, at best, illustrated by screenshots? The fact that Raymond Bellour mentions FORTY GUNS and LE PLAISIR in the above-quoted essay is suggestive. For Fuller and Ophüls, movement, particularly camera movement, is a central element of how they express themselves. The absence of and inability to trace the filmic text represents an especially striking deficit here and may explain why, for example, analyses and theorizing about camera movement is significantly underrepresented historically in comparison to editing (Pantenburg 2016). In this regard, Tag Gallagher, one of the most productive video essayists of the DVD era, pointed out a few years ago that filmmakers such as Ophüls and Rossellini, whose aesthetics are based on different kinds of movement, can hardly be dealt with appropriately in the medium of books: 

Frame enlargements can show a lot of Ford’s art – composition, camera angles rhyming from one shot to the next, lighting – but almost nothing of Rossellini’s art, because Rossellini turns everything into motion. All the feelings, the motivations, the characters’ sense of self, even morality and philosophy are turned into motion. So I published a thousand pages about Rossellini, but I really couldn’t deal with his cinema, until I made my video about his Francesco Guillare di Dio. (Gallagher 2009)

From videographic analyses of P.T. Anderson’s steadycam shots (STEADICAM PROGRESS – THE CAREER OF PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON IN FIVE SHOTS, Kevin B. Lee 2012) or horizontal pans in Werner Herzog’s FATA MORGANA (GER 1971) (MOTION PANORAMA STILL LANDSCAPE: VARIATION ON FATA MORGANA BY WERNER HERZOG, Gametxo, 2013), it is possible to extrapolate how the synchronicity between showing and telling depicted by video essays makes the operation of camera movement accessible in new and previously unforeseen ways. The same may be true of phenomena such as duration and rhythm, which are equally difficult to illustrate through modes such as speech and still images.

6. The Limits of Videographic Practices

“Numerous cinematic works cannot be quoted even in video essays, if only for the simple reason that they are unavailable either online or on DVD” (Lavik 2012). What Erlend Lavik noted in 2012 continues to be the case despite ongoing digitization. Only a fraction of film history is available digitally and therefore accessible to the methods of videographic film studies. Even the pre-history of this field of research itself, which, as noted, primarily took place on television and in educational contexts, remains largely invisible; productions by Enno Patalas or Hartmut Bitomsky, Jean Douchet or Alain Bergala are for the most part available in television archives or at best on VHS and still waiting to be studied systematically and released.

Furthermore, it is important not to forget that in most cases the transfer of works from film history onto digital formats implies narrowing the focus on visual content (iconography, style, composition). The materiality of analog film material, with its historical traces such as print damage and the experiential mode of cinema viewing cannot be adequately represented in online-based video essays (Pantenburg/Schlüter 2015). But even in terms of content, video essays tend to adopt conservative analytic practices. What stands out especially, is the degree to which many of these works adopt a classical, style-oriented auteurism (TERENCE MALICK: THE ART OF VOICEOVER, Kevin B. Lee 2014; WALKERS: A MOTIF IN PHILIPPE GARREL, Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López 2017, etc.).

7. Conclusion

The heterogenous field of videographic film studies draws together the most varied traditions in the digital mode: cinephile currents, critical film practices, film education initiatives. Most of these approaches and methods have their origins in para-academic spaces, but in the last decade and increasingly since 2012, they have begun to be integrated into the structures and developments of university film and media scholarship. Signs of this include regular educational events such as the two-week “Workshops on Videographic Film Criticism” led by Jason Mittell and Christian Keathley, which have taken place at Middlebury College in Vermont since 2015, and the research project initiated and led by Johannes Binotto, “VideoEssay: Futures of Audiovisual Research and Teaching” (since January 2021 at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts).

In the transitional zone between practice and theory and on the margins of curricula, professional associations, and academic journals, video essays have established themselves as an important addition to previous critical, analytic, and theoretical forms of expression. In the medium of moving images, this has also renewed the interest in the kind of textual analysis and close reading that boomed in the 1970s. Since many of its protagonists belong to generation of digital natives that feels very comfortable with software and dissemination through social media, this interest in the form is certainly also a sign for a generational shift within the discipline.

For now, the video essay is a rising phenomenon. It navigates between traditional notions of the image (with aesthetic qualities such as framing, mise-en-scène, etc.) and a comprehensive data aesthetics (or anaesthetics), whose contours and implications are only now beginning to become apparent.

Translated by Ted Fendt


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Video Essays


FIRST AND FINAL FRAMES.  Jacob T. Swinney, 2015.

FORENSICKNESS. Chloé Galibert-Laîné, 2020.

HANDS OF BRESSON. kogonada, 2014.

IMAGE PAR IMAGE: LA RÉGLE DU JEU. Pierre Oscar Levy / Jean Douchet, FR 1987.

INTERPLAY. Catherine Grant, 2015.


OZU // PASSAGEWAYS. kogonada, 2012.





THE SPIELBERG FACE Kevin B. Lee, 2011.

THE SUBSTANCE OF STYLE. Matt Zoller Seitz, 2009.


VARIATION ON THE SUNBEAM. Aitor Gametxo, 2011.


VOLUMETRIC CINEMA. Kevin L. Ferguson, 2015.

WALKERS: A MOTIF IN PHILIPPE GARREL. Adrian Martin / Cristina Álvarez López, 2017.

WATCHING THE PAIN OF OTHERS. Chloé Galibert-Laîné, 2018.

WES ANDERSON // CENTERED. kogonada, 2014.

WHAT IS NEO-REALISM? kogonada, 2013.




BLADE RUNNER. Ridley Scott, USA/HK/UK 1982.

CINÉASTES DE NOTRE TEMPS. André S. Labarthe / Janine Bazin, FR 1964–1972.

CITIZEN KANE. Orson Welles, USA 1941.


EXTERIOR NIGHT. Mark Rappaport, USA 1993.

FATA MORGANA. Werner Herzog, GER 1971.

FORTY GUNS. Sam Fuller, USA 1957.

HOMESTORIES. Matthias Müller, GER 1990.





LE PLAISIR. Max Ophüls, FR 1952.


MANUAL. Matthias Müller / Christoph Girardet, GER / GB 2002.

MINORITY REPORT. Steven Spielberg, USA 2002.

MOVIE MASTERCLASS. Mamoud Hassan, UK 1988,1990.

MY LIFE TO LIVE [VIVRE SA VIE]. Jean-Luc Godard, FR 1962.


PLAY. Matthias Müller / Christoph Girardet, GER 2003.

ROCK HUDSON’S HOME STORIES. Mark Rappaport, USA 1992. 

STAR WARS. George Lucas, USA 1977.





THE SUNBEAM. D.W. Griffith, USA 1909.

THE TRAVELER [MOSSAFER]. Abbas Kiarostami, IR 1974.