Video Essays #1 | What are Video Essays, and who makes them?

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Over the last few years, a new genre of video has gathered momentum on YouTube; the analytic video essay. Today’s question is; what characterises a video essay?

The phrase “video essay” has two main meanings; the concept currently used by YouTubers (and the internet in general), and the original meaning used in filmmaking communities. For filmmakers, a video essay is a compilation of clips from a film which demonstrates a point about that film. In this definition, the video takes priority- many video essays make their point solely through the chosen clips.

However,  other communities use the phrase differently. Reddit’s dedicated subreddit /r/videoessays describes them as:

“a written essay that is read aloud over video accompaniment which seeks to analyze some media text (tv, film, music, art, speech, etc)”.

Another definition I’ve read is: “video essays almost always feature a narrator who presents a thesis via a series of still images, animations, and video clips.” I’ll be using the term video essay to mean this second concept, because it gives priority to the spoken essay rather than to the video accompaniment.

Video essays can be distinguished from vlogs or general discussions of a subject, because they have a goal. Video essays are based on a scripted thesis, with a defined introduction, body, and conclusion. Unlike a general discussion, video essays also have persuasive intent: the presenter may not want you to agree with them, but they will aim for you to appreciate their point and their arguments.

One channel which pushed video essays into the limelight is Every Frame A Painting, who are often cited as an inspiration by video essayists. Every Frame A Painting ran from 2014-2016, ending with 28 episodes which broke down various aspects of film and animation. Films are still a popular topic for video essays, as are TV shows, comics and/or anime. Some examples include Filmmaker IQ (film), NerdSync (Comics), and Nerdwriter1 (Film/Animation).

My introduction to video essays was instead through video game analysis channels; many of these channels work in a video essay format even if they don’t use that descriptor. Gaming analysis videos can take a few different approaches. Some are topical; they analyse why a game performed badly on release, using well-researched media sources, or they look at how one aspect of game design changes over a series of games. Some are esoteric and philosophical; they explain how a game could represent a degree-level philosophical concept, using full academic sources. Others are meta-physical; they question aspects of gaming itself, how games are defined and categorised, and how games and their fans affect each other.

Two channels which create some topical videos are The Geek Critique and Errant Signal, while esoteric videos are well-represented by  Writing on Games and Danocles 64. Comprehensive meta- videos from a design standpoint can be found at Game Makers Toolkit, and TotalBiscuit provides some from a reviewer’s perspective.

Video essays based on academic subjects are a little more sparse, but still available. Literature videos are led by Wisecrack, while generalists can rely on CGP Grey, who covers a mixture of topics using history, politics, geography and data.

However, one area is missing- sciences. Although there are plenty of good science videos on YouTube, they usually fall into two categories. “Explainer videos” are factual explanations of an invention or topic, or answers to a specific question. We the Curious is an example of live-action explainers, the most common type, while other channels such as ASAP Science use whiteboards to visualise their explanations. (Kursegazt is an oddity here, as their videos are fully animated). Alternately, science content can be in lecture form, such as recorded university lectures or talks from a scientist to a live audience.

However, scienctific topics or discussions in video-essay form seems rare. I’m a science fan and a video essay fan, so to me that gap was notable. My logical next step was to try and figure out why that gap exists. So, in the next post, I’ll look at a few ideas about why science-centered video essays are so uncommon.

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