Emerging art form 'worth a thousand words'

Feb 1, 2016

A picture is worth a thousand words.

We’ve all heard that adage, right? Now, many writers are starting to realize the value of images and have begun incorporating them into their work. It's spawned a new form of creative writing, called the video essay. 

Kevin B. Lee is one of those writers. Before 2007, Lee described himself as a “dime-a-dozen” blogger writing about film. But then in 2007, he began producing video essays in which he would narrate his film critiques while showing clips of movies.

"I thought, 'Hey why don’t I just put some clips up to illustrate what I’m talking about,'" Lee explains. "YouTube was just coming into its own and so I had a platform to put videos up."

Now, Lee is the chief video essayist for the film site Fandor. He says he wouldn’t be there if he hadn’t begun making video essays. 

“It doesn't take much to just write a blog," Lee admits. "But when you have something new and distinctive that sets you apart from what other people are doing, yeah it definitely got the attention of other film critics." 

"2015, I guess is when this became enjoyable to people." Kevin B. Lee

Kevin B. Lee keeps tabs on all sorts of video essays about film and at the end of the year highlights some of the better work he's seen that year. But in 2015, he says that task was impossible— at least for one person.

There were just too many video essays.

At the end of last year, Lee wrote, that “the video essay experienced its supernova moment.” 

“2015, I guess is when this became enjoyable to people," says Lee. "Not just to watch but to make."


The worst poem ever put to celluloid

John Bresland is a writer and filmmaker who lectures at Northwestern University. 

He taught a master class about video essays at Interlochen Arts Academy last month. As an example, he's used an old NFL film called Autumn Wind

Even though Bresland calls it "the worst poem committed to celluloid," he says it’s easy to get sucked into the imagery of football players being knocked around to music.

And that’s precisely the point he wants to make.

“Media elements can change the mood of the audience," Bresland explains. "And when you change the mood of the audience, you change the way they think."

Bresland says those mood changers exist in writing too, but they operate differently. He says the mood changers in media are much more visceral, and are conveyed by physical space— by air pounding against eardrums and by things seen on the screen.

John Bresland’s first exposure to a video essay came when he was least expecting it— in the middle of watching the 1999 film American Beauty

There’s a scene in that film where a young man describes his recorded video footage of a plastic bag whirling in the wind. 

"It was the film’s best moment by far,” says Bresland.

It was that sort of lyrical poem that Bresland saw within a Hollywood narrative that got him really excited. 

Around that same time, he decided to make his own video essay. He was living in Paris then, and the video shows what it’s like to jog the empty Parisian streets in the early morning. The video essay then contrasts those images with footage of bustling streets during the day. 

The video footage is shaky, and a bit grainy. Bresland was surprised when the online journal Blackbird published it.


Just a bit skeptical

Jenna Zucker is a writing student at Interlochen Arts Academy. Before this master class, she was not at all familiar with the video essay. Going into the class, she says she was extremely skeptical. Writers write, they don't make videos. That was her mindset until John Bresland spoke to the group.

"Media elements can change the mood of the audience. And when you change the mood of the audience, you change the way they think." John Bresland

“I think he kind of convinced us that, ‘Yeah that's what writers do, but writers now are doing more," Zucker explains.

People are more connected to their screens today. As a writer, Zucker says tapping into sound and images make it more likely that people will listen to what she has to write.

John Bresland says writing for video essays is quite different than writing for the page. The language has to be straightforward and simple.

He still values reading dense prose on the page at times, but Bresland doesn’t necessarily mind that more conversational trend. He once had a professor tell him that he wouldn’t write anything in prose, that he wouldn’t say in a bar.