The power of the video essayist

When YouTube came to prominence in 2005, it was evident that the video-uploading website was going to influence culture in unpredictable ways. Now, 16 years later, its impact is impossible to deny. From launching the careers of many cultural icons, to raising awareness around social and political issues and propelling a DIY mentality, the service has fundamentally changed the way we consume culture. Today, 500 hours of video are uploaded to the platform every minute. That’s 720 thousand hours of new content every day! 

In lieu of such overwhelming statistics, a handful of video essayists have had an impact in shaping culture. Their work, which entails the intellectual and sometimes funny analysis of culturally relevant content, doesn’t seem tailor-fit for a generation with a short attention span. These videos tend to run long, usually ranging between 10 and 20 minutes (sometimes even longer). Yet, a worldwide increasing demand for transparency is fostering a general desire to understand how things work.

But first things first, what exactly is a video essay?

Well, it’s not very different from the traditional essay you had to write in school. The idea is to propose an argument, explain it, and ultimately express an overarching thesis. Where it differs is in presentation, as a video essay combines different forms of media such as video, audio, and text. The idea is to create a harmonious blend of all elements that, in a handful of minutes, convey a strong argument. If you want to indulge in a meta video essay about how to actually make a video essay, check out The Closer Look’s piece.

Video essayists always possess an unyielding passion for the subjects they dissect, attempting to offer a different perspective on a known subject, breaking down what works and what doesn’t and why. Unsurprisingly, most videos focus on the two main forces driving pop culture: film and TV. Some, like the ones made by Screen Junkies, are ironic and witty in nature, while others take a more academic, yet still digestible approach. Perhaps the most well-known name in that area is that of former MSNBC producer Evan Puschak, aka The Nerdwriter. Puschak’s channel (which has over 3 million subscribers) has delved into why Mr. Bean is a master of comedy and how David Fincher hijacks your attention but also dedicated videos to understanding Picasso and the dark online patterns that make your life so frustrating. Puschak’s hard work over time has yielded good monetary results too. As of today, he’s making over $2,500 per video released. While his productivity has gone down (to pursue projects we’re yet to be privy to), at one point Puschak was releasing one video every week, which meant he was making over $120,000 per year. Most film and TV critics make less than half that sum in the same period.

In fact, the visibility some video essayists gain from their work leads to life-changing opportunities. Kogonada is one of the most inspiring examples. After spending many years editing thoughtful and insightful videos on subjects like Italian Neorealism, the cinema of Ozu and Wes Anderson, as well as the use of sound in Darren Aronofsky’s films, he was given the opportunity to write and direct the critically acclaimed Columbus. And just this year, Kogonada premiered his second feature film, After Yang (starring Colin Farrell), at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, which was received very positively

In the same token, Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos, from the YouTube channel Every Frame a Painting, were a must-follow for a long time. Their videos captured the imagination of cinephiles and filmmakers alike, often generating a deeper meaning appreciation for cultural figures that deserve a spotlight. Like the legendary American animator Chuck Jones, who’s best known for his work with Warner Bros. Looney Tunes cartoons and Merrie Melodies shorts. Zhou and Taylor’s video garnered nearly 4 million views and their channel, despite now being inactive, still has almost 2 million subscribers. Ramos and Zhou have since produced video essays released as special features for both FilmStruck and the prestigious The Criterion Collection, and went on to have successful careers in children’s animation working in the Lego and Marvel universes. Another noteworthy example is Lessons from the Screenplay, a channel run by Michael Tucker. For the past four years, Tucker has been deconstructing films and TV shows from a narrative standpoint, gathering acclaim for his nuanced and in-depth views. The success has been such that even the all-powerful Netflix collaborated with him to deconstruct the opening of Marriage Story for the company’s sub-channel Netflix Film Club.

But video essay culture goes way beyond what is pop. In fact, some of the most informative, challenging, and transformative videos can be found in channels like The Big Think, The School of Life and, of course, TED. They dedicate their time and resources to better understand who we are as human beings, shedding light on our complexities, contradictions, and what makes us tick. Since these channels are not addressing pre-existing footage, they have to create their own. And their imagination knows no bounds. The School of Life, for example, is known for its striking visual animations, which help make their sometimes complex ideas much more digestible.

Ultimately, video essays prove that someone’s investment in essayistic content boils down to the idea of experience. Most video essays found on YouTube and Vimeo could easily be presented in text form, but would they draw 100,000 eyeballs the way a lot of video essays do? Would they go "viral" as easily? Would they hook you in and capture your senses in quite the same way? There’s a reason why print media isn’t investing as much money as it used to in traditional critics and thinkers. Even the prestigious The New Yorker started turning some of their print content into video. This isn’t just a trend anymore. It’s an undeniable way we like to converse with the culture we consume. As noted cultural critic Matt Zoler Seitz put it, “What we’re seeing on YouTube and other sites is the New Normal – the new way of thinking, communicating, interacting with the world.”

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