The University of Saskatchewan may not have a film program, but aspiring filmmakers and critics in the student body can learn a lot from an unlikely source — YouTube.
The video essay is a sub-genre of YouTube video that combines audio, video, writing and narration to progress an argument about media or pop culture. The genre is particularly well-suited to film since the proposed argument is supported by the visuals that compose the backdrop of the video.
Video essays often face criticism for weak production and the overuse of genre clichés. Poor audio recording, deadpan narration, low-fidelity video and corny chill-hop music — lifted straight from “hip-hop beats for study and chill” compilations — plague the medium.
A few strategic YouTube searches led me to content that I couldn’t imagine anyone willfully consuming, with videos with titles like “The Secret Genius of Jake Paul — A Video Essay” and “Rick and Morty — Finding Meaning in Life.” Despite the abundance of low-quality pseudo-philosophical videos, there’s also a wealth of informative content available in video-essay format.
One of the best creators in the video-essay sphere is Lewis Bond, a Toronto-based YouTuber who runs Channel Criswell. Bond’s videos are polished, beautifully written and edited, and further arguments about film that are decidedly unique in their observations. Bond’s videos tend to focus on great filmmakers and often highlight interesting critiques of different directors.
Channel Criswell includes director-based video essays regarding the work of Denis Villeneuve, David Lynch, Andrei Tarkovsky and others. The channel also features the highly educational In Storytelling series, which covers the basic building blocks of cinema including use of colour, editing and composition in filmmaking.
The In Storytelling collection provides a great crash course in the basics of film, and many films by the directors featured in these video essays are freely available on Kanopy, a streaming service provided to U of S students that only requires a valid NSID for login.
Other recommended videos on this channel include a concise and entertaining overview of the French New Wave movement, an examination of existentialist themes in the seminal anime series Cowboy Bebop and a nearly feature-length, scene-by-scene analysis of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.
Another channel worth checking out is Every Frame a Painting, which focuses more on the technical aspects of filmmaking and uses more contemporary pop-culture examples.
I highly recommend watching “Edgar Wright — How to Do Visual Comedy.” This video analyzes the editing methods of the British cult auteur behind Baby Driver and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and compares them to the steadycam improv style of American comedy films. It’ll make you rethink the visual possibilities of comedy and ask more of what’s currently on offer.
Another interesting video- essay channel is Luiza Liz’s Art Regard, which focuses almost exclusively on the critical analysis of high-minded arthouse directors. Art Regard’s video essays include examinations of Ingmar Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock and David Cronenberg.
As one of the few women working in the video-essay format, Liz has also started a video series called Women in Film, which looks at the basic components of film from a gendered perspective.
At its best, the video-essay format functions as art unto itself. Video essays work as tributes to directors by distilling the essence of their achievements into a few short minutes of stunning sight and sound. They also offer a basic crash course in film literacy and criticism without viewers having to set foot in a lecture hall.
Video essays can be a great gateway into the world of film, or if you’re already an experienced film buff, they can help you become a more attentive and analytical viewer.
Cole Chretien / Culture Editor
Graphic: Jaymie Stachyruk