I began learning about and making video essays in June 2023, a few months after I started learning how to play the harp. It strikes me that both endeavors require a certain amount of learning and un-learning: learning a new physicality and new technical skills, and un-learning assumptions about what makes a good finished product.
Both the creation of video essays and playing the harp require a literal re-positioning of the body. To play the harp, you have to place the instrument between your legs and pull it back against your chest. The sound vibrates through your body. The music sounds dramatically different depending on how you pluck the strings—do it right and you’ll get a rich, full-bodied tone, do it cautiously and it just sounds flat.
Video essays, too, require a different kind of physicality and a more intimate engagement with a text than I have ever felt when crafting a written essay. Written essays about film and TV also frequently grow out of textual analysis, but creating a video essay requires repeated acts of close reading that engage the body: specifically, using one hand to move a mouse second by second and frame by frame through an audio-visual text. Where previously much of this might have happened in my head, now it happens through repeated physical movements, moving and dragging my cursor over pieces of a project, breaking a text down and pasting it back together again in a new way. Here too the physicality is different—I sit for long hours in front of a screen, my right hand very carefully manipulating the mouse, my vision limited to the mass of colorful objects spread out over the Adobe Premiere Pro editing space.
The TV Dictionary project was a good way to test how comfortable I was with these new technical skills and physical changes. As others have pointed out, the very specific parameters of the project—TV show + word—allow for plenty of creativity, but they also helped me to avoid the frequent creative pitfall of just not being able to narrow down a focus.
I chose the French series Les Revenants (« The Returned ») for my TV Dictionary for a couple of reasons: 1) it was a show whose images, even more than its story, had stuck with me years later, and 2) it was short (only two seasons and a total of sixteen episodes). Given that my research usually focuses on Japanese cinema (and very occasionally Japanese TV), I also felt like Les Revenants was a show that wouldn’t be weighed down with academic baggage. I could “muck about” with its pieces without listening to the analytical voice in my brain that was already forming a written argument.
Like harp, video essays merge both analytical and creative skills. With harp, I struggle with the technical aspects—I do better when I can just “feel” the music, but this means that my rhythm is frequently off and my fingers lose their correct positioning. With video essays, I was initially intimidated by the software. Adobe Premiere Pro seemed to be an endless sequence of clicks and drags, and I wondered if I would ever feel comfortable using it (I have often avoided engaging with new forms of classroom and research technology simply because technical processes that seem simple for others confound me). In the end, though, I became comfortable with Premiere very quickly. The most difficult aspect of making video essays turned out to be just surrendering to the process and letting ideas emerge organically from playing around with images. It felt like a jarring reversal—I was used to first grounding myself in secondary sources and literature reviews to produce a meaningful research question, and then coming to the primary text for answers to that question. With video essays, everything begins with a primary text.
The TV Dictionary also taught me that video essays are about distillation—frequently taking a very large and sprawling text (in this case, TV series that sometimes include dozens or even hundreds of hours of content) and narrowing it into a few minutes of meaning. The result is, of course, not the be-all and end-all of that text—just one possible entry point among hundreds. During the creation process many other choices will present themselves, and ultimately creating a meaningful finished product can come down to ignoring the frequent urge to start all over with an entirely different focus (or, at least, to only start over once or twice).
As much as it’s about distillation, the video essay is also about building bridges—between words and images, academic research and creative output, and different modes of representing meaning. The harp allows me to “feel” my way through a piece while still trying to remember the technical skills needed to play it well. Creating video essays like those created for the TV Dictionary also requires bridging “feeling” and technical skill, with the best results, I think, finding a good balance between the two.
Lindsay Nelson is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and Economics at Meiji University, where she teaches classes on Japanese cinema and popular culture. Her research focuses on contemporary Japanese cinema, particularly Japanese horror films. Her work has been published in Japanese Studies, East Asian Journal of Popular Culture, and Journal of Japanese and Korean Cinema. Her book, Circulating Fear: Japanese Horror, Fractured Realities, and New Media, is available from Lexington Books.
- Website: lindsaynelson.jp
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