For the past week or so, I’ve been working my way through the first week of exercises featured in Middlebury College’s digital humanities workshop, Scholarship in Sound & Image, as described by television scholar Jason Mittell on his blog. I had wanted to apply to participate in the workshop, which ran for two weeks this past June, but conferences in Ireland and the UK made that impossible; however, there was enough to be going on in the blog post that I felt reasonably confident giving it a go on my own.
The exercises, as described by Mittell, were designed with two guiding principles in mind: one, that hands-on practice was the way to learn (about) video criticism, and two, that formal constraints would foster ways of thinking about the source material that might not be as apparent through a content/argument-driven approach. Participants in the workshop chose a film or series to work with; for the purposes of (most of) my attempts, I worked with the three seasons of the TV series Hannibal.
I should mention that 4 of 5 exercises used Hannibal; exercise #2, which involved voiceover and video, I fumbled partly through letting my fear of hearing my own voice prevail, and partly through allowing argument to drive the piece, rather than the formal constraints. The result, which is up on Vimeo, is one I’m not happy with – it’s basically a video PowerPoint presentation – and I’m hoping to revisit it soon with Hannibal as well (for the fumbled one, I somewhat inexplicably used the film The Teahouse of the August Moon).
Which is by way of affirming that, in fact, the formal constraints really did make a difference; when I went with argument and essentially tossed the formal constraints, I found myself falling back on bad habits that really sucked the life from the video. Who knew.
So, what I have is four video studies, all of which I’m actually pretty happy with.
Exercise #1: PechaKucha
As outlined by Mittell, this first exercise involved assembling “10 video clips of precisely 6 seconds each, overlaying a continuous 1 minute audio segment, all from the same film (or series)” as a means of familiarizing oneself with video editing software. For mine, I used ten clips from Hannibal which – at first glance – seem to be scene transitions (those cutaways – often to a place, as a means of reorienting the viewer – that connect otherwise unconnected scenes together). In fact, with the exception of the first and last clips, all of these are actually little moments of visual (and temporal) excess within a given scene – something Hannibal does throughout that I’m especially fascinated with (although right now I couldn’t tell you exactly why, except that they don’t need to be there, and I’m always interested when something wanders off the path of narrative economy). I wanted to capture some of the otherworldly, nightmarish feel of Hannibal – not horror, per se, but a kind of strangeness that permeates the show – and so I chose an bit of Brian Reitzell’s often-atonal score for the series to go with the images.
Exercise #3: Trailer
This exercise involved creating a trailer – but not a “narrative preview” – of the visual text, with the stipulation that they “include the use of exactly three intertitles of no more than 5 words each, the use of at least three transitions beyond a straight cut, and an additional parameter assigned from a list of four.” As I didn’t have access to that list, I didn’t really sweat the last one (although you could argue that there’s one there regardless – using only Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter throughout – although that’s hardly difficult with this show, and particularly when I’m already coming at it from a pretty strongly shippy perspective). I forgot about the ‘no more than five words’ part when I went to make it, and strictly speaking I have five intertitles (there are three if you count the text transition used for them, but in practice there are five). I had intended to use an audio clip of Will talking about the copycat killer against a backdrop of a clock ticking – the sound that you hear throughout much of the season 2 finale, “Mizumono” – but when I realized that it might be interesting to time my cuts to the ticking, the voiceover was abandoned.
Exercise #4: Multiscreen Composition
To this point, the previous two exercises (we’re not counting #2 – the fumble) were mainly useful to me in forcing me to step outside of one kind of critical argumentation and think of the text more… thematically? Through the three fanvids I’d made prior to this, I was reasonably comfortable with Final Cut Pro X, and so neither of these had presented much of a technical challenge. But this exercise did. In addition to asking creators to include multiscreen composition, the idea here was that the video would “serve as a response to at least one other exercise created within the workshop, and should include material from both our source text and the collection of videographic exercises created in the previous three days. Each participant needed to impose an additional parameter upon her/himself.” As I didn’t have access to anyone else’s work, I altered this a bit: I included clips from both Hannibal and outside film texts. Specifically, Hannibal is nothing if not a wholly fannish homage to the work of certain filmmakers (Kubrick, De Palma, and Cronenberg in particular), so I contrasted original and Hannibal homage in a short video, against the backdrop of Will Graham talking about the copycat killer (aka the Chesapeake Ripper, aka Hannibal Lecter) and his own, unique form of homage.
Exercise #5: Videographic Epigraph
This exercise comes closest in form to our general understanding of video essays (although there are a multitude of ways of thinking about them). Drawing on the work of Catherine Grant, this exercise involved “noticeably altering the video, manipulating or replacing the soundtrack, and featuring a quotation from a work of criticism or theory via onscreen text.” Rather than using quotation from criticism or theory, however, I chose to use text from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre as a means of inviting the viewer to think about Hannibal in terms of the gothic/gothic romance. Rather than a prescriptive argument, this was intended more as a heuristic for the exploration of Hannibal through this alternative generic lens. Whether it’s successful or not is probably subjective; I like it, but since it’s a lens I’m especially fond of, I would. The alterations aren’t particularly noticeable, since this whole scene plays out very slowly, but there are several places where I slowed down the clip (mainly so the text could remain up long enough to be read). I also lightened the scenes (yes, this is the lightened version. You seriously have to watch Hannibal in the dark in order to make out anything at all). The music is from the wedding/revelation scene in the 2011 film, Jane Eyre.
I’m grateful to Mittell for posting about some of the activities that took place during the workshop and making it possible for non-participants like me to at least get a general sense of where to start in videographic criticism. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, but as my fumbled exercise #2 illustrates, my mindset has been pretty firmly expository – in a very PowerPoint way – for some time. Working through these exercises enabled me to start thinking about how to ‘talk’ about media differently – to work through the medium to explore it, rather than simply talking about it. In general, I think these are more successful than not; for my money, the fourth exercise is probably the most interesting, since it implicitly invites the viewer to see a connection between the obsessive fannishness* of the cinephile-showrunner and the copycat killer’s own brand of obsessive homage. I like the third one best, since it indulges my love of timing cuts to the beat. I’ve been tweaking them in the days since I made them – one thing I love about Vimeo is that you can replace a video with another version without having to take the whole thing down and start over – so they’re clearly not perfect or completely to my satisfaction, but overall… yeah.
Whether I can parlay all of this into a longer piece of video criticism/commentary is anyone’s guess, but I’m running ideas in the back of my mind.
*no judgement here; I’m all about obsessive fannishness – see also: series of videographic exercises all based on Hannibal