Developing a video essay

Video essays are a powerful form for exploring, analysing, and celebrating visual narratives, such as film and television. Whether dissecting the intricacies of a thought-provoking film or unraveling the layers of a binge-worthy TV series, video essays allow creators to blend critical analysis with the visuals that are such an integral part of these media forms. This article contains advice for creating a video essay, including: developing a thesis; brainstorming ideas; and writing your script. 

Developing a thesis

Before embarking on an essay, it’s essential to craft a clear thesis statement. This concise sentence outlines your main point succinctly. Here are some potential video essay topics related to the film M3gan:

  • M3gan follows the structure of a typical three act narrative. 
  • Given the fast-paced deployment of artificial intelligence, contemporary audiences read M3gan differently to those who watched it during its initial theatrical release. 
  • In M3gan, director Gerard Johnstone establishes Gemma (Allison Williams) through the use of camera, acting, editing, lighting and sound. 
  • In M3gan, director Gerard Johnstone represents the threat of technology through his characterisation of M3gan. 
  • The push for more women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), has a clear influence on representations of characters in M3gan. 
  • M3gan is a satire of Silicon Valley. 
  • In terms of genre, M3gan is a hybrid of both horror and comedy. 
  • In the climactic scene of M3gan, director Gerard Johnstone uses a range of media codes—including camera, acting, mise en scene, editing, lighting and sound—to engage the audience. 

Brainstorming ideas

Writing a video essay involves a meticulous examination of the film you are analysing. It’s crucial to closely observe scenes that relate to your main idea. Watching scenes without sound can effectively direct your attention to visual storytelling within the narrative. Conversely, observing scenes without vision highlights the critical role that sound plays in shaping the narrative.

Video essays are inherently visual. While watching scenes, consider taking screenshots or noting down time codes for significant moments you’d like to incorporate into your essay. These references will prove invaluable during the editing process.

Writing a script

While there is no preferred way of formatting a video essay, here are some elements to consider when writing your script:

  • Organisation. Much like a written essay, a video essay should begin with an introduction, make a series of logical points, and end with a compelling conclusion. 
  • Style. When you’re writing a video essay, keep the following in mind:
    • Clarity. Video essay scripts should employ clear and straightforward sentences, avoiding convoluted phrases. Complex sentences with multiple subclauses can be challenging for readers and may alienate your audience.
    • Simple sentences. Write simple, direct sentences with a single idea. Try to keep the number of words in a sentence down.
    • Be conversational. When you’re writing broadcast copy, imagine that you’re talking to a friend. Use contractions like don’t, won’t or can’t. Remember that the most engaging copy acknowledges that you’re talking directly to the audience. Avoid overly formal, stilted language or jargon.
    • Avoid alliteration, sibilance and difficult words. When you are writing broadcast copy, ensure that you read back over it aloud to identify stumbling blocks. Alliteration, a series of words beginning with the same letter or sound, is one example of something that is difficult to say. Sibilance, or successive ‘s’ sounds, also make copy difficult to read. Avoid words that are difficult to pronounce, especially if there are simpler alternatives.
    • Simple words. George Orwell once wrote, “Never use a long word when a short word will do.” This advice particularly applies to broadcast writing. Avoid language intended to obfuscate and inveigle.
    • Active voice. Every sentence has a subject. The subject of a sentence is the person or thing that does something. In an active sentence, the subject does something. In a passive sentence, the target of their action takes the position of the subject. The passive voice is awkward and unnecessarily wordy. Avoid it.
      • Active: John (subject) looked (verb) at the train (object).
      • Passive: The train (object) was looked (verb) at by John (subject).
    • Cut words. Cut unnecessary words from sentences whenever possible.
  • Words and visuals. An effective video essay seamlessly integrates voiceover and visuals to construct a compelling argument. A considered combination of spoken narration and visuals will enhance the overall impact of your video essay.
  • Point of view. Traditional academic writing on cinema typically favours a third-person perspective. However, video essays allow for a more casual approach, permitting the use of first person. For instance, you might say, “For me, the most impressive part of this scene is when…” When writing in the first person, ensure you support your discussion with relevant examples from the film, as you want to craft a coherent argument backed by concrete proof, not just express personal preferences.
  • Media terminology. In video essays, precise and appropriate use of media terminology is crucial. Accurately describe the film you are analyzing by employing relevant terms.

Sample scripts

There is no recommended way to format your video essay script. These sample scripts are one way of approaching the task. The script includes a table with two columns. The first column lists visual; the second column includes the voice over. The advantage of formatting the script like this means that you need to think about the frames, sequences and scenes that will help you develop your argument.

Editing your video essay in Adobe Premiere Pro

In addition to the step-by-step directions below, you can watch this crash course that I recorded for my students during class to get them started editing their video essays.

Downloading your film

In Australia, video recording services like Clickview allow students in schools to download and copy films for classroom purposes.

Getting started in Adobe Premiere Pro

Create a folder on your laptop which contains the video file, create a new Adobe Premiere Pro file in this folder. You will need to include all assets in here, including your voice over.

Creating a new sequence

Create a new sequence as shown below. 

Choose HD 1080p, then select ‘HD 1080p 25 fps’.

Dropping video into your sequence

Double click on the video file and open it in the source monitor. Find the beginning of the scene you want to use, press I to Mark In, find the end of the scene and press O to Mark Out. Drag the clip and drop it into your timeline. 

To drag in a clip without audio, drag the film strip and drop it into your timeline. 

If you want to drag in a clip with audio (assuming your voice over is on A1), you can change the track targeting as shown below. This means you audio will drop onto A2 automatically when you drop a clip into the sequence. 

The first time you drop in a clip, you will be asked if you want to change the sequence settings. Choose ‘Keep Existing Settings’.This will maintain the 1080p frame size of your sequence. 

Cutting the footage

With the audio locked, you’re free to cut up the video using Command (Mac)/Control (Windows) K to cut up the clip.

Creating freeze frames

To create a freeze frame, find a particular moment in your sequence and click the ‘Export frame’ button shown below. 

In the resulting dialogue box, choose Format: JPEG and ensure that you check ‘Import into project’.

When you drag this JPEG into your sequence, drop it right on your playhead to create a seamless freeze frame. Hold Command to perform an insert edit, which will push the clip forward. 

You can then select the Ripple Edit Tool shown below 

Blurring footage

If you want to have some abstraction in the background while you bring up a quote, I find it useful to add a Gaussian Blur to a clip. In Effects, choose Video Effects > Blur & Sharpen > Gaussian Blur. Drop this onto the clip that you would like to blur. 

In your timeline, choose right click on the FX button in your timeline, then choose ”Gaussian blur’ and ‘Blurriness’. 

Press P on your keyboard to select the Pen Tool. Clicking on the line that appears in your timeline allows you to create keyframes that will animate the blurriness. You can then drop titles or other material over the top of this. 

Alternatively, you can create keyframes in the Effects Control pane as shown in the video above.

Photo by Pixabay.