The rise of the YouTube video essay

Evan Puschak, host of The Nerdwriter

Evan Puschak, host of The Nerdwriter

To understand how J. Matthew Turner ended up creating a viral YouTube essay arguing that Daniel LaRusso, the young hero of the 1984 film The Karate Kid, was actually the villain of the movie, you first need to know the story behind the video he posted to YouTube a month before that one. For years, Turner, a video editor from New York, harbored a conviction that the movie Mortal Kombat was so similar in plot and themes to the Bruce Lee cult classic Enter the Dragon that they were virtually the same movie. “It was in the background of my head for a long, long time,” he told me recently. “And for whatever reason, I happened to think of it again last year and I suddenly saw how it should be done.” He had always envisioned a 15-minute video in which he would methodically build a case for his thesis, but he knew it would be difficult to keep viewers entertained for that long. “But now I realized that I should just show all the shots side by side and then try to explain the plot of both movies as one movie at the same time.”

The end result, a video that’s barely over a minute long, took Turner only a day to edit together. In it, he uses a split screen that simultaneously displays scenes from both movies while the narrator, Turner himself, briskly walks the viewer through the plot. The similarities, piled up in such rapid succession, are almost overwhelming, and it quickly dawns on you that, no matter how improbable, these movies, shot two decades apart, are exactly the same. He submitted the video to Reddit where it quickly amassed 3,000 upvotes. Within a week, the video had attracted over 100,000 views. “That blew my mind,” he recalled. “My immediate reaction was that I wanted to follow it up with something else. I was trying to think what else I should do, and that’s when I thought, ‘Hmm, I always thought Daniel was kind of asking for it, so maybe I should do something about that.’”

Daniel, of course, is the pugnacious teenager from The Karate Kid who forms a rivalry with a local bully named Johnny and, under the tutelage of his mentor Mr. Miyagi, eventually defeats that bully at a martial arts competition. But in Turner’s video, which he released a few weeks after his first video took off, Daniel is the bully and Johnny is the flawed hero. The argument is, of course, absurd, but Turner does such an adept job at piecing together his thesis that you finish the video doubting every assumption you’d previously made about a movie that had been a staple of your childhood.

Though the Mortal Kombat/Enter the Dragon essay was a veritable success, this new video was a viral blockbuster. Within hours it was posted across hundreds of news sites and it collected over 5 million views. Irate viewers, unaware that the video was tongue in cheek, flocked to the comment section to argue with its conclusions. “I thought it was pretty obvious that it was a joke,” Turner said. “Apparently it wasn’t.”

Turner didn’t fully realize it at the time, but by creating these videos he was contributing to an expanding genre that has become especially popular during the YouTube era: the video essay. Though the approach varies, video essays almost always feature a narrator who presents a thesis via a series of still images, animations, and video clips. Nearly all of them involve some sort of cultural criticism, and many of the most popular within the genre focus on film. Sometimes, as is the case with the “Honest Trailers” produced by a YouTube channel called Screen Junkies, this involves criticizing a single movie with the same approach that you might see in a text review in a newspaper or magazine.

But many of the best video essays go beyond mere reviews and take a much more academic approach to cinematic criticism. For example, consider a recent video published to the YouTube channel The Nerdwriter, which is helmed by a former MSNBC producer named Evan Puschak. Titled “The Evolution of Batman’s Gotham City,” it walks us through the various incarnations of Bruce Wayne’s metropolis, first introduced in Detective Comics and then later expanded upon in television series, cartoons, video games, and, of course, films. “When the Adam West show failed,” argues Puschak, “Batman writers brought a darker tone to the stories. They brought an extended continuity, and continuity meant that individual locations in Gotham gained importance and the city itself began to breathe as a character.” He then guides us through the gothic luridness of Tim Burton’s Gotham, the garish portrayal of the city in the horrible Batman and Robin, and then finally the hyperrealistic New York City depicted by Christopher Nolan. “A Gotham that resembles our own world,” says Puschak, “can be even more terrifying when it’s shown to be fragile in the face of a violent disregard for the established order.”

While this essay certainly would have worked in written form, Puschak’s use of still images and video adds an entirely new dimension to his argument that makes it much more arresting. It’s because of this more engaging format that video essays are much more popular than their textual counterparts. Of the dozens of videos produced by Puschak, on topics ranging from the emotional theory in Inside Out to what it means when people say Seinfeld is a show about “nothing,” three have amassed more than a million views and many others have at least a few hundred thousand. Though it’s impossible to know how well he’s monetizing the YouTube channel, he’s raised over $2,400 per video on Patreon, which, given that he produces about one video per week, means he’s pulling in north of $120,000 per year. Most newspaper film critics don’t make half that.

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The Nerdwriter isn’t the only YouTube channel focused on video essays to have achieved this level of popularity. Every Frame a Painting. Wisecrack. Screen Junkies. Red Letter Media. The School of Life. Each has amassed hundreds of thousands of subscribers and many millions of views.

Though the video essay’s popularity is a recent phenomenon made possible through the advent of YouTube, one can argue that the medium predates the internet. In a paper titled “Film criticism, film scholarship and the video essay,” Dr Andrew McWhirter, a lecturer of media and communications at the Glasgow School for Business and Society, says that the form fits within the larger genre of remix culture and harkens back to what the filmmaker Hans Richter coined as the “essay film” in 1940. “Remixed footage has been part of experimental cinema and contemporary art for a number of decades,” wrote McWhirter, pointing to several decades-old political mashup videos posted to a YouTube channel called politicalremix. A 1984 video titled “Death Valley Days: Secret Love,” for instance, uses a mixture of news footage and the Shangri-Las song “Leader Of The Pack” to reframe Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s relationship as a romantic one.

A 1984 political mashup video.

A 1984 political mashup video.

 

McWhirter also argues that the video essay’s antecedents can be traced to the audio commentaries from directors and actors that are commonly included as “extra” features on movie DVDs. The Criterion Collection pioneered this form of commentary with the 1984 laserdisc release of the original King Kong movie. Film critics and historians like Roger Ebert and Rudy Behlmer recorded audio commentaries for famous films, and indeed McWhirter notes that this tradition has carried over with some of today’s traditional critics, although many have yet to dip their toes into the medium. “Two major impediments to the continued growth of the video essay are the lack of appropriate skill sets … and the various legal complexities concerning the repurposing of intellectual property,” he wrote.

Of course, not all video essays are about film. The YouTube channel The School of Life began initially as a school in London that “taught classes which have a practical application of philosophical ideas,” said John Armstrong, a former philosophy professor living in Melbourne, Australia who now writes scripts for the organization’s YouTube channel. Though it was founded and still operates a brick and mortar school (it’s gone on to open campuses in a dozen cities spanning from Sydney to Istanbul), School of Life began to experiment with propagating its philosophical teachings online, first in the form of text-based essays published at a website called The Book of Life. “We accumulated a large number of essays that are relatively short and each tries to deal with a significant issue,” he said. “And then we began adapting some of those topics to a video format. The idea of presenting things visually has always been a big ambition. I remember years ago discussing with [School of Life founder Alain de Botton] the idea of making books with lots of images where the intellectual content and the images would play off each other very strongly so that it would be a visual experience as well as a reading one.”

Initial videos uploaded to the organization’s YouTube channel were merely recorded talks and lectures, similar to what you’d find in your average TED Talk video, but a video published in September 2014 was distinctly different. Titled “How to Save Love with Pessimism,” it uses a combination of animation and narration to argue there’s no such thing as a perfect mate and it’s only through a healthy dose of pessimism that we can accept someone’s flaws and settle on a significant other. Like most video essays, it could have easily been rendered in text form — all you would need to do is publish the narration as a standalone article — but doing so would subtract from the richness afforded by animation. It also likely wouldn’t have attracted over 150,000 views as a piece of text.

Since the publication of that initial video essay in 2014, The School of Life channel has steadily grown, with over 800,000 users now subscribing. Armstrong is responsible for writing each video’s script and then sends it off to a team of freelance filmmakers and animators to create the visuals. The channel now produces upwards of three new videos a week on topics ranging from the joy of sexting to what makes a country rich. Unlike many of the other video essayists I’ve mentioned in this piece that rely on already-existing footage from films and pop culture, The School of Life produces much of its visual imagery from scratch, either with animation or even paid actors.

For Armstrong, the video essay is merely an evolution of its textual counterpart, a way to breathe new life into a literary tradition that stretches back hundreds of years. “I think that we’re certainly bringing ambitions that were formed by the history of writing, by the history of the essay,” he said. “We see Youtube as offering a better artistic medium for what we’re trying to do. I certainly think it’s comparable to, say, the invention of the paperback in the middle of the 20th century, which changed people’s access to reading and changed the kind of writing that went on.”

For years, traditional newspapers have been laying off their film critics, and other forms of art criticism have become even more scarce, at least in mainstream publications. Yet combing through dozens of YouTube channels that specialize in the video essay, it seems apparent that pop culture criticism is thriving to a degree heretofore never seen. Millions of YouTube users, many of whom are Millennials, are subscribing and tuning in to an art form that was once relegated to film snobs and art enthusiasts. “The huge intellectual challenge is how to get the ideas you’re really interested in and think are important to really work in this new form,” said Armstrong. “And that’s the big opportunity and we feel very much like we’re at the beginning of exploring.”

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com