The Audiovisual Research Essay as an Alternative to Text-Based Scholarship

Curator's Note



The Audiovisual Research Essay as an Alternative to Text-Based Scholarship

If there is something more desperate than the recent flood of articles about the so-called ‘crisis’ and ‘decline’ of the humanities, then it is the humanities subjects’ defensive response to such a challenge, (further) theorising this situation rather than offering substantial alternatives to their own changing context and conditions. The crisis, if there is one, is not directly related to contemporary art and culture, but it may be one confronting the possibilities for expressive form within our academic disciplines. The humanities, today, are struggling to communicate their otherwise intact values in a changing environment in which there is a much greater worth placed on knowledge distribution. Excessive theoretical treatments and their text-bound accompaniments lose merit in an era of greater cultural productivity and more efficient communications, one in which students and scholars are increasingly becoming creative entrepreneurs, building their reputations through new and more publicly visible forms and platforms. The emergence of affordable information technologies, with their capacity for online self-expression and dissemination, allow for, indeed, actively encourage this new creativity, potentially resulting in more progressive and enduring forms of knowledge production and articulation.

Among many of the emerging possibilities, the creative exploration of videographic practice not only supports the self-expression and visibility of humanities students, but, through the inevitable reliance of this practice on the ‘multimedia principle’ (according to Richard Mayer’s insight, “people learn better from words and pictures than from words alone” [15]) and a ‘learning by doing’ approach (Schank et al 1999), such an exploration might also be capable of deepening theoretical reflections on representation, medium-specificity and contemporary art and culture more generally. In smoothing out the divide between vertical and horizontal knowledge-dissemination, that is, by removing the hierarchy between educators and learners, videographic practice transforms the customary learning curve from knowledge-reproduction to active production. Through its multimedia affordances, audiovisual work could evolve to become a novel scholarly technique that might complement the longstanding tradition of the written paper.

However, videographic work has the opportunity to become a highly effective and powerful form of scholarly output only if it maintains and safeguards the established principles and criteria of value of text-based academic work. These are clearly defined in many standard guides to academic writing (for example, Kirszner and Mandell 2008), as well as in ones specifically about writing about cinema (see, among others, Bordwell 2004, Corrigan 2004, Gocsik, Barsam and Monahan 2013). A challenging (and inspiring) task, both for the producer and for the teacher of videographic works, is to transfer these well-defined but text-focused criteria to the new, audiovisual scholarly medium. This perplexing challenge of discrepancies between media has a long history, at least in Film Studies. Raymond Bellour’s 1975 article, ‘The Unattainable Text’, marks a pivotal moment within the theory of film analysis by reflecting on the then irresolvable medium divide. “[T]he text of the film is unattainable because it is an unquotable text” – Bellour (20) famously concludes, struggling with the gap between the audiovisual medium studied and his textual means of analysis. What once was unattainable, today becomes a feasible practice: in his 2012 contemplation of the video essay’s potential to contribute to ‘the future of academic film and television criticism’ Erlend Lavik states that “[f]or the first time, there is material equivalence between film and film criticism, as both exist – or can be made to exist – simply as media files.” What once was a theoretical speculation has now become a much simpler, practical and technical question.

I see the audiovisual essay by Thomas van den Berg, that I have curated as part of my contribution to [in]Transition, as a worthy attempt not only at transferring text-based academic qualities to an audiovisual container, but also at addressing Bellour's frustration, and supporting Lavik’s ideal. During Spring term 2013 Thomas, a research masters student at the University of Groningen, produced this work as a final assignment for my course ‘Arts and Cultural Change’. The fairly extensive, more than half an hour long, essay consists of two main parts: after a brief introduction, the video offers a rapid walkthrough of the differences between ‘essay(istic) films’, ‘video essays’, and ‘essay videos’ [01’10” – 3’54”]; this is then followed by a thorough audiovisual research essay about the various techniques of unreliability present in Michael Walker’s puzzling film Chasing Sleep (2000) [3’55” – 35’53”].

While reflecting on the format, Thomas has a rather categorical, if not strict, take on the academic function of an essay video approach, which, according to him, “seeks to combine the referential character of the academic tradition, and exploit the traits of the audiovisual mode of presentation; employing text and image beyond the case study at hand” [3’38” – 3’49”]. In short, he seems to agree with Drew Morton in the view that “most published [visual essays] suffer from a perceived lack of academic integrity.” At this point, instead of trying to define the new format’s relationship to ‘academic integrity’, it is better to note that the present video, as an autonomous argumentative research essay, is only one among the possible demonstrations of the videographic form that can be of value to Film Studies. Let me remind you of the words of Catherine Grant who points out that “digital video is usefully seen not only as a promising communicative tool with different affordances than those of written text, but also as an important emergent cultural and phenomenological field for the creative practice of our work as film scholars.” What this also implies is that it is not evident whether producers of videos should be “aiming to ‘translate’ the (often unspoken) norms and traditions of written film studies into audiovisual versions, or (…) embrace from the outset the idea [of] creating ontologically new scholarly forms.” If one agrees with this reasonably inclusive approach, then setting any general evaluation and review criteria to videographic work becomes rather difficult. At least without prior effort on distinguishing sub-genres, communication purposes and addressed audiences within both poetic and argumentative works, it is impossible, and altogether useless, to peer-review videos (whose vast range includes annotated excerpts, mashups and supercuts, fan tributes, video lectures, thesis videos, research essays, etc.).

From this abundant diversity of audiovisual works, an autonomous argumentative research essay, the type that Thomas made as a course assignment, lends itself more easily to some pre-existing academic standards – recognised in traditional textual scholarship – and hence eases the task of evaluation. It is autonomous as it provides, just like a traditional academic paper, a self-contained standalone experience, and argumentative as it offers thesis-driven explicit reasoning (further examples of argumentative research essays, created for Janet Bergstrom’s UCLA seminar, are listed in the appendix of Matthias Stork’s interview with Bergstrom). David Bordwell’s concise but helpful writing manual recommends a simple rule, which could be applicable both to the production and to the assessment of this type of visual essay: “You can sum up the structure of an argumentative essay in the acronym TREE: Thesis supported by Reasons that rest upon Evidence and Examples” (19). While Bordwell follows his own scholarly method (and high standards) in terms of delivering immense knowledge through sound argumentation, his video essays – produced by Erik Gunneson – work more as video lectures presenting voice-overed film stills (Constructive Editing in Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket [2012]) or PowerPoint slides on auto-play (How Motion Pictures Became the Movies [2013]; CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See without Glasses! [2013]). In terms of organisation, research videos, as much as written texts, need to present an apt and original thesis, employ propositions, premises, verification, and conclusion. The Wadsworth Handbook, Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell’s go-to guide to academic writing, might also be helpful in planning, shaping, drafting, writing up, and referencing a sound research argument – see especially their ‘storyboarding’ method for the visually oriented (49-50). Reverse engineering these criteria to the argumentative kind of video essay at hand might offer useful guidance, and what is more validation, to the reviewing process. On the other hand, this one-to-one correspondence between textual and audiovisual works does not readily apply to questions regarding assessing aesthetic and technical choices. While the aesthetic qualities of a video essay are subordinated to and controlled by the success – clarity and soundness – of communicating a lucid argument, technical merits, determined by the videographic worker’s audiovisual literacy, remain subjective and therefore difficult to evaluate rationally.

Before inviting you to press play on Thomas' video, I would like to make a final remark. I do not think that videographic works will take the place of traditional textual forms of representing results in Film Studies, but I do see reasons why, and evidence for how, their implementation could provide a valuable contribution to research and educational practices, and, ultimately, offer a viable alternative to addressing the humanities’ crisis of expression and visibility.


Works cited

Bellour, Raymond. “The Unattainable Text,” Screen, Vol. 16, No. 3 (1975): 19-27.

Berg, Thomas van den. (Un)reliable (Un)reliability: or, Perceptual Subversions of the Continuity Editing System. (2013). Online at:

Bordwell, David.The McGraw-Hill Film Viewer’s Guide. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004).

Corrigan, Timothy J. A Short Guide to Writing About Film. Fifth edition (New York: Pearson Longman, 2005).

Gocsik, Karen, Richard Barsam and Dave Monahan 2013. Writing About Movies. New York, N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Company.

Grant, Catherine. “The Shudder of a Cinephiliac Idea? Videographic Film Studies Practice as Material Thinking,” Aniki Vol. 1, No. 1 (2014): 49-62. Online at:

Kirszner, Laurie G. and Stephen R. Mandell. The Wadsworth Handbook. Eighth edition (Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008).

Lavik, Erlend. “The Video Essay: The Future of Academic Film and Television Criticism?” Frames Cinema Journal #1.(2012). Online at:

Mayer, Richard E. “Introduction to Multimedia Learning.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning, ed. Richard E. Mayer, 1-18. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

Morton, Drew. “The Visual Essay as Digital Publishing” MediaCommons (2013). Online at:

Schank, Roger C., Tamara R. Berman, and Kimberli A. Macperson. “Learning by Doing” In Instructional Design Theories and Models: A New Paradigm of Instructional Theory (Vol. II), ed. Charles M. Reigeluth, 161-181. (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999).

Stork, Matthias, and Janet Bergstrom. “Film Studies with High Production Values: An Interview with Janet Bergstrom on Making and Teaching Audiovisual Essays.” Frames Cinema Journal #1.(2012). Online at:


Adrian Martin's picture

Academic Argumentation and the Audiovisual Essay

Thank you for your thoughtful presentation of Thomas van den Berg’s interesting and accomplished work, Miklos (it certainly makes me want to seek out the little-known CHASING SLEEP, that I had never heard of previously!). One thought out of many which are swimming through my mind after reading your piece: might it be the case that the audiovisual essay form is not so suited to particular types of academic arguments that are highly conceptual/abstract/philosophical - and is better suited to (for want of a better word) ‘assertive’ arguments that have more to do with showing (or, at least, suggesting) connections through ‘evidence’? I ponder this because I have noticed, for example, that certain ‘conditional’ turns of phrase, which are very common in academic writing - such as ‘if it is true that X, then it follows that Y …’ - cannot readily or easily be ‘illustrated’ in a montage of images and sounds (if that is what one is seeking to do), and simply ‘reading out’ conceptual formulations like this on the soundtrack can be more confusing than helpful to the viewer/listener (this is something I learnt while writing and delivering radio scripts about film subjects, which also tend to the ‘telegrammatic’ and the assertive, rather than typically literary baroque expression and conceptualisation). Just a thought, I will be interested to get your reaction. Thanks again for your piece & curation.
Miklos Kiss's picture

Thanks Adrian for your

Thanks Adrian for your important remark. I don’t think (or safer to say, I don’t know) that the videographic format fits better to certain academic approaches while it is less suitable for others. What I believe is that among the many possible advantageous uses (ranging from implied experimental illustrations to more persuasive modes of address), the thesis-driven argumentative style can certainly benefit from the accompanying AV track, which offers a kind of clear-cut but certainly immediate evidence to the reasoning at hand, something that is unfeasible in textual form (this multimedia deficit of the written text might be responsible for writers’ straying arguments…). As for how to do this, that is how to find a lucid balance between a rather dense academic address and the AV format’s multichannel information load is another question. I like how Drew Morton makes this challenge sound easy: “the artist needs to adapt his or her prose to the medium, away from academic prose and towards the aural friendly. That is not to say the academic visual essay avoids engaging in the theoretical; it simply engages in the theoretical in a more accessible and concise fashion.” :)
Ian Garwood's picture

finding the lucid balance...

Thank you, Miklos, for addressing, in such a direct and informed manner, the possibility for the audiovisual essay to assume a form that is ‘compatible’ with more traditional forms of scholarship, whilst also possessing unique characteristics. The essay you have curated answers one of the questions in my piece: whether the audiovisual essay is suited to the exploration and quotation of other critics’ views, in the manner common to the written academic essay? Thomas’ video does this very extensively and I will certainly use it in class as an example of how text can be used to represent other writers’ ideas.
Ian Garwood's picture

finding the lucid balance...

[contd.] I really like the frequent attention to the context of the classroom across the writing curated for this edition. It seems to me that quite different values underpin the kind of scholarly work evidenced by Thomas’ example and those curated by Cristina. In particular, the notion of ‘researching by audiovisual essay’ seems a less evident part of the process in Thomas’ case, whilst the desire to produce a stand-alone piece seems a lesser motivation in Cristina’s case (by this I do not mean the work of Cristina and her student does not work in its own right, but rather that the viewer would need to have a prior knowledge of Alphaville or Le Silence de la Mer to understand how the video essays relate to them - is that a contentious point?). The differences of approaches highlighted here does underline to me the importance of establishing criteria suitable for particular contexts, so this is all very useful as I embark on writing the guidelines for my new course!
Cristina Álvarez López's picture

Prior Knowledge

The point made by Ian is not contentious for me, I quite agree with it. As a general rule, I would say that prior knowledge of the materials always enriches the viewing and appreciation of any audiovisual essay, because it makes you more aware of the transformations performed upon the source material. And I also think that the more experimental pieces can be seen and enjoyed as artistic works in themselves, even if you don’t know the original movies. But, in terms of scholarship, in order to fully understand, appreciate and evaluate how the argument is built in an audiovisual essay that doesn’t use (or uses little) written/spoken text by the authors (and especially in those that work with material from a single film), I think it’s necessary to know the films.
Miklos Kiss's picture

Actual purposes and audiences

Many thanks, Ian and Cristina, for bringing our different approaches and practices (as of doing research for the AV essay and doing research by it) into a thought-provoking dialogue. Such creative exchange, also guaranteed and strengthened by your own practical experiences (thanks for your practice-driven stimulating curatorial notes for the issue!), enriches our scope and arguments about the various benefits of the videographic work. Once one embarks on a practical implementation of his/her theoretical idea(l)s, he or she will be able to further specify these benefits in terms of actual purposes (creative, critical, scholarly aims / from self-inspiring creative analyses to autonomous argumentative research essays) and addressed audiences (from private use to standalone teaching materials). Looking forward to join you in such exploration!
Adrian Martin's picture

'They Stand Alone'

Just to respond briefly to Ian and Cristina about whether one needs to know the original movies in order to appreciate certain audiovisual essays: I agree with the basic idea that it’s often good (and sometimes essential) to know the original. But I reinforce Cris’ point that “the more experimental pieces can be seen and enjoyed as artistic works in themselves”. Indeed, we encourage our students to approach the work they are doing, at some level, as ‘art pieces’ - stand-alone works - as well as being critical commentaries/analyses on a pre-existing filmic text. Here, I think it’s good to reflect upon how many avant-garde film/video makers - such as Müller & Giradet, or Mike Hoolboom - often specifically do NOT list the films they are sampling from; it’s part of their practice (according to the specific work) to not do this. Sometimes this is because they want to reflect on something larger than this group of specific films - something more general, such as certain codes, atmospheres or possibilities in ‘cinema’ itself. Now, if we have an audiovisual essay based on a single film, naturally this suggests a closeness with the original, and that relation is always interesting to explore. But, even here, some pieces (such as Henrike Lindenberger’s) can potentially ‘stand alone’, as a new work created from another. Also, let us not forget that audiovisual essays can function, in a certain sense, as ‘trailers’ for films we have not yet seen! And if we take Vinzenz Hediger’s lead in his great research into/theorisation of trailers, we could argue that all cinematic production is a matter of making trailers! Godard would certainly agree with this …