From Idea to Concept

Curator's Note



From Idea to Concept

The two audiovisual essays I have curated here are both examples arising from the same, pre-set exercise: they are works of condensation involving an idea about a single film. The purpose of this practical exercise — that Adrian Martin and I proposed to our students in a 2014 course on audiovisual essays at Goethe University in Frankfurt — was to bring analytical and creative research together, in an audiovisual form. Of course, there are a number of ways of approaching or doing this; I will deal with a very particular method defined by certain constraints.

The duration of these pieces is short (less than four minutes), because they are trying to develop their concept in a condensed way; and the object of study is one, single film. Furthermore, they are entirely constructed using only the materials of the chosen film (its images, sounds and/or music — the last of which we allowed to be sourced from an independent soundtrack release, if available). Not even voice-over was permitted!

Henrike Lindenberger, the author of the first audiovisual essay embedded here, chose Jean-Luc Godard’s classic Alphaville (1965) to work with. Her piece begins from an idea that is focused and specific, far from the realms of plot and character, and very cinematic: to study space and architecture as elements that give the film its science-fictional character. Indeed, space and architecture seem to be subjects especially suited to visual exploration (although, as you will notice, she also cleverly manages to give a sonic spin to this adventure).

The idea that drives this audiovisual essay is quite powerful. However, it is one thing to have an idea about a film, and another —which may be related to the former, but goes further and requires a more inventive approach — to build a concept for an audiovisual essay. This is what Lindenberger achieves. When I say concept, I mean it in an extensive way: I refer to the piece’s structure and rhetoric, to the relation between its different, material elements and its editing operations, to all that gives the piece an independent, autonomous, singular form. The concept is what differentiates an audiovisual essay from a mere collection of clips used to demonstrate, prove or serve as examples of a point. The concept is, in short, what transforms the initial, analytical research into a creative process.

So, this audiovisual essay goes far beyond simply collecting clips that relate to space and architecture. Through meticulous work (both of research and rearrangement), this piece reinvents a space — the crystal maze — by dint of reconcentrating it. Of course, the crystal maze image is not entirely foreign to Alphaville itself; however, while in Godard’s film we can sense it, here we can fully experience it — condensed, heightened and dynamised thanks to montage.

How exactly does this piece create its crystal maze? First, by inventing a consistent mechanism: it uses arrows, neon signs and pointing gestures made by characters as cues that mark the restless change in the direction of movement: up and down, left and right. Elevators, stairs, corridors, doors and windows become part of a sinister game of space, full of traps and false exits, through which the characters walk almost as if they were automatons. The use of circular motifs (Anna Karina moving around a table, revolving doors, spiral staircase, the panoramic camera movement that traces a semi-circle …) — as well as the repetition, at the end of the piece, of several shots included at the start — also contribute to underlining this idea of entrapment. And, of course, there are the crystal structures that arise everywhere — walls and cubicles, monolithic or serial: the evil machinery of isolation and oppression.

And, finally, there is the extremely inventive, experimental work done with sound. The piece turns one of the exercise’s constraints – using only music from the chosen film — into a benefit. A Crystal Maze creates an extra or new score by reversing Paul Misraki’s composed themes. The sinister looping of this backward remix gives the piece a definitely nightmarish, Kafkaesque touch and — when combined with the original score — becomes another consistent device that expresses, from a sonic perspective, the labyrinthine space that is rendered visually.

My piece Small Gestures is another example of the same exercise; I demonstrated its construction in class, using the Adobe Premiere timeline as my screen, as a pedagogical example. This audiovisual essay is devoted to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le silence de la mer (1949), a chamber piece which fascinates me – as well as an extraordinary and too little known directorial debut. Here, I wanted to focus on its subterranean love story, never directly or openly addressed, but conveyed through small gestures (mainly of the actors, but also of the camera and mise en scène). That is, ultimately, where the concept of the piece would lie – but I had to find my way there by steps.

I knew beforehand some of the fragments I wanted to use in the piece, because I had already written about the film (Álvarez López 2013) and even extracted some clips to accompany that text. However, I then re-watched Le silence de la mer several times, annotating the timings, trying to be as exhaustive as possible. I was amazed to discover how much of the film’s material could indeed be used to work through my idea. To search for all these ‘small gestures’, make clips of them, name them and catalogue them, took me a couple of days. When I began on these operations, all I had was an idea but not yet a concept for my audiovisual essay. Since this driving idea was mainly visual, I was a little worried about the sonic elements — about the jarring effect that could result from putting all this material together (most of these fragments were very short; in some of them we hear ambient noises or silence, in others little scraps of music and dialogue that did not form any complete or coherent phrase).

But, while collecting the clips, I had a more concrete notion about a possible structure for the piece. I realised that I could use one of the monologues recited by Howard Vernon in the film, where he tells the story of ‘Beauty and the Beast’. In a way, this tale mirrors, condenses and prefigures the love story between him and the female character in Le silence de la mer. Of course, this monologue is itself also a ‘small gesture’, and one that allowed me to emphasise the power of speech and its crucial role in the bizarre courtship ritual set in motion by the man. There was yet another reason that pushed me to use this monologue: at a given moment, in order to describe the recognition of love from Beauty toward the Beast, the character uses the following expression: “… and she gave him her hand”. As soon as I heard this sentence, I felt compelled to match it with the image that I wanted to use to close my audiovisual essay: a shot that shows a detail (the drawing of two hands extended toward — but yet not reaching — each other) on the female’s character shawl, which was designed by Melville himself.

Listening over and over to this fabulous passage of speech (which, in the original film, is even longer), I realised I could break it into two, distinct segments: the first, devoted to presenting the characters and the coordinates of their master-slave relation; the second, much shorter, devoted to describing the turn in Beauty’s feelings. Between these two parts, I introduced a central section (using dialogue and sounds from other scenes) dedicated to moments of turbulence and confusion — moments that begin to signal the transformation of the woman’s emotions (mainly through hand gestures), but only in an unconscious, not-yet-recognised way.

So, finally, the element that was less developed in my mind when I started to think about this audiovisual essay — namely, the sound — ended up providing the global structure for the piece, working as a narrative frame according to which I began to organise the entire, visual aspect. In the first section, I tried to find a way to express — through the actors’ poses and postures, through the distances and angles of the camera, through occasional movement and repetition — the parameters of the captivity situation evoked in the monologue, as well as the subtle ‘binomial pair’ of the characters’ personalities. In the central part, I gave particular importance to the hand gestures that play a prominent role in the film, signalling the trouble, confusion and disturbance of the characters’ feelings. And, in the final section, again picking up the monologue that now bursts forth while describing Beauty’s acknowledgment of love, I concentrate almost exclusively on the ardent gestures of the camera (extreme close-ups, inquisitive reframings) and of the woman (smiles, glances).

Small Gestures was made not so much to illustrate the class exercise, as to show the students — directly from my timeline — some of the concrete possibilities that the simplest re-editing operation allows. Mine is, indeed, a very austere piece, technically speaking: no effects of any kind were applied, apart from a few audio transitions, some fades at the start or end of each section, and general adjustments of audio level. The general re-editing operations stay within the range of the most basic actions of splitting, cutting out, trimming and re-organising the different fragments that compose a piece. However, in performing these operations, I was altering not only the horizontal relations (the linear, successive relation between clips) but also the vertical ones (the simultaneous sound/image relation within each clip).

Small Gestures extensively works on constructing a vertical relation that does not exist in the film itself (the original relation is respected in only a few spots of my audiovisual essay): some sounds (such as the tic-toc of the clock) have been looped; the two pieces of music used (as a background for the monologue in parts one and three) were lifted from other scenes. And even if, narratively speaking, the piece shows an emotional progression that coincides with the arc featured in the film, the shots I use to express this progression belong to very different moments from the work: they are not arranged in respect of their original, chronological order, and few shots put together in my audiovisual essay go together, in that precise way, in the film itself (even if the continuity created in the re-editing — an effect especially apparent when working with highly stylistically unified and minimalistic black-and-white productions 1930-1960 — seems to suggest, at some points, that this is the case).

For a viewer, the line that separates the work of an audiovisual essayist from the film’s original editing work is not always easy to draw — especially in pieces that deal with only a single film. Exhibiting Small Gestures in class as it appeared in my timeline allowed me to explain in a detailed, graphic way the particular decisions I took during the re-editing process.

Depending on the particular approach of each maker, the work of research done for and by an audiovisual essay passes through different phases and forms. In my experience, however, I have come to distinguish two main procedures: first, there is a type of research — based on gathering of information and close examination — which maintains certain similarities with the traditional type of academic research. In the exercise described here, this would be research done for the audiovisual essay, motivated by one’s ideas on a film. But, as soon as you begin to play with the most rudimentary operations of editing, such as putting two fragments together — or, sometimes, even when you start to slide across your timeline, jumping backward and forward — there is a new type of research in motion. These actions always imply a renewed encounter with the materials: they bring out new connections, illuminating hidden or buried aspects, giving rise to ideas that did not appear formed as such in the individual fragments, or in the whole film on its surface. This type of research is the research done by the audiovisual essay, by materially working on it.

This research implies a new kind of rigour: no matter how meticulous you have been in the first phase (in the case that you have literally traced the two-step process I have outlined), sometimes — unlike in traditional research, where the more examples that bolster your point, the better — here you may have to drop clips that match your idea about the film but do not fit (for one reason or another) your audiovisual essay. At the same time, you will need to be ready to play, experiment, consider and incorporate all the new knowledge arising from the process of editing.

Audiovisual essays indeed open new and exciting possibilities for research. But, if we want to grasp their full potential — beyond the impact of their rhetorical modes and affective techniques— we also need to study and analyse them closely, in relation to their object(s) of study, in order to precisely understand how they work.

Work Cited

© Cristina Álvarez López, September 2014


Ian Garwood's picture

Research for/research by the audiovisual essay

Thank you very much for this, Cristina. I am about to teach a course on the audiovisual essay for the first time, so, apart from anything else, the exercise you describe here has given me a good example of the kind of thing I could do with my students! I appreciate the clear distinction you make between doing research for the audiovisual essay and doing research by it. This complements very usefully the two-step research process Adrian outlines in his article. I have an observation about each of the research phases you identify. You note that, upon reviewing the film with the audiovisual essay in mind, you noticed a lot more small gestures than you had anticipated - despite all the previous work you had done on the film. I had the same experience when making my essay on Hoagy Carmichael - I wonder if knowing that the audiovisual essay is going to be composed by the object of study’s images and sounds encourages a more intensive scrutiny in this research phase? For example, it was only when annotating To Have and Have Not for my video essay that I noticed that Cricket (Carmichael) crept into the frame in the shot that I use to introduce him in my essay; and I hadn’t noticed previously that he throws a glance at Harry and Slim whilst noodling away on the piano behind them during their ‘break-up’ scene (and, for me, this is the ‘clinching’ detail that helps supports my reading of his role in the video essay). There is a question, however, of where this scrutinising process should stop - I would imagine that, particularly when you are looking out for small gestures, the potential range of material you could annotate becomes vast. I expect the intuition that leads you to look for such material in the first place becomes important in helping you remain selective, at the same time you remain open to being surprised by what you find? In terms of researching by the audiovisual essay, I agree the ‘renewed encounter’ that the editing process brings is an exciting and rewarding one. It is also one that could move the project so far away from the initial idea that inspired it that the link between original idea and concept becomes lost. I only see this as a ‘problem’ in certain contexts, albeit ones that are most relevant to me now, as I set about teaching my audiovisual essay course for the first time - in that context it might be expected that the relationship constructed between audiovisual materials in the video essay can be traced back somehow to the ‘research idea’ the student came up with in the first place (an idea that is based on a critical engagement with the details of a particular film). I guess that’s where I have to be careful about the brief for each exercise and the criteria on which the finished product is being judged!
Christian Keathley's picture

Let me second Ian’s point

Let me second Ian’s point that this sounds like a wonderful exercise for students. I have twice taught a course on videographic film studies and am always on the lookout for exercises that can get the students working with their film — especially exercises that have clear and limiting parameters, and that emphasize formal properties. At their best, such assignments encourage makers to approach their objects of study in ways they hadn’t planned to, and that’s went surprise and invention happen. Next summer, Jason Mittell and I are hosting an NEH sponsored workshop on videographic film production here at Middlebury College (more details about this soon!). I’ve already made the note to work this spatial condensation approach into our lesson plan. Thanks!
Cristina Álvarez López's picture

The Research Process

Thanks Ian and Christian, happy to hear that you found this exercise an interesting one to propose to your students. First, allow me to clarify something: what we proposed in class was a work of condensation of one idea/aspect of the films; then it was Henrike who, for her essay, chose to concentrate on the spatial aspect of ‘Alphaville’, which I think proved especially inspiring in her case. I completely agree with Christian that exercises which have limited and defined parameters help the students to focus on specific elements, and to notice things that usually go overlooked. Concerning the two observations made by Ian: when I wrote about Le silence de la mer, I already explored somewhat these ‘small gestures’ in the film; I mainly discussed three scenes where the hand gestures were especially powerful, because they were not so fragmented and isolated as in other parts (and I extracted three clips of these scenes without re-editing them, just to accompany my written discussion). However, the ‘small gestures’ were not the sole focus of my text, just one aspect of it. I was so fascinated by these gestures that I maintained the idea of coming back to them. The ‘small gestures’ idea may seem very vast but, in fact, I was specifically searching for gestures that expressed something about the characters’ feelings in a film which is, in this sense, very constrained. However, when I began to do this research, I arrived at more than 50 fragments that were meaningful in one way or another. As happened to you with some of the Hoagy Carmichael shots, some of these fragments were noticed only while I was researching with a specific purpose – I didn’t remember them from my previous viewings. I knew beforehand thatbI couldn’t use everything but, in a project like this, where there’s only one film involved and a very specific idea of departure, I prefer to have all these clips and maybe finally not use some, rather than miss them later. In ideal conditions, I very much like to work this way: collecting as much as I can (if it fits my approach, of course), and only deciding what to keep and what to leave once I am constructing the piece. This method gives me more room to play and experiment. It usually happens to me that fragments which look very useful finally do not work so well; while others that I was more dubious about finally fit very well. But many of these things I only discover by trying them out. For instance, there was a shot I really loved: we see the three characters framed in a strange way, only a part of their bodies is in the image, but what we do see in the shot is their hands. For me, this was a great ‘compositional gesture’ (by keeping only the hands in the shot, it is as if Melville was telling us: look what the actors do with their hands to understand what’s going on). However, as much as I loved this shot, and as sure as I was that it would be great in the piece, I had to decide to leave it aside – because I couldn’t make it work. On the other hand, my main audio track, the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ tale, was something that I found thanks to this process of openness. I did clearly remember the scene, but it never came to my mind to use it; the idea was one of those moments of illumination prompted by an association. About your other observation, I also think that there should be a traceable relation between the idea that prompts the research and the final concept of the piece. However, I also think that, many times, when you begin to work, you may expand, modify or even change your initial idea. For us, all this is good and part of the process; we have allowed students to change their first idea if they feel compelled to do so. Another problem can come when the initial idea is presented as a statement that later reveals itself as ‘unsustainable’ or ‘un-do-able’ audiovisually. That’s why we think that, to avoid this, especially in the kind of more experimental exercises that we propose, to express your idea more as an ‘exploration’ than as a ‘formed thesis’ is, whenever possible, more advisable.
Adrian Martin's picture


I admire enormously the work you have achieved in SMALL GESTURES, Cristina, and it has been very valuable for me to observe your intricate process making this (which you demonstrated in class), and also collaborating on our recent FELICITY CONDITIONS: SEEK AND HIDE (on Fritz Lang’s SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR …) - these being focused on the audiovisual analysis of/response to one single film, not a group of films (defined by a director such as De Palma, Carax or Melville), or a comparison/fusion of two films (as in ANGST/FEAR). I confess that, before these experiences, I was drifting toward a theory (or intuition) that ‘comparative analysis’, of whichever film-texts, was the best and most fitting terrain for the Audiovisual Essay, via montage, split-screens, superimposition, and so on. Of course, comparative analysis can also be carried out between the parts, elements and levels of only one film! But with SMALL GESTURES I see you pushing this further, into a new terrain: the condensation which is also a re-creation, as well as an analysis. The Melville film offers you very special material for this job. You speak, in an aside of your text here, about the ‘highly unified’ nature of black-and-white films made in a certain era, and in a certain, stylised way. In fact, I was stunned to see how completely you were able to rearrange (both horizontally and vertically, as you say) the pieces of SILENCE DE LA MER to create a new kind of ‘imaginary scene’, different to the one we yoked together (through montage and image-treatment) in ANGST/FEAR. Is this because Melville’s film is such a rigorous ‘chamber piece’, that it allows this process so well? Your word ‘unified’ reminded me of the classical, theatrical definition of ‘a scene’: unity of time, unity of place, unity of action. Melville already gives us a very ‘compressed’ succession of scenes in this regard: most in the same room. As you also comment, it is very easy to mistake your montage (which ranges across the whole movie) for the original’s rigorous principles of scene continuity and découpage! I feel you have created - especially via the placing and editing of the central, spoken texts - a very lyrical ‘song’ from a film that, on first viewing, I did not find especially lyrical. But now I know better! Thank you.
Pam Cook's picture

Simple and complex

Thanks for these wonderful video essays Cristina, and for the rigour and detail of your curator’s note. You raise so many vital points - I’m inspired to respond to a couple of them. First, the need to start with a simple idea in conception and execution: this is something that should encourage those who are thinking about using the audiovisual essay form to grasp the nettle. Second, the acknowledgment that as the project develops, new thoughts and aesthetic strategies evolve, so that the processes of research and construction - techniques, creative choices, psychic investments and so forth - have to be addressed, whether in the video essay or in accompanying text. This self-reflexivity is not always evident in more traditional forms of scholarly research and teaching. Third, the intricate interface between the film object and the new object (the audiovisual essay) that emerges: this suggests that the boundaries of what film studies has for years considered to be ‘the text’ are well and truly breached - for me, this is one of the most exciting aspects of the audiovisual essay. So - as your entry here demonstrates in a particularly compelling way - start with something simple and end up with a rich and complex experience!