Let Them Speak! Against Standardization in Videographic Criticism

Curator's Note

During the past three years, [in]Transition has published curated and peer reviewed video essays not only with the aim of giving visibility and scholarly recognition to the field of videographic film studies and criticism, but also of pushing the boundaries within this field a little bit further with each issue. By way of example, one could mention Miriam Ross and Jonathan Mines’ Stereotowns, the first 3D video essay, one that allows to examine and “directly engage stereoscopy—something otherwise impossible in traditional text-based scholarship” [1]; or Shane Denson’s Don’t Look Now, which breaks the linearity of the audiovisual essay to propose, instead, an interactive exploration.

I do consider works like these extremely important since they lead the way toward possible future directions for an audiovisual approach to film studies; but while a future for videographic criticism may not be, luckily, under discussion anymore (as the flourishing of publications and of initiatives connected to the form demonstrates), it seems to me that it would be fruitful also to look back at what we may call the ‘traditional’ forms of the videographic works, especially in the wake of some recent developments.

As Conor Bateman has explained with great clarity in the article The Video Essay as Art: Finding Your Voice Over, “the distribution of video essays throughout social media is pushing the form toward a more text-heavy approach.” [2] Film criticism websites and Svod platforms produce video contents in order to increase the hits on their websites as well as views on social media, and since viewers are often keen to watch videos on their Facebook timeline, without even bothering to turn up the volume, those video essays conceived to be shared on social media increasingly prefer to avoid voice over and to resort to written intertitles instead. In the first years of diffusion of the online audiovisual essay, scholars discussed at length whether or not the word ‘essay’ should necessarily imply that a videographic work has to resort to a clear, articulated argument, conveyed usually through the voice over.

Several scholars and critics have rightly issued warnings against the use of film clips as mere illustrations for the voice over’s argumentation, making the case for audiovisual works that convey an idea only through images, without any commentary. One of the most cited articles in favour of this latter view is Adrian Martin’s A Voice Too Much: in his critique of audio commentaries for DVDs, Martin reasonably complains against a voice that “leads”, often literally being juxtaposed to the images without really being connected with them [3]. As Martin underlines, the reasons for adopting this strategy were both legal and commercial: it was the best way to add extra value to a DVD without risking any accusation of copyright violation. Ironically, those commercial logics behind the “voice too much” of the audio commentaries are also responsible for the disappearance of the voice over in the current videographic production. The risks connected to this approach are there for all to see: instead of having a rich, variegated offering of videographic productions that adopt the possibilities of montage to create an articulated audiovisual language, many websites are going towards a standardization that even gives the audio in the audiovisual away!

Unfairly considered inherently didactic, or “not artistic enough”, the voice over is, instead, one of the most complex strategies to adopt: it makes the ‘intrusion’ of the video essayist audible, her presence manifest. Therefore, it has to be clear, engaging, and above all it has to work with the images, and not just to be juxtaposed to them. My work as co-editor for [in]Transition has taught me a lot in regard to the multiplicity of variation a voice can have, as well as to the difficulties of adapting this formal strategy each time to the topic the video essayist wants to address. To work with the voice over means to find the appropriate balance between presence and absence. A voice may talk a lot: in Thinking Through Acting: Performative Indices and Philosophical Assertions, by Bryn Hewko and Aaron Taylor, the enchantment, the fascination exercised by Marilyn Monroe is at one time maintained through the elegant, compelling editing, but also interrupted through an analysis that needs to ‘break the spell’ in order to demonstrate how the seemingly casual, insignificant gestures or expression of the actress could be considered as a way to “make manifest specific lines of thoughts.” [4] Because of the theoretical complexity of their hypothesis, they need the voice over to convey a dense, articulated argument in a limited amount of time; the visual dimension, however, benefits from slow motion, repetition, freeze frames, and other strategies that counterbalance the fast pace of the voice.

Conversely, a voice may step back, be discrete, and let the images speak for themselves: in Sight and Sound Conspire: Monstrous Audio-Vision in James Whale’s Frankenstein, for example, Shane Denson uses voice over in the first part of the video; in the second, he transforms Frankenstein it into a silent film, and in the third he compares both the original version of Whale’s work and the one dubbed in German. In the second and third part the voice over leaves space to silence and to diegetic sound, thus demonstrating how flexible and versatile a commentary may be.

We may also have a plurality of voices that challenge the idea of an authoritative, imposing voice over. Ben Sampson’s The Time Passing was conceived as a response to Julie Levinson’s essay “Time and Time Again: Temporality, Narrativity, and Spectatorship in Christian Marclay’s The Clock[5] In responding to an essay on the quintessential found footage art work that avoids voice over, Sampson chooses, instead, to intertwine the beautiful, hypnotic visual montage with the voices of several colleagues in film studies who ponder cinema and time, memory, narration. As in works such as Room 237 (Rodney Ascher, 2012)—the most obvious reference—or Fear Itself (Charlie Lyne, 2015), the link between the images and the voices is intermittent, fluctuating: this strategy allows the viewer to abandon herself to a meditation, following the thread of her thoughts while simultaneously, as Sampson notes in his curatorial statement, “feeling” the arguments presented.[6]

I couldn't agree more with Ian Garwood when he affirms that the video essay doesn’t need a voice over for it to be defined as such, or to be acknowledged as a scholarly work.[7] Like him, I think we should resist any attempt to impose rigid parameters or strategies on a form that has gained its strength from hybridity, from the convergence of different traditions, models, and approaches. Fostering innovation, for [in]Transition, should also mean, in my opinion, embracing this variety, especially when economic reasons lead, instead, toward homogenization: we should make sure that many different voices (and voice overs!) will always have the chance to be heard.


[1] Eric Faden’s Review of Stereotowns, [in]Transition, 3.2, 2016. http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/intransition/stereotowns.

[2] Bateman, C. “The Video Essay as Art: Finding Your Voice Over”. Fandor, June 6 2016. https://www.fandor.com/keyframe/the-video-essay-as-art-finding-your-voiceover 

[3] Martin, A. “A Voice Too Much”. Originally published at De Filmkrant, 31 June 2010, now available on The Audiovisual Essay: Practice and Theory in Videographic Film and Moving Image Studies. http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/audiovisualessay/reflections/adrian-martin-a-voice-too-much/.

[4] Hewko, B., Taylor, A. “Curator’s Note.” [in]Transition, 3.4, 2016. http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/intransition/2016/11/22/thinking-through-acting-performative-indices-and-philosophical-assertions.

[5] Levinson, J. “Time and Time Again: Temporality, Narrativity, and Spectatorship in Christian Marclay’s The Clock”. Cinema Journal, 54.3, Spring 2015.

[6] Sampson, B. “Curator’s Note.” [in]Transition, 2.2 2015. http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/intransition/

[7] Garwood, I. “The Place of Voiceover in Academic Audiovisual Film and Television Criticism”. Necsus, Autumn 2016, http://www.necsus-ejms.org/the-place-of-voiceover-in-audiovisual-film-and-television-criticism/. Garwood's audiovisual essay is one of the most complete and exhaustive studies of the topic of voiceover so far.