What is a Video Essay?

Perhaps the best definition of a video essay comes from FilmScalpel:

“In general, the video essay can be described as the concise, free-form audiovisual equivalent of the written essay. Concise because most video essays don’t run longer than a handful of minutes. Very long video essays are the exception to the rule that on the internet (the natural habitat of the video essay) shorter is better. Free-form because the format and rhetorical strategies can differ wildly from one video essay to the next.”

Basically, this means that a video essay is an essay that utilises visuals to enhance the point that the essayist is making.

While there are no specific rules that a video essay must follow, as the genre becomes more common and respected online, it appears that there are some conventions that most of the prominent video essayists are following.

As Simon Owens points out, most video essays incorporate the voiceover of the person who has written and created the essay, as they speak over the top of “a series of still images, animations, and video clips.” Most of these essays “involve some sort of cultural criticism, and many of the most popular within the genre focus on film.”

What is most important to remember as a student is that video essays allow you to show the audience things that can’t be shown to them in a traditional essay. Your aim should be to use visuals to enhance the story that you are telling or the argument that are making. Indeed, there might be things that you don’t need to say because you allow the images to say them for you.

Let’s look at some examples:

A video essay can predominantly be a piece-to-camera, supported by examples from other places such as Carla Dauden’s argument that Brazil should not host or attend the 2016 World Cup.

Or a video essay can use an entirely different range of techniques, such as a voiceover, quotes from referenced articles, graphics, and interviews with experts. Vox uses all of these in their essay entitled “This is your brain on terrorism”:

Interestingly, the above two examples also show that there is no restriction on the kind of language you choose to use in a video essay. Carla Dauden speaks in the first person – “No, I’m not going to the World Cup” – while Vox’s video opens with a range of questions in the second person, starting with “What will you do the next time you hear there’s been a major terrorist attack?”

Meanwhile, most video essays that are film criticism or analysis will have brief moments of speaking in the first person, but will for the most part be spoken in the third person:

Once you are confident you understand what a video essay is, you can head to the next page on OpeningClass to start thinking about how you will best plan your video essay.