First, the bad news. “Every Frame a Painting is officially dead,” announce Taylor Ramos and Tony Zhou. “Nothing sinister; we just decided to end it, rather than keep on making stuff.” As Catherine Grant, professor of Digital Media and Screen Studies at Birkbeck, University of London, tweeted the other day, this is the “end of a truly brilliant film educational era.”
For those unfamiliar with Every Frame a Painting, it’s a series of audiovisual essays on aspects of filmmaking—soundtracks, locations, the work of particular filmmakers such as Lynne Ramsay, Akira Kurosawa, Chuck Jones, or the Coen Brothers, as well as the video essay itself—that over the past three years has popularized this new form of film criticism probably more successfully than any other practitioner.
The first EFaP essay to catch the eye of Kevin B. Lee, currently teaching Crossmedia Publishing at the Merz Akademie in Stuttgart, was “Edgar Wright - How to Do Visual Comedy,” which he named one of the best video essays of 2014, remarking that “no doubt his work has brought new sophistication to this emerging form, while demonstrating an implicit understanding of how people engage with online content. . . . His subsequent videos on David Fincher and Jackie Chan have relied more on found footage interviews with his subjects as a way to lend authority to his claims, but here Zhou purely relies on his own words, back by his formidable deployment of footage to make a stinging critique at the formal ineptitude of most Hollywood comedy.” At the end of that year, Lee noted that 2014 was a watershed year for the audiovisual essay, expressing his appreciation once again for the work of Zhou and Ramos as well as that of many others in “What Makes a Video Essay Great?” (7’07”).
For the longest while, many assumed that EFaP was the work of a sole editor, Tony Zhou. But in their farewell piece, itself a script for an audiovisual essay that’ll never be realized, he and Taylor Ramos delve into the details of how the project evolved as a collaborative effort. “Tony usually researches, writes and edits alone,” writes Ramos. “But I do everything else: I edit every draft, watch every version, watch all the clips, do the flash cards, and build the thesis. I am the first and last audience that sees everything before it goes out. And the closest description we’ve ever come up with is that he is the editor, and I am the editor’s editor.”
This piece is full of the wisdom gleaned from these past few years of collaboration, wisdom that applies to more than the making of audiovisual essays. For example, just as many poets have found that the restrictions of traditional forms can actually spark new inspirations, so, too have Zhou and Ramos developed a unique style borne of the necessity to work within the confines of copyright law—not just that of the United States, but of YouTube as well. “Nearly every stylistic decision you see about the channel—the length of the clips, the number of examples, which studios’ films we chose, the way narration and clip audio weave together, the reordering and flipping of shots, the remixing of 5.1 audio, the rhythm and pacing of the overall video—all of that was reverse-engineered from YouTube’s Copyright ID.”
Zhou and Ramos have practical advice regarding the sorting of ideas worth keeping from those that aren’t, the importance of research (get offline!), finding helpful feedback, the benefits of getting persnickety about organizing your thoughts and materials, and knowing your audience. Then, the cautionary note: “The big danger for future video essayists is that large websites have started moving away from the written word and towards video, which is completely unsustainable. Video is just too expensive and time-consuming to make.”
And now, the good news. Zhou and Ramos have contributed essays to Criterion releases in the past and we can look forward to more work they’ll be doing for FilmStruck—as soon as next month, when we’ll see work on a January theme, “Howard Hawks and the Art of Screwball Comedy.”
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