Film to File: Film Studies Edition

Digital technologies have dramatically transformed the filmmaking process, and a bit slower on the uptake, film studies scholarship is also modifying its tried and true approach. Up until fairly recently, scholars presented their ideas by doing what I'm doing right now: typing words. If we are lucky, we may get an image to accompany our text, but that luxury is rare and expensive in the world of academic publishing. A massive disjuncture stems from utilizing a text-based medium to analyze a visual and auditory one. We've all had those moments when we want to bring our words to life but unfortunately one can't embed videos into a print essay (now at least) and if we could, there are many roadblocks to getting permission to do so. The issue of "permission" is still a contested one, but thankfully things are moving in the right direction: film copyright owners are seeing scholars as less of a threat to their income than they did before. (Note: we present ZERO threat to motion picture revenues. In fact, we inadvertently provide free advertising.) 

The growing trend of the video essay format has the potential to revolutionize film studies scholarship. Yes, we still need words (lots of them) but the ability to combine them with visual and auditory demonstrations is a game changer. As a particularly strong example, I present to you "Joining Up: Scotland, Cinema, and the First World War." This short film utilizes documentary footage from the Scottish Screen Archive. By employing montage for criticism (as it was intended to be), the authors have arranged clips in such a way as to visually demonstrate their thesis about this particular moment and place. The authors guide the viewer through their claims by way of voice-over. Once you experience an illuminating video essay such as this one, it becomes clear that this practice needs to expand among cinema studies scholars. 

While working as a solid example of the video essay, the project also demonstrates additional important points:

  • Copyright: The authors make use of extraordinary footage that may or may not be owned by the Scottish Screen Archive. Intellectual property, however, doesn't apply in the case of criticism. By utilizing the privileges granted by Fair Use, these scholars combine glorious visual examples to express a scholarly point.
  • Digitization: Making something like this was entirely possible before film became file, but it was really hard to do, and took forever. The ease of combining clips (not to mention attaining them: yay for the digital archive!), and adding  scholarly voices to make sense of it all, are new to this era. Additionally, all film students can watch this anytime and anywhere. Before we stop making this point because it seems tired (or it will soon), it is important to recognize how digitization has not only facilitated innovations in scholarship, it has also dramatically expanded access to the works created therein.