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.


The art of statistics reveals fascinating things about the art of cinema. Seriously, these number crunching cinephiles do amazing things to track the changes of the art form. The best resource, IMHO, is Cinemetrics. Check out the site to see info on shot duration averages for individual films and for the industry as well.

People tend to theorize that shot duration is shrinking as the medium changes over time. That's true, but the details of how and when those changes take place are interesting. For example, some believe that shots shortened up with the early advent of VFX. This was, apparently, due to the poor quality of the effects to the filmmakers would not want to linger on imperfect elements. This only applies to effects films, so you can see that the theory doesn't or shouldn't hold for all movies of that period.

The site provides a ton of data, and great instructions on how to interpret it from acronyms to graphs and more. You can also conduct your own analyses by using the site's free software and  following instructions provided.

Finally, don't miss the Measurement Theory page. It provides an impressive list of scholarly works that take statistical analysis into account within film analysis.

Click here to have fun with movie stats.

Streaming: It's a genre now?

This New York Times article argues that streaming media, TV in particular, is not just a medium, but a format as well. Poniewozik makes a solid case for his argument that streaming has introduced something entirely new to a medium that hasn't changed much in the last 80 or so years. The immediate release of an entire season for binge consumption certainly is new. Scholars are debating the merits of this new approach at this very moment. Do you have enough time to process a densely-packed hour of television if you start another episode 20 second later? The weekly format may be irritating but it did built in time for contemplation. TV has also gotten smarter (thank you, HBO) which should be coupled with even more time and space for analysis.

The word "genre" occupies a very specific place in film and media studies. For film its often a retroactive term utilized to examine trends and thematically significant moments within specific cultural and historical contexts. Genres are specific ways to package ideas that best expresses the content which always has social and cultural significance. With this discipline-specific definition in mind, is streaming a "genre?" I'm not convinced that it is. However, I do think Poniewozik has a point in regards to streaming's foundational impact. Existing genres may in fact transform in anticipation of a new viewing context. Do we need epic cliff hangers if we can just sit back and wait for the next episode to load, rather than holding onto that narrative question for a week? Poniewozik anticipates this by asking content producers to step up their game: "streaming needs to learn to use its supersized format better, not fight against it."

Read Poniewoziks' NY Times article by clicking here.