The first frames of Kristin Radtke’s video essay “That Kind of Daughter” show a lighted square projected onto a screen, reminiscent of 1970s home movies. In a moment, the black-and-white cut-out shape of a finger appears, and then another; two hands materialize holding a baby chick. “My mother feeds them bananas out of her hands,” says Radtke’s voiceover in a dreamy, melodious tone. “And when they get sick, my father hits them over the head with the thick end of a screwdriver and throws their bodies into the woods.”
Video essays, along with cinepoems and video fiction, offer editors of literary journals an exciting new way to engage online readers. Writers previously restricted to text have taken up cameras and microphones – and, in Radtke’s case, paper and scissors for stop-motion photography – to create short films inspired by their own words.
“I loved taking things apart and piecing them together in a way that could create forward momentum,” says Radtke, a graphic essayist and marketing director for Sarabande Books. In her case, she stumbled onto stop-motion and then watched one video repeatedly for inspiration: “Whether It Suffered, or It Did,” by April Kopp and Dave Selden at Born Magazine. “The video uses light, shadow and shape together in a way that haunted me,” she says.
Surprising visuals, exquisitely written
John Bresland, film editor at TriQuarterly Review, put out a call for cinepoems and video essays earlier this year. “We’re looking for works that use language, image and sound with equal fluency and brio,” he says. “Kristen Radtke more or less created that standard.”
On TriQuarterly’s cinepoem and video essay page, pieces explore war, death, wildflowers and mothers. Alan Spearman reflects on residents of South Memphis and their relationship with trees. Dinty W. Moore meditates on his great-grandfather and is inspired by his photos of elderly men in Scotland.
“All of these essays use visuals in surprising ways,” Bresland says. “As well, they’re exquisitely written.”
I first became aware of video essays when profiling Blackbird for a magazine feature. Editors featured Bresland’s four-and-a-half minute piece, “Les Cruel Shoes,” on the website. It’s about living in Paris, jogging through empty streets before dawn.
“I think it’s fair to say the French are opposed to jogging,” Bresland observes in the video, “something in their DNA forbidding them to wear sweatpants in public. So they sleep in, and every morning, I’m the only runner out here.”
With a borrowed camera, Breslan recorded video of himself jogging in the dark through lamp-lit alleys, past the Arc de Triomphe. He used an iMac to blend imagery with haunting music and a voiceover. “It turned out to be a surprisingly intimate way to see the city,” he says over the slapping of running shoes on cobblestones. “A little spooky sometimes, but …intimate.”
Bresland has gone on to make numerous video essays that have appeared on the websites for Ninth Letter, Split Lip and TriQuarterly. “Writing is no longer just words,” he says. “I’m hungry for films that aren’t afraid to talk to us or to think aloud on a voiceover track.”
A gift to set loose
Simmons B. Buntin, editor-in-chief at Terrain.org, notes that video pieces offer readers one more way to interact with a poem, essay or story. “It’s much more immersive,” he says.
Last year, he published three cinepoems by Washington writer Bill Yake. “The Tree as Verb,” “Praising the Fish” and “Feeding, the Whales of Hecate Strait” combine still nature photos, videos and music with Yake’s voiceover recitation. In one poem, he reads onstage; then the video dissolves to focus on photos of a watercolor painting of a fish, a sky at sunset, the image of salmon in a river.
“Terrain.org strives to publish sets of poems,” Buntin says, “and that can present a challenge when it comes to video poems like those by Bill Yake because the cinematography of each can differ. How do they play off of each other? Do they work as a series? Bill’s cinepoems present a rich mix of species types: tree, fish, whale. His verse and the images – sometimes still, sometimes true video – strike me as paradoxical: the still image and the lively voice; the whales above and below water, feeding, and the calm voice.”
Fifteen years ago, the community TV station in Olympia, where Yake lives, trained poets to shoot and edit videos of their work. “Audiences for poetry are modest,” he says, “and bringing more folks to the table seemed then, and seems now, worthwhile. Folks drawn by the music of music as well as the music of words. Folks drawn to literal images in addition to images conjured with words.”
Yake collects quotes and “snippets of this and that” and ambient sounds that are available for free on the Internet. Using a digital audio recorder and an SLR camera with video options, he assembles his pieces using Adobe Premier software.
“There’s much to be learned in trying to cobble together a video poem,” he explains. “It’s a challenge. A puzzle. It’s play. And ultimately, it’s a gift to set loose on the unwary Internet traveler.”
The best camera
How do writers navigate the leap from printed page to video? Dan Morrison, a freelance photojournalist specializing in multimedia news packages, teaches photojournalism at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication. Some of his students show up on the first day of class never having recorded video; at the end of 10 weeks, they’ve learned to create fluid, powerful multimedia presentations.
Morrison warns against “camera shake” in a video piece. “Your most important piece of gear is a tripod,” he notes. He’s also a fierce advocate for superlative audio. “You can have the most amazing footage of Sasquatch battling the Loch Ness Monster being abducted by aliens, and if you have bad audio, it won’t work.”
He also recommends a camera with a microphone port. “You can buy an external mic for 85 bucks,” he says, “and it works pretty darned well.” While some filmmakers prefer iMovie, he suggests Final Cut 10 or Adobe Premier for professional presentation.
Not willing to spend money on equipment just yet? Bresland believes the old dictum holds true: “The best camera in the world is the one you are carrying when you need it.” He made his video essay “Mangoes” on a five-year old iPhone. “Even if a mobile phone can’t duplicate the sharpness and low-light clarity of a higher-end DSLR,” he says, “it’s quite good at capturing real moments between people.”
Double work, well worth it
Video literature, done well, is time-consuming. Bresland notes that “Mangoes” took four months to make. “A five-minute video essay, for me,” he adds, “takes about as long as a full-length print project of many thousands of words.”
To make “That Kind of Daughter,” Radtke drew images and cut them into shapes, then used an old overhead projector to film the projection on the wall as she placed the pieces together into recognizable images. “I then cut up the footage digitally to create the stop-motion,” she explains. “The actual filming took about two evenings, and the editing a week or two.”
Buntin acknowledges the “double work” of creating a piece that stands on its own and then transforming it to video. Some writers prefer to collaborate with artists who are more adept at photography, video and editing. Nancy Lord, author of Early Warming: Crisis and Response in the Climate-Changed North, recorded her essay “Glacier” at her public radio station in Homer, Alaska, and then turned the audio file over to friend and artistic collaborator Irene Owsley.
“Over the track of Nancy’s voice,” Owsley says, “I mixed in bird sounds that I had gathered with a small recorder and external microphone at our campsites by the glaciers in Harriman Fjord, as well as the calving and other glacier sounds.” She shot still images with a tripod to create a panorama of one glacier, then used Adobe Premier to incorporate the use of still images along with sound editing.
The result is a lush, meditative exploration of glacier formation and destruction and the inadequacy of language to capture the magnificence and importance.
“We’re not entirely clear about what we want to call this thing,” Lord says of “Glaciers,” published earlier this year on Terrain.org. “It’s not really a video; I like to call it an image essay. Natural images of landscapes, plants, all things nature may have a particular appeal,” she adds, “and are hard to convey in words alone. I’m interested in any media that calls attention to the natural world and threats to it.”
Increasingly, editors are putting out a call for video projects that combine striking visuals with eloquent language. “The trick,” says Bresland, “is to avoid redundancy between images and words. Better to let the visuals and the language do their own delving, and even to contradict one another, as our real-life thoughts and experiences tend to do. When there’s distance between the image and the word, there’s space for the viewer’s imagination.”
Melissa Hart is the author of Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family. Her multimedia book trailer, created by videographer Guru Amar Khalsa, can been viewed at melissahart.com.