“Video essay” is a somewhat pretentious term, isn’t it? I’m saying that as someone who makes them for a living, so I feel like I have room to critique my life choices.
If you don’t know what a video essay is, just think about a regular essay, but with accompanying visuals and music. It’s really that simple. There’s a misconception that video essays on YouTube exist specifically to critique, explain or analyze films — and indeed it seems that a vast majority of video essays do precisely that — but there’s no limit to what a video essay can tackle, just as there’s no limit to what someone can focus a written article on. Games, music, a public figure — all are fair game.
But what is a video essay really?
While there will likely be arguments about what precisely qualifies as a proper Video Essay™, probably the main signifier is that they tend to raise a claim or state a thesis, and then provide arguments to back up their idea. It’s a similar distinction between a think piece and documentary. Rather than merely presenting facts about a subject and calling it a day, a video essay tends to be more personal and opinionated, sparking an interesting discussion around analyzing the subject matter.
It’s that additional analytical element that moves it into video essay territory.
That analysis is a critical component that separates video essays from reviews of media, as well. Movies with Mikey from the YouTube channel FilmJoy is a fantastic YouTube series that is part review and part film analysis. In one of my favorite episodes, Mikey doesn’t just review Edgar Wright’s “Hot Fuzz” but also explores how films can become more culturally relevant in the years after their release. It’s that additional analytical element of the review that movies the episode into video essay territory.
Video essays have a tendency to be voiceover readings set to accompanying visuals of the topic they are discussing, but the exact format will differ from presenter to presenter. Natalie of the YouTube channel ContraPoints, for example, presents her ideas about culture and politics more often on camera with slick visuals than through voiceover. Does that disqualify her videos from being “true” video essays? Absolutely not.
Alternatively, a channel like CinemaSins technically hits a bunch of the criteria we’ve outlined — presented through voiceover, critiquing media, etc. — but they aren’t trying to argue a thesis about the movies they critique other than “movies have flaws sometimes,” which… I mean… yeah. Good job, gang.
So how do I make one of these things?
With that somewhat complicated and not at all exhaustive explanation of what video essays are, how do you go about making one? More specifically, how do you make a good one?
“Intellectual accessibility, an engaging host, and hard-hitting evidence” is the formula for making a great video essay according to Max Marriner, who hosted the video essayist networking panel at VidCon 2018. “Like, if you’ve ever seen Egoraptor’s Sequelitis on Mega Man, it’s basically THAT.”
Arin Hanson’s 2011 video essay about game design titled Sequelitis — Mega Man Classic vs. Mega Man X might be relatively old by internet standards, but it’s amassed over 13 million views in those last 7 years. “Entire towering principles of video game design are conveyed into understandable, digestible information that anyone, whether invested in the medium or not, can understand,” Marriner observes, “I personally think it’s the best video essay of all time.” Marriner believes this specific video has continued to resonate with viewers because it “encapsulates everything great about the video essay format.”
The video essays that stand out tend to be well-researched presentations on a topic that deserves a fresh look.
While hot takes about “The Last Jedi” will apparently always get thousands of views forever until the internet rots away, the videos essays that stand out the most tend to be well-researched — perhaps overly researched — presentations on a topic that either doesn’t get enough attention or that deserves a fresh look from another angle.
Why are some video essays better than others?
A video essay I’ve watched more than I should have is H. Bomberguy’s Sherlock Is Garbage, And Here’s Why. It’s a nearly two-hour long takedown of the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock Holmes television show, and it’s glorious! The BBC series is far from a little-known, niche program, but H. Bomberguy’s video takes the time to thoroughly breakdown Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s cleverly constructed characters, the elements that make a Sherlock Holmes story irresistible, and Steven Moffat’s style of writing as the co-creator of the tv series, with a deep dive into Moffat’s other work for comparison.
It’s brutal, it’s hilarious and it’s full of H. Bomberguy’s personality, which has made me and many others come back to this feature-length video essay time and time again. Pairing your distinct style with your unique thesis is what video essays are all about!
YouTuber Matt Draper, who makes videos about movies and comics, explained what makes an excellent video essay far more succinctly and effortlessly than I’ve been trying to do here. “It’s gotta be a blend of style and substance. The style is why it’s a video — interesting visuals, strong editing, music that supports the tone of the video. The substance comes from strong writing with a well-supported point — it’s the reason for it existing in the first place.”