Some thoughts on video essays

September 24, 2021

Over the past half year or so, I made a couple video essays. Mostly because it was something I had always wanted to do, but also because I had a few ideas that I thought would be more powerful in a video format rather than an article.

Here are a few things I noticed.

Making (good) video essays is really fucking hard

Writing concise video scripts is hard enough as is. But now add background music, narration, audio mixing, graphics, animations, and an entire universe of video edits — and suddenly you’ve got 14 new things to master. You don’t have to use all of them, of course, but if you want to make a good video essay, you have to incorporate at least some of these elements.

The added auditory and visual elements available in video is a double-edged sword. They skyrocket your creative potential to infinity, but also the format’s skill ceiling alongside it. And that makes the learning curve for video-making incredibly steep — or at least, it definitely feels that way at times.

Seriously, making (good) video essays is really fucking hard

When you watch a video essay, the music choice seems so obvious and fits so perfectly. But when you’re trying to find background music, suddenly everything is too long or too short or sounds too bad. When you watch a video essay, it seems easy enough to find accompanying footage. But when you’re looking for footage, suddenly nothing is available.

This is a phenomenon that is true of really any skill or creative process: writing seems easy until you try it, drawing seems simple until you try it, video games seem straightforward until you play them — so on and so forth. This tweet about sums it up:

“Everything seems simpler than it truly is, when you are not the one working on it. Everything seems more complex than it truly is, when you are the one working it.”

You can get away with a lot

My video timelines would always be littered with minor problems: footage being a few seconds short of the next clip, audio not syncing smoothly enough, not knowing how to animate certain elements properly.

At some point, I would get fed up trying to find clever solutions to these problems and resort to lazily extending clips past their appropriate time or no longer caring about how awful the clipped audio sounded.

Initially, I was scared people would notice and call me out for it. But then I realized that no one notices anything, ever.

When you passively watch a video essay — especially for the first time — you usually miss out on a lot of technical “imperfections” because you’re focused on the actual content. But if you pay close attention upon rewatch, it’s easy to notice some of those things that I mentioned above.

I’m not encouraging being lazy. You should always still try to make the best product you can. But you have a lot more leeway than you think.

And now that I think about it, I guess this is true for other mediums as well. No one is going around giving your creative work some rigorous critical analysis — especially if you’re just starting out. But it continues to amaze me how little people notice these technical “mistakes” or “imperfections” — especially in video format, where they are more visually and audibly evident than in pure text.

Video essays exert more control than essays

I think video essays inherently have a tighter grip on the audience than pure writing does.

For example, if you’re narrating your video essay, you have complete control over how you want your piece to be read — because you’re choosing how and when to pause, speed up, or inflect your voice. You also control what visual and auditory signals go with which words and when.

But most unique of all, I think the video format discourages your audience from skipping forward and ignoring you. They still can, of course, but they risk missing out on something potentially important or funny. And do they want to take that risk, especially if they’re never seen your content before?

With an article, you can get a preview of what’s to come by skimming forward. But with video, you can’t know what’s going to happen without watching it through. So you’re more inclined to sequentially finish a video than an article.

To put it another way, articles are like: Hey, you can engage with whatever you want.

While videos are like: Hey, you can engage with whatever you want. But for the full experience, you should watch the whole thing from start to finish. It’s your choice, though. No pressure. But you should watch the whole thing from start to finish.

Video essays are great at conveying moods

Because people are more inclined to watch through an entire video, that makes the format great for telling linear narratives and conveying moods or sentiments.

Poetry or fiction are good mediums for this too. But good video essays can take great writing and augment it with explicit visuals and fitting background music — taken as a complete product, they have an overall higher ceiling for emotional engagement when you engage with them.

This is one of my favorite video essays of all time. I revisit it every now and then to keep myself grounded. I’ll let it speak for itself.

Video essays are not optimized for learning

Despite their name, I don’t think video essays are a very efficient means to actually learn stuff.

I think the big reason for this is that visuals play a big role in the video format, because they’re the immediate attention grabber. But if your main idea is mainly in words (or audio) and your visuals aren’t absolutely necessary to supplement it, then you’re just wasting your audience’s concentration on something that doesn’t matter.

Take, for example, this video essay discussing the Fermi Paradox. There’s so much visual overload that is just there to fill space and be tangentially related to the explanation.

Contrast that with this article also talking about the Fermi Paradox. The information is easily visible and accessible, with important parts bolded and accompanied with diagrams. If I want a quick refresh of the information, I just need to scroll through the page and I’ll have it all in a few seconds. With the video, I’d have to skip back and forth and remember which parts are discussing what and where.

I’m not denying that videos can be a great way to communicate information. I think they’re a great way to introduce or lighten difficult topics in particular, and you can definitely pull it off (see: Kurgestat, 3Blue1Brown. Consider how much effort is needed to produce these kinds of videos, though). But at the most technical level, I think reading is the best for conveying pure knowledge. A video’s strength, to me, lies more so in expressing certain emotional sentiments.

I have a lot of respect for people who make video essays, or at least try to. Good video essays are an absolute pleasure to watch. Whether they’re trying to explain some phenomenon or express a particular emotion or mindset, if they’re made well, then I would argue that video essays are among the most engaging and dynamic forms of information consumption out there.