by Kathryn Graham
Lindsay Ellis is an American video essayist and film critic with degrees in film from NYU and USC. She condenses complex critical thinking and academic theory into entertaining and humorous YouTube essays on everything from a Film Studies through the Lens of Transformers to Product Placement and Fair Use. She is also the host and writer for PBS’s online short series It’s Lit! You can check out all of her content for free on YouTube!
Video essays. What are they and what are their strengths as opposed to written essays?
L: Video essays are effectively exactly what they sound like. There’s a misconception that a video essay is just a long ramble edited. They’re incorrectly defined. To me, a video essay is an essay. It has a thesis. It has a central argument and supporting evidence.
Video essays are really popular on YouTube right now specifically for visual media, and that’s where I personally think their strengths are best applied. It’s a new type of film writing where instead of describing a scene you are able to use elements of the scene to help strengthen whatever argument you’re making. Whether it’s a good argument or not depends on the case.
A lot of the time, it’s just “How Wes Anderson Uses Colors”. Bros love that. But it doesn’t put forth an argument. It’s just a list. Those are really popular. They call themselves video essays. I would argue they are not really essays.
You work with Angelina Meehan when you write. How do you choose your ideas? What is your process like?
L: I guess it depends on the topic. We have a meeting every week. Sometimes it’ll involve brainstorming what we’re going to do for the rest of the year or the quarter. A lot of it is financial. Matching sponsors with particular topics.
There’s one we started working on and put a pin in about Walt Disney and the allegations of anti-semitism. It was like… Mm… maybe that one should not be sponsored by Skillshare. You have to be strategic about what you put out there.
For our next video, I’ve wanted to talk about Roger Rabbit for a really long time. It’s interesting and under discussed. Most people talk about the IP. Wow, Bugs Bunny is in it! Or they talk about the technology. How it was done once but never really again.
L: Cool World. It was done once well.
People don’t talk about the political content of the film. That was one I was thinking about for awhile. Sometimes my writing partner will come up with ideas. She suggested ‘Death of the Author’ because we refer to it a lot, but we’ve never discussed it. We shot that one because on a whim I asked Jon Green, I was like: “Hey, you’ve had some opinions about this. Do you want to be in it?” He was like: Yeah! So we flew to Indianapolis.
Do you write scripts with dialogue or is it off the cuff?
L: We’re very careful with our words. You have to be. The trick is to make it seem informal, but all of our words are chosen very carefully. Because a lot of words that are very commonplace in academia you can’t really use on YouTube like ‘hegemony’, ‘patriarchy’, or ‘feminist framework’. So you have to write around those. It has to appear informal and accessible while still getting your point across. So I haven’t improvised anything in years, except for the Robert Moses rant in the The Case for Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame video. People are like “Release the whole thing!” I’m like, “No, that was all of it.”
So you start with your idea, then you have to research, right?
L: Yeah, a lot of time the thesis will change based on the research. A lot of YouTubers obviously don’t have any professional journalism background. When you start with a thesis, you’re trying to find supporting evidence for it. But a lot of times you’ll find: “Mm, maybe when I first came up with this idea, I was not educated on a certain sect.”
A lot of YouTubers tend to fall down this hole of ignoring that and only focusing on evidence that supports their argument. The tricky thing there is being open to your thesis changing or being completely invalid to where you need to trash the project.
The research really depends. The sad truth is the really hateful angry ones get the most views. So the one I did about That Time Disney Remade Beauty and the Beast. We were like: “We need to do this now, between two videos that will probably have lower views, because algorithm. We need to keep the algorithm favorable.”
Something like the Beauty and the Beast one we went through really quickly. We already know everything about Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. We don’t need a lot of research. It’s just pure vitriol.
Same with Bright: The Apotheosis of Lazy Worldbuilding. Bright we wrote and edited in two weeks. That one was like: “We have to get it out now. No one is going to care about Bright in a week.”
Monetizing everything. How do you feel about it? You seem like you’re not the happiest about having to do it.
L: I would describe it as ‘open hostility’. It’s funny because people accept it now. These companies, they tend to be BC startups, have a lot of money for marketing, and a lot of it goes to podcasts and YouTube because you’ve found it’s an effective way to advertise. Because ‘it’s your buddy!’
The part that makes me uncomfortable is leveraging that kind of personal connection you have with your fans that you don’t see on television or in more traditional modes of advertising.
That’s something I’m never going to be comfortable with, but it’s something I have to do. If I’m going to start my socialist utopia of just me and my employees (because I do pay for 100% of the health insurance of everyone who works for me) it’s really expensive. I need sponsors to pay for that in addition to all other costs.
We’re also in the process of getting commercial space so we can expand and shoot stuff like contract work. That’s going to be really expensive. It’s one of these things like: Well, you have to do it if you want to provide these things, like new cameras or going places. Like New Zealand. Boy that was an investment.
Question about “It’s Lit!” Tell me a little bit about it and how it differs from what you do on your own.
L: PBS contracted me to write and post it and they contracted another company called Spotson to animate and direct it.
Spotson does a few PBS affiliated shows. It’s Okay to be Smart is probably their most popular one. That one has a million + subscribers. It’s a science show. It’s run by a guy who has a PhD. He legitimate. He’s nice. His name’s Joe.
It’s Lit! was originally a tie-in with The Great American Read. They hired me to write and post the first six episodes. Then, they hired us to do six more because Facebook gave them a grant. So it was like: “Oh boy, we can keep doing it!”
We’re in talks to extend it into something more indefinite in 2019. In terms of educational content on YouTube, 99% of it is science stuff. Which is fine. But there’s very little humanities, history, art. So PBS is in the process of starting a channel dedicated to that. I don’t know if It’s Lit! will be a part of it. But something like that will be. They’re looking at starting early next year.
Check back next week for Part II!