A Conversation with Lindsay Ellis – Part II

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!

For those who missed it, Part I is HERE

Where do you see the future of what you’re doing going?

L: I don’t know. YouTube is very splintered. In left leaning spaces, you’ll see more and more attention paid to things like quality of the picture and the framing devices. It’s leaning more artistic and expensive looking. It’s leaning towards highly researched videos. The consequences of that is people make fewer and fewer videos.

Meanwhile, YouTube doesn’t favor inconsistent output like that. It likes you to be like: Tuesdays, once a week, exactly 25 – 35 minutes, whatever your schedule is.

That works for the AM Talk Radio side of YouTube which is really consistent and releases a lot more often.

So there’s kind of an imbalance. There’s two cultures. One sub-culture wants to focus on higher quality and better research and use that to gain attention. The other side is just like… Cinema Sins (note from KG: a nit-picky and often inaccurate ‘movie review’ YouTube channel).

I just watched a whole video about Cinema Sins’s sins. Sustaining Stupidity by Bobvids.

L: Yes! I have made so many people watch that video. It’s not just about why Cinema Sins is bad. It’s a good microcosm for what kind of content gets consistent sustained views on YouTube. How it’s cultivated. Why it’s cultivated in bad faith. How this is bad for society at large. It breaks it down bullet point by bullet point.

Do you think a subscription service for what you do might work? Would there be enough demand?

L: I think there would be demand, but part of the deal is you want to reach new people. Ultimately, my goal is to get people to re-evaluate the way they consume media. The way they think critically and how critical thinking even works.

A lot of YouTube is really bad for critical thinking. A lot of it is very emotion driven. “Here’s what I thought about a movie, but I’m going to try to dress it up in objectivist rhetoric that doesn’t apply.” You cannot objectively review a movie.

There’s this kind of obsession with this kind of ‘pwnage’. Like “I need to crush the other side.” A lot of times ‘the other side’ is like Ghostbusters 2016.

Part of the rising tide of that is it needs an alternative. Those alternatives do exist, but they tend to release less frequently, and they tend to get way fewer views than Cinema Sins.

Another trend I’m not liking is, I talked about this in That Time Disney Remade Beauty and the Beast, where we have to over-explain everything. To preempt the objections. It’s like we’re making movies for Cinema Sins now.

A lot of stories, we do not need to know the logic of the universe. There are some universes like Harry Potter that operate on an elaborate internal clockwork. But there are other universes like Beauty and the Beast for example, where it’s a disservice to the story to try to apply strict logic to it.

People get so worked up now… I think of Star Wars: The Last Jedi and I just want to stand on a mountain going “It’s just a movie! Why is everything culture war?” Why does everything have to go to 11?

This is another thing I’m not sure I’m ever going to address. You see this phrase ‘objectively bad’. I’ve seen this phrase a lot more, especially in relation to The Last Jedi. That’s just because there’s a certain subset that has co-opted this phrase and is using it to justify their opinions. They have convinced themselves that there’s a quadratic formula for how to figure out if a movie is bad, but that’s not how it works.

I could make a good argument for contrived or poor structure. I have some issues with The Last Jedi. Mostly character arc related, but at the end of the day, there’s no such thing as objectivity. There’s some people out there who like structure-less stories. That doesn’t make them wrong. It just means they don’t like Hollywood movies.

There’s a lack of self-awareness where people can’t connect their intense reaction to some form of internal bias. They’re like “No! It’s objective! It’s bad!” If it was objective, I’d agree with you. If it was objective, everyone would agree with you.

With representation in film, do you see that getting any better or staying about the same or getting worse?

L: I see it getting better, but I think Hollywood is trailing culture. Not the other way around. The reason you see movies like Get Out and Wonder Woman is that people are open to it, and they want to see stuff like that in a way that they didn’t 10 years ago.

I think that the market is there. That’s the only reason it’s getting better on the whole.

Is there any advice you’d give to people who want to be on YouTube or start anything on Youtube?

L: The most important advice is: Do not ape other people’s voices. I think the worst thing people can do is: “I wanna be like this person!” There’s a ton of people that try to be like Red Letter Media. They’ll make the same jokes. They’ll have the same tone.

A lot of people will write me and be like: “How do I make this good?” I’m like: “Practice it. It’s your first one. It’s not going to be good.”

I think people need to learn to be okay with that. It’s a process. It’s like any skill. Most people will have a kernel of an idea of what their voice is going to be. This is a medium. It’s not the same as prose. It’s a process to find it.

A lot of people that I now consider peers had such a learning curve.
You need to figure out what you’re good at and what your voice is.

The best advice I ever saw was someone said: Don’t try to demand the attention of people who you admire. Try to elevate your peers, and rise up with them. Eventually, the people you admire will start to take notice.
That’s definitely been my experience.

Kathryn Graham has a Conversation with Lindsay Ellis – Part I

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.

Space Jam.

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!