The Art of the Video Essay
Written by: Samra Karamustafic
What they are, why they’re so popular right now, and why you should be watching them.
When looking at any creative platform or medium, it’s normal to see various trends and changes in what’s considered “popular content” over the years. For example, Instagram used to be riddled with photos edited with the app’s native filters, but now it’s all about the photo dumps.
The same can be said for another creative platform and its content: YouTube. At one point, the likes of KevJumba, NigaHiga and Smosh dominated YouTube with their comedic sketches and parodies. After a while, vlogging and lifestyle videos took the platform by storm, to the point where nearly every girl felt compelled to make sure that she always had a lit Bath & Body Works candle in her mint-colored bedroom — myself included. But now, a newer type of content has been making its way onto “Recommended” pages far and wide: the video essay.
BUT WAIT… WHAT EXACTLY IS A VIDEO ESSAY?
Don’t let the word “essay” mislead you. A video essay is not a recording of a student simply reading a term paper aloud for a class, but rather the latest form of content that has grown in popularity in the YouTube community. According to a blog post from film production software company StudioBinder, a video essay is simply a video that analyzes a specific topic, person, or thesis, in hopes of educating or persuading the viewer or critiquing the subject matter.
a video essay is simply a video that analyzes a specific topic, person, or thesis, in hopes of educating or persuading the viewer or critiquing the subject matter.
Although many video essays are centered on film, shows or music, they can cover nearly any subject imaginable, from the effects of social media on today’s youth to how “The Sims” serves as an anti-capitalist critique (yes, this is an actual video essay!).
WHY ARE THEY POPULAR — ESPECIALLY IN THE MIDST OF THE TIKTOK ERA
Video essays can also be as long (or short) as the content creator wants it to be. For the most part, the typical video essay tends to be anywhere between 15 and 30 minutes in length, but it’s not unusual to find video essays that clock in at hours-long.
Considering that we live in an era dominated by short-form content and dwindling attention spans, one might ask how exactly this long-form content is thriving in terms of engagement and view-count on YouTube.
This is the reason why so many video essays succeed: they select a relevant topic to focus on and expand on said topic by providing an original, creative spin on it.
A couple of key factors come into play for this to work. For starters, what makes a particular video essay appealing to many viewers is the fresh take it might provide on a relevant or popular subject. For instance, you might have listened to Lorde’s sophomore album “Melodrama” and formed your own thoughts and opinions about it. But, did you ever consider it to be an ancient Greek tragedy, like YouTuber Internet Jules did? This is the reason why so many video essays succeed: they select a relevant topic to focus on and expand on said topic by providing an original, creative spin on it.
Another important component to the appeal of video essays is that most of the time, the person recording the video essay keeps you engaged throughout the entire video. This could be because they have top-notch public speaking skills, a well-written script packed with jokes, a fun editing style, or a combination of the three — all of which keep you hooked and attentive throughout the entire video.
While the word “video” may be in the title, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you actually have to sit down and view the video essay in order to absorb the information. Convenience plays an important role in why they continue growing in popularity.
Let’s face it: most people have a lot of responsibilities, which means that life is busy. Maybe you feel you don’t have time to sit down and watch a movie or show, let alone a 30-minute video essay.
The next time you’re cleaning your apartment or out for a walk, simply pull up a video essay you’d like to watch, pop in some headphones, press play, then go back to what you were doing in the first place.
But the solution is simple — multitask! The next time you’re cleaning your apartment or out for a walk, simply pull up a video essay you’d like to watch, pop in some headphones, press play, then go back to what you were doing in the first place. That’s one of the great advantages of video essays: while they are in video format and may have some quirky editing, in the case of most video essays, you don’t need to actively look at the content on the screen in order to enjoy them.
I’M DOWN — DO YOU HAVE ANY RECOMMENDATIONS?
The types of video essays that you can find on YouTube are nearly limitless, and the same goes for YouTubers whose focus is primarily video essays. But with that being said, there are a few notable content creators who are well-known for their video essays — whether they’re about fashion, film, or anything in between:
Mina Le: Mina describes herself as “just a gal who likes fashion and movies,” which is an apt description, considering that most of her video essays center around those two topics. Despite the fact that she joined YouTube in May 2020, she’s already at 622,000 subscribers and has a total of 23,000,000 views!
Most Popular Video: “TikTok is Kinda Bad for Fashion”
Tiffany Ferguson: Tiffany (known on YouTube as “tiffanyferg”) first began filming video essays in 2018 with the video “Joana Ceddia is the New Emma Chamberlain.” Not only was this the first video essay she ever made, but it also kickstarted her popular ongoing media commentary series “Internet Analysis”.
Most Popular Video: “You’re Not Relatable Anymore”
The Nerdwriter: The Nerdwriter is a weekly video essay series hosted by Evan Puschak that’s been “putting ideas to work in the form of 5-10 minute video essays” since 2011. Puschak’s video essays cover several different topics, like film, music, politics, paintings and more.
Most Popular Video: “Parasite’s Perfect Montage”
CJ the X: An up-and-coming artist who posted his first video essay in January 2021, CJ and the X’s channel has already garnered 3 million total views! This doesn’t come as a surprise, considering that his approach to video essays is quite unique. Not only does he talk incredibly fast and deliver jokes in a hilarious, deadpan fashion; but he never films a video essay without a glamorous makeup look and a glass of wine in his hand. His content focuses on pop culture — primarily film, TV shows, and music.
Most Popular Video: “The Neurosis of Cat Valentine - Video Essay”