Video Vortex: Online Video Aesthetics

By: Roman Tol
On: January 19, 2008
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About Roman Tol
Roman Tol is an Ecommerce specialist. Both techical and as a marketeer. Hands on and with vision. Keyword: Innovation.


To much disliking of my parents, as a kid I frequently would watch low budget television programs based on audience generated video fragments and unscripted pranks. These programs included the popular America’s Funniest Home Videos and candid camera shows such as Candid Camera. The first thing I remember about these programs is the very bad quality of the (mostly 8mm) picture, also the corny dubbing and the forced laughter spring to mind. Pretty much all the videos broadcasted on the show worked according to a simple formula, within a 10 second clip an unexpected event interrupts normality, if you’ve seen one you can guess with much certainty what will happen in the next. The popularity of these television shows has moved to the Internet, mainly YouTube; a user generated platform containing a wide variety of home-made video clips, eyewitness reports, webcam diaries and candid camera pranks. The worldwide appeal of YouTube (currently with the exception of Turkey) has made the site exceptionally attractive for early musicians. In previous posts on this blog (here and here) I have written about the promotion function of YouTube and its role as conservator of artistic production. YouTube has become a medium and platform in itself for art works and with it has given way to many marketers to exploit its function for advertising. Much has been written about the copyright infringements with concern to YouTube and its quality to provoke, harm and cause controversy. However, the aesthetics of these online videos has not received equal attention.

My first thought is to draw parallels to the old media formats, such as the previously mentioned television shows. Yet again what jumps to mind when picturing a YouTube video is the appalling picture quality. In the 80’s and 90’s user generated video content was often distinguishable from professional film because of its inferior aesthetic value. With the commencement of mass produced cheap digital camera’s and consumer friendly editing software packages one would expect the barrier between amateur and professional to vanish. Yet, YouTube seems to be a homogeneous style that mainly builds on eyewitness TV, candid camera formats and webcam diaries, moreover, the video quality is – just like its predecessor – second-rate. Mass produced lenses and technological advancements have done nothing to increase visual appeal. A logical answer is that whilst recording and editing techniques have highly developed; streaming, rendering and storage capabilities are still at an early stage of progression. YouTube converts uploaded videos into Flash, a low resolution codec, therewith making the pictures look cheap and unattractive. Currently video streaming platforms such are experimenting with high resolution codecs such as DivX encoded films, which with their higher frame rate are considerably bigger in file size, making them more difficult to store and buffer (thus stream) with an average connection speed. However with technological improvements in storage capacities hard-drives and flash-disks have become incredibly cheap. Hopefully internet speeds, namely in developing countries, will increase too.

On the other hand video screens are becoming smaller. Physical screens are reduced in size as more and more media devices become portable. Also webplayers are smaller than the screens they are viewed on, mainly to compensate for the low resolution caused by its coding and to maintain a comfortable buffering time for its users. In the time when I was watching the above mentioned television shows, music videos were a branding tool for musicians and video artists were paid extensively for blockbuster like clips. Hard to believe budgets were spend on a 3 minute lasting slick eye-catching visual waterfall. Mark Romanek’s 1995 video for Michael and Janet Jackson’s “Scream” is considered the most expensive ever, at an estimated $7 million. Nowadays the music industry is, as they proclaim themselves, in crisis from falling sales due to file sharing and loss of brand control. MTV, the once upon a time music channel pioneer with 24 hours around the clock videos, is pretty much only broadcasting real-life soaps, pranks, candid camera shows and video diaries. The stage for musicians and video artists has shifted to YouTube, i-Tunes, and various other networks. Consequently labels have less to spend on elaborate videos like those made by Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Romanek and Fincher, making ambitious videos an exotic species facing extinction. The dinosaur era of videos has made way to videos that will mostly be seen in miniature on computers. The result, as the Associate Press putts it, has been a major shift in the art form, as artists increasingly embrace the YouTube aesthetic with cheap, stripped-down, low-production videos. Directors have to adapt to the smaller-sized medium. “The new aesthetic is that it’s very low-budget, lo-fi, very do-it-yourself, not at all dedicated to the old style of music video which was always bigger and louder and more explosions and more money,” says Saul Austerlitz, author of Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video from the Beatles to the White Stripes. “This is more a punk-rock aesthetic,” he adds. “It’s very exciting.” So now that music videos increasingly resemble video art, can we define how artistic practices influence the look of online footage?

During Video Vortex, organized by the Amsterdam based Institute for Network Cultures, filmmaker Andreas Treske talked about the alteration in viewing conditions and therewith a change in viewing experience caused by the composition, aesthetics, and cinematic rules and practices of film. As screens become smaller artists focus more on close ups to bring the viewer closer; consequently there is an emphasis on gestures and details are blurred out. The language of cinema is applicable in a reduced form. The iPhone offers viewing possibilities of full-scale films that are (still) edited for cinemas, however, engagement is lost as small screened devices are particularly used in transit. Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (coincidently my favorite film) could to some extend work quite well on a portable device. Leone made heavy use of close-ups, the emphasis on gestures, such as eye movement and accent on detail, allowed the audience to be drawn closer, engaging in a tense play of focus, blurring out the background and stressing on the root of what is at stake. However portable devices, such as the iPhone, are used ubiquitously, which is different from cinema, as cinema is framed according to a set place and time, making watching 175 minutes of Once Upon a Time in the West very difficult; engagement with the film is lost as one will also engage with the device, the surrounding, and the physical and social activity one performs (paradoxically this urban – and to a lesser extend domestic – surrounding is increasingly being filled with bigger screens). As the attention span is short, the composition of online videos is undersized and to the point. Hence with the compression of images/screen there is a compression of time and place.

It is therefore inevitable that we study new methods of impact and discover new ways relating it to video, says documentary maker Stefaan Decostere. In fact we should be thinking about an academic field of Impactology. Impact differs from effect and affect in that it is measurable and generates more impact. The OK Go video with four guys on a treadmill that plays millions of times on YouTube had a huge impact on its audience, in the sense that it was refreshingly fresh and inspired audiences to make and share their own videos. Many artists and directors are now creating videos knowing they’ll have to compete for eyeballs on YouTube. OK Go’s famous treadmill-choreographed video for “Here It Goes Again” was perfectly suited for viral distribution, but the power pop band is far from alone in its reconsidered methods. Wouter Hamel’s Don’t Ask video consisted of a compilation of YouTube videos in which his song was lip synced. The Decemberists and Modest Mouse both asked fans to fill in the background to a video shot in front of a green screen. Last year, Death Cab for Cutie sponsored professional videos for each of the 11 songs on their album “Plans.” For his album “The Information,” Beck personally created a video for every track. The silly, lo-fi videos, which ranged from puppet versions of the band to someone dancing in a bear mask and poncho, were posted on YouTube and many copies of the album included a bonus DVD (source: AP). The bombardment of images makes artists constantly busy in finding new methods of impact. Can we delay impact? Route around it? Stop it? Television does not have the impact anymore. Not only have audiences become “too smart” for the tricks played out on them, television is associated with scripted formats and this no longer appeals to audiences who seem more interested in individuals, real life characters, and unscripted spontaneity. This might explain MTV’s shift to around the clock real-life soaps, pranks and diaries. Unscripted videos are about the individuals and less about the author/director, making it suited for the individualistic mentality present in contemporary western society. The “i” in iPhone, and the “You” in YouTube pretty much stand for the take on individuality and diversity. However, one might ask, how come all this focus on diversity produces forth a pool of homogeneity; standard formats of amateur repeats?

Helen Kambouri, researcher at the Kekmokop Institute in Athens, argues there is a tendency for Greek videos to contain a repetition of semantics, where bodily movements are persistently recurring. To exemplify her observation Kambouri turns to a violent video on YouTube that gained celebrity status in Greece. The video shows a local police station in Athens where two (supposedly) illegal Albanian immigrants are being told to repeatedly slap each other, which they do. The Greek police officer giving orders, who later states to have acted out of boredom, is also the director of the video. The violent video is recorded on a mobile phone and circulated via MMS, after which a Turkish blogger posted the clip on YouTube. The film has received, mainly because of its violent premise, much attention and is amongst the top YouTube hits in Greece. Kambouri says there is a difference in the (effortless) repetition on new media channels such as the mobile phone and YouTube from the repetition of television economy, which is based on transcription. There is no linear matter of storytelling but a repetition of semantics, similarly a video of a prostitute shows a woman constantly making the same hip movement over and over again. Complex narrative has made way for simplistic emphasis on the premise; the Greek police video is an individualistic project, where a violent act is distributed publicly for the purpose of confirming the role of its maker as that of a director in charge of what is being recorded.

There are, as mentioned earlier, parallels one could draw between online videos and user generated content (e.g. home videos) via television, but one could even go back further; Charlie Chaplin’s slapstick. Often slapstick segments are short, bad quality, and repetitious. Chaplin’s films are still being aired and repeated through various media (cinema, television, VHS, DVD, online networks). Many of the slapstick films are directed and acted out by Chaplin; an individualistic project. The narrative of slapstick films are a repetition of semantics, instead of a linear story. However, the focus on contemporary videos seems to be on the unscripted nature of the sequence of events. The bigger impact of online videos on its viewers can be related to its close relation with reality; authentic is more shocking than fiction. What YouTube and sites allike demonstrate is that authenticity can be portrayed best when it is aesthetically amateur, gonzo, lo-fi, raw, rock and roll.

Patricia Pisters, Professor of Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam, commented on statements made concerning television’s loss of impact and YouTube’s success, by referring to Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s controversial film Submission, which was screened only once on television and caused much commotion because of the huge impact, however, when it was repeated via YouTube there was hardly any fuss, it had no impact at all. Hopefully this will also be the case when Geert Wilders puts his movie about the Koran on YouTube, as he intends to do.

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