Why Are They Great for Learning?
It's easy to dismiss a lot of what circulates on YouTube as frivolous, silly, or even obnoxious, but video essays are the opposite. They demand students' attention but not through cartoonish gesturing, ultra-fast editing, and shock value (which even some of the more popular educational YouTubers fall prey to) -- there's room to breathe in these essays. To capture attention, video essays use a time-tested trick: being flat-out interesting. They present compelling questions or topics and then dig into them using media as evidence and explication. This makes them a great match for lessons on persuasive and argumentative writing.
But what I really love most about video essays is that they have something at stake; they ground their arguments in important cultural or political topics, exposing the ways media represents gender or race, for instance, or how media evolves over time and interacts with the world at large. Most importantly, video essays model for students how YouTube can be a platform for critical communication.
How Can They Be Used in Classrooms?
First, a caveat: Most of the channels below offer content that'll work best in an upper-middle or high school classroom. Some videos can also be explicit, so you'll want to do some browsing.
Conversation starter or lesson hook: Many of these videos serve as great two- to 10-minute introductions to topics relevant to classrooms across the curriculum.
Active viewing opportunity: Since video essays present often complex arguments, invite students to watch and rewatch videos and outline their theses, key points, and conclusions.
Research project: Have students find more examples that support, or argue against, a video's argument. Students could also write a response to a video essay.
Copyright lesson: Video essays are a great example of fair use. Show students that by adding their own commentary, they can use copyrighted material responsibly.
Assessment: Have students create their own video essays to demonstrate learning or media-creation skills like editing.
Channels and Videos to Check Out
This is an eclectic channel that’s hard to pin down; basically, the video topics focus on whatever intrigues the channel’s creator, Evan Puschak. There’s everything from analysis of painting, to MLK’s “I Have a Dream”speech to the history of the fidget spinner.
Vox runs the gamut of issues in politics, culture, and pop culture. Their explainer-style videos can serve as conversation starters, and since they published multiple videos a week there’s no shortage of choices. Also, make sure to check out their playlists offering essays on everything from music to climate change.
This channel does a masterful job of uncovering the layered meaning -- social, political, and cultural -- in music and hip-hop. While most of these videos are mature, and only suitable in very particular high school contexts, there’s brilliant work on everything from the poetic rhythms of the hip-hop group Migos to Kanye West’s stagecraft to music video minimalism. Any one of these videos could inspire a great lesson or unit.
Video essays are just one thing Lindsay does on her channel, and she’s really good at them. Her videos often deal with heady topics like “the other” but boils them down in accessible ways. She also isn’t afraid of throwing in a few jokes to keep things interesting.
There’s tons here focused on music with a specific emphasis on hip hop lyrics. One of my favorite series is called Deconstructed. While Deconstructed videos aren’t typical video essays, they present color-coded breakdowns of the rhyme schemes in hip-hop tracks. Students could apply this technique to their favorite songs or poems.
Every Frame A Painting
This now defunct channel has 30 videos with some of the best film analysis on YouTube. If you’re looking to help students analyze the language of film, this is the channel to check out. One of my personal favorites focuses on the work of a film editor.
Kristian focuses a lot on cartoons and comics which is a nice entry point for younger kids. His videos each touch on big ideas in storytelling. For instance, his examination of Pixar movies delves into their rich themes that break the often rote themes of other animated movies. This video would pair well with creative writing or literary analysis lessons.
One of the more long-running essayists on YouTube, CGP Grey has a fast-talking style with a lot of animation, but does a good job of answering head-scratching questions like, “What if the electoral college is tied?” or explaining complex issues like copyright in a digestible way.
Lessons from the Screenplay
While this channel focuses on how screenwriting underpins film, the lessons offered in each of this channel’s video essays are broadly applicable to the craft of writing in general.
I saved this one for last because it’s the least traditional. Kogonada is a former academic turned filmmaker who gained popularity through his Vimeo video essays that, for the most part, elegantly edit together film clips without any narration. These videos are great if you’re teaching video and film editing class or film appreciation/criticism. Creating a narration-less video would be an excellent final project for students.
Tanner Higgin is Director of Education Editorial Strategy at Common SenseEducation, which helps educators find the best ed-tech tools, learn best practices for teaching with tech, and equip students with the skills they need to use technology safely and responsibly. Go to Common Sense Education for free resources, including full reviews of digital tools.
Stanley Kubrick wasn’t coined the “Total Filmmaker” during his rise to directorial dominance for nothing.
Kubrick’s authorial presence could be felt in each frame of his work. One gets the sense that he is more mad scientist than director—that perhaps each character and setting is a mere test subject or variable in a lab where Kubrick is relentlessly experimenting with and observing behavior with clinical detachment.
How does he achieve this effect, and what is its purpose? Watch each of the supercut videos below to discover how the human gaze, symmetrical one-point perspective and the color red are all brandished by Kubrick to continue an ongoing conversation with audiences that transcends narrative, genre, time and space to offer unique, piercing insights into the human condition.
The Kubrick Gaze
One of the most iconic of all of Kubrick’s motifs running through his movies is the famed Kubrick stare. This playful montage by Jorge Luengo Ruiz shows us nearly all of its usages throughout Kubrick’s career. In each shot, a character’s head is tilted downwards and the eyes glance up, half obscured by his or her eyebrows. It’s a disorienting, unsettling effect and the comparisons present in this super cut only serve to strengthen the ties between each individual piece of his filmography.
Each instance in this video, from the earliest example—the climactic moment from The Killing (1956)—to the very last—Nicole Kidman’s seemingly inviting yet ominous smile from Eyes Wide Shut—represents some of Kubrick’s most important themes. As the hollowed out eyes of Alex DeLarge, David Bowman and Private Gomer Pyle gaze into the camera, the dehumanization and mechanization of the human soul become more apparent than ever before. Formal visual techniques like these can be fun to play around with in the moviemaking process but they don’t hold a truly powerful effect unless they carry the weight of characters and story.
The thematic through-line behind this gaze can be observed in every one of Kubrick’s movies, but this visual motif gives each work another layer and helps to tie each one to the next, regardless of their wildly varying genres. Sci-fi, war and horror may seem like incredibly disparate categories to label films but, under the guise of Kubrick, they become vessels through which the esteemed director is able to probe the limits of the human psyche and the depths to which humanity will go in order to advance the species. Behind each stare and within each eye, we get a firsthand look at the human race the way that Kubrick sees it: cold, brutal, distant and tearing itself apart from the inside. These are iconic, singular moments that serve to define each film.
Kubrick // One Point Perspective
In this super cut, video essayist Kogonda examines the many examples of Kubrick’s usage of One-Point Perspective, a symmetry in which all areas of the image lead directly towards a singular point in the center of the screen. Throughout the video, leading lines are incredibly apparent in Kubrick’s image and they always line up toward a singular destination for the viewer’s eye to reach. The perfect symmetry is often designed so that it accompanies unnerving, horrifying or shocking revelations.
The long hallways of the Overlook Hotel lead viewers to the ghosts of a tumultuous past that is not done with the film’s characters. The iconic Stargate of 2001: A Space Odyssey draws our eyes further and further into the void of infinity. The French military’s rifles point inward toward the doomed victims in Paths of Glory, an image both pleasing to the eye and upsetting to the soul. The soldiers wipe the floor of a bathroom in Full Metal Jacket, as the line of toilets draws our eyes toward the pointless monotony of the tasks. As can be seen in each of these examples, the many ways in which symmetry and composition can be used are integral when planning to achieve the effect you intend for your film to have on your audience.
In each of the shots present in Kogonda’s essay, Kubrick uses his visual compositions to play with the audiences’ expectation of what should and should not be a pleasing image. Each shot is designed to invite the viewer, almost serving as a form of hypnosis. The long, winding halls of the Overlook hotel strengthen the film’s grip on the audience like a tightly wound coil, with each snaking corner drawing us further and further in. It’s a disorienting effect, especially because of how much pleasure we often find in symmetry. A master manipulator, Kubrick smashes our expectations to pieces and reassembles them into a bewildering amalgamation of horror and beauty.
Red: A Kubrick Supercut
The color red can evoke a wide relay of emotions and states: joy, sexuality, passion, sensitivity, love, vigor, willpower, rage, anger, leadership, courage, wrath. This supercut by Rishi Kaneria examines the presence of the color red in the films of Kubrick. From the spaceship bathed in red in 2001: A Space Odyssey to the red-carpeted orgy in Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick has exploited this color to its fullest potential, often invoking an array of emotions in just a single image. As has often been observed in Kubrick’s filmography, his films are a constant blending of sex and violence, life and death and everything that these dualities represent.
One of the most prominent images in the supercut is of Bowman inside the birth canal-like chamber of the spaceship Discovery in 2001. In this image, Kubrick is examining the death of one era and the birth of another—all symbolized by the red light that is encapsulating Bowman, the human at the center of a shifting universe. This image, combined with the extended Stargate sequence, summarizes all of 2001—and it is not an image that can be told without the red hues cast upon the human body.
Often described as a cold and often inhuman director, Kubrick’s usage of the color red only proves that the essence of humanity is, and always has been, his primary concern. A passionate and vibrant color in any capacity, the abundance of red in the images that Kubrick has produced serves to show how integral color is to the filmmaking process. It’s important to understand that a shot bathed in red can tell an entirely different story from a shot bathed in blue.
What do these Kubrick supercuts teach you about moviemaking? Which is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below. MM
2001: A Space OdysseyEyes Wide ShutFull Metal JacketJorge Luengo RuizKogonadaKubrickRishi KaneriaStanley KubrickThe KillingvideoVideo essay