Sunday, April 12, 2015

Desktop Dynamite: conversation with Kevin B. Lee (Part 1 of 3) on Transformers: The Premake


Last summer Kevin B. Lee made a splash with his clever, thought-provoking short film Transformers: The Premake, which documents the global production of Transformers: Age of Extinction through fan videos, news articles, online conversations, and other media, including Kevin's own footage of the Chicago shoot. But is Transformers: The Premake a short film (the Berlinale Film Festival seemed to think so, screening alongside other shorts a few weeks ago)? Or is it a video essay, a work of criticism in audiovisual form? Can it be both? Is there a difference between the video essay and the essay film? Kevin himself calls it "a desktop documentary," describing the form in which it is presented (through multiple windows opening and closing on what appears to be a desktop computer) but he's open to multiple classifications. One of the exciting things about a new form like the video essay is its ability to cross and confuse boundaries, and this too is something Kevin is more than eager to discuss.

Kevin B. Lee has been making video essays for close to a decade, beginning on his film blog Shooting Down Pictures, which sought to review every title on the They Shoot Pictures Don't They Top 1000 list. In fact, he is often credited with inventing the form (at least in its online incarnation), though he is quick to note precedents ranging from Chris Marker (Sans Soleil) to Thom Andersen (Los Angeles Plays Itself). Kevin is a unique founding figure in that, appropriately enough for a form which mixes criticism and filmmaking, he doesn't just make video essays - hundreds of them by this point - but also questions, interrogates, and analyzes them. Indeed, one of his most recent videos serves as a kind of meta-encapsulation to this entire approach. What Makes a Video Essay Great? explores its titular question with nuance and imagination, captioning videos with further captions, alternating his own narration with others, comparing clips of clips side-by-side...submitting video essayists to their very own sword.

After Kevin returned from the Berlinale, he and I spoke for several hours over the phone, discussing the Premake as well as other videos (by him, me, and other essayists) and larger issues with the video essay form. Here is our discussion, condensed and reorganized, but I hope it will only be the beginning. I want to hear what you think, about the specific video essays we discuss, about video essays in general, and about the relationship between criticism, creation, and fandom in this complicated digital age.

I have embedded Transformers: The Premake after the break, and it is recommended you watch it before reading Part 1 of the interview, which focuses exclusively on this work. Parts 2 and 3 of this interview, addressing broader topics in video essays, will appear tomorrow and Tuesday.


Transformers: The Premake


Transformers: The Premake (2014) by Kevin B. Lee, featuring MrSan44Man Behind The Scenes... (2013)

I want to share a comment I wrote about Transformers: The Premake after watching it for the first time. It was in response to Vadim Rizov, who felt your video was polemical in a misguided sense of asserting a rhetoric of resistance...

To copyright. I think he was standing up for copyright.

Yes, to a certain extent. But also maybe a more general point about using resistance as a motive for discussion. I felt like I understood that when I started watching your video the first time. I was ironically a little bit resistant to the resistance. 

(laughs)

Stylistically I loved it, but do I really agree their ad campaign is worth this much analysis? As it went on, what appealed to me was that it was more about what they were preventing or attempting to control other people doing. My take on the video was: "It answers the weary lament 'It's their world, the rest of us only get to live in it' not with 'It doesn't have to be' but rather with 'No, it's not.' Which is a far more powerful statement." I think there's broader implications with that too, for video essays. So that's the ball, I'm gonna hand it off to you, run with that as you will!

It's funny because that video is so much about how we relate to physical spaces. So it's especially ironic, it's fitting, the original concept for the Premake was an attempt to get away from all the previous video essay work I'd done which has always been about spending time just watching stuff on my computer screen. I reached this crisis point where it was like ok, I love movies but it's really preventing me from going out in the world. I want to inhabit spaces. Maybe my way of reconciling this conflict is to see how movies manifest themselves in real life. When Transformers rolled into town and started filming, I thought this is the perfect opportunity to observe a movie playing out in real life. How that effects the city, civic space, and public space, how people on the street interact with it. I set off to do that and it led to all this stuff about not being able to get very far, not being able to see very much except for what they designate for you to be able to see. And seeing all these other people filming and then finding all this material online. So in a weird way, this endeavor led me back to screens because that's where I could find all of the material related to the questions I was trying to ask. Ultimately it's about how can we take the spaces back? Or how can we get access to the spaces that we feel belong to us, both virtually and physically. The Premake is one version of that and it all takes place on a desktop computer, so how poetic!

Transformers: The Premake (2014) by Kevin B. Lee

How do you make a desktop documentary? Is this animation? The cursor moving across the screen and pushing things open and opening, that's not actually an image of stuff happening on a desktop is it?

It is! Literally just recording the desktop screen. There is an app that allow you to record your screen as if it's a film, or a movie, or a video, whatever word you want...

I wasn't sure if it was animation or literally just capturing. It's almost like right there you have the two poles of cinema! Filming your mouse moving around, are you plotting it out carefully or are you capturing it and choreographing ahead of time?

It starts with the actual experience of encountering those websites at different points in my research. It's really very linear, if you were to analyze the video and break it down in terms of what each window opening up accomplishes. Then it's like how do you make that interesting to watch? Is this going to be like just some weird version of PowerPoint? They play like slides so how do you create more of dynamism, that sense of moving through a website or a video? So it's very much about movement, putting one screen over here and popping one screen up over here and then you zoom in. You feel like you're advancing physically from one point to another.

Can you give me a microscopic impression of how you structured a certain sequence?

The China part is assembling the most pertinent and telling or revealing video clips off YouTube, and websites that I found, just through multiple searches of "Transformers China" or "China film industry," "China Hollywood." I cast a net that way and collected a bunch of videos. This one's telling me this, this one's telling me that. Then I laid out a trail where it starts off with Christopher Dodd, former senator who's now the head lobbyist for the Motion Picture Academy in Washington, D.C. talking about how China is just exploding with movie screens. This then leads to ... this other guy talking about, it's not that easy because you can't just go into China and drop a Hollywood movie on them. They're now wanting more Chinese elements. Then it goes from there to some more websites that talk about how Hollywood films are becoming more Chinese with their subject matter, locations and characters. Ok, how does this apply to Transformers? I found this video by the #1 Transformers fan on YouTube, TheRaginRonin talking about oh guys, I just watched the trailer - there are these Chinese elements in the trailer! He has this side-by-side comparison of Grimlock, the dinosaur with the Chinese dragon image that he found. It's uncanny, they're so similar. And then I play my little joke and I pull back to the full-screen view of the Grimlock character as he was in the 1980s cartoon as my desktop wallpaper and then I transformed him into the new Chinese dragon version. So it's just treating all of these materials as pieces of a puzzle but the picture is of your own making. What picture can you make with all these puzzle pieces, in what sequence? It's almost like reading the tea leaves and finding the hidden message. You can be super-playful and it creates a kind of cinema that you can't really see elsewhere. It's so specific to the desktop experience and the things you can do [there].

Transformers: The Premake (2014) by Kevin B. Lee, featuring various Transformers making-of videos

In assembling this project did you see it as an act of construction, building a full perspective etc, or as a daisy chain, following a stream-of-consciousness from one idea to the other to the other to the other? To me it played more like a daisy chain rather than a polemic, which I kind of like. Do you view it as each piece on top of the next one or each piece leads to the next one? That's a weird visual analogy to use but hopefully it makes sense.

I know what you mean. It's not nearly as didactic as other things I've made, where I'm just narrating my argument out loud. It's all through the images and the sounds, you're just seeing how I'm manipulating the windows. From that you're starting to wonder who's doing all this, and what are they thinking? It creates a different kind of conversational dynamic between the viewer and the maker. It becomes more of a puzzle. But there's still an argument in play, it's not just random clips being thrown out and scattered in the air. There are linkages but it just becomes more of a signaling, like Morse code in a way. What are the connections? Sometimes it's explicit - "Hollywood is ripping off Detroit" is pretty damn explicit - but other times it's stewing, slowly bubbling into realizations. Then the question is, if I realize Hollywood is doing this in China or Detroit how do I feel about that? That's still pretty open.

Did you feel like you were building toward a climax?

Yeah, absolutely. The climax is uploading the video [after showing Paramount's deletion of other videos]. That's a pretty significant gesture. It's like ok, where do I stand with all of this stuff? You know what, I'm going to upload my footage because that puts me square in the middle with everyone else that's been uploading this stuff. But I'm also uploading in the sense of taking all this in. That was an important climactic moment for me. Then with those huge explosions at the end, it's very symbolic. At least in my mind, it's about this imminent collapse of this huge constructed super entertainment media complex that...

Thinks it can control how you see it.

I don't know if you realize this but the ending with all the explosions...that's basically every YouTube video that had an explosion. A hundred explosions in ten seconds which actually breaks the record for the most explosions in a ten-second span in any Hollywood movie. And you know who has the record? It's Michael Bay, for Transformers.

Transformers: The Premake (2014) by Kevin B. Lee, featuring numerous Transformers making-of videos

So you broke Michael Bay's record?

Exactly! (laughs) That was exactly the point. I don't think I've told anyone that before, but that was the goal. Around the same time I published this piece in the New York Times about explosions in Hollywood, so I actually had to count the number of explosions in twelve different Hollywood movies just to chart the inflation. And Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the previous Transformers, had the most explosions in a ten-second span. I was like, you know what, I can beat this! I have some material, I can totally out-explode Michael Bay. So that's what I did.

The conversation continues tomorrow with Part 2, addressing broader questions of style and sensibility in video essays.

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