Shiralkar: The era of the video essay

Columnist Parth Shiralkar extends his writing curiosities to video essays.

Parth Shiralkar

Five years ago, a YouTube video discussing how Daniel LaRusso is actually the villain/main bully of “The Karate Kid” (1984) went viral. About a month before that video was posted, the creator, J. Matthew Turner, had posted another video detailing how “Mortal Kombat” and “Enter the Dragon” are essentially the same movie. This was one of the earliest formats of discourse that would later become popular as the “video essay.”

Turner posted the “Mortal Kombat”/”Enter the Dragon” video to Reddit, where it blew up and got him over 100,000 views in under a week. People who were unaware of its tongue-in-cheek nature contributed to hundreds of interactions on the video, pointing out that it was more than slightly obvious that that was the joke all along. Regardless, this popularization of a fresh format was the harbinger of a new wave of essays.

Video essays almost always feature a theme with a voiceover. The creator typically will make a claim at the beginning of the video essay and try to build a case for it using video footage and exciting editing, with sleek transitions and engaging music. Of course, all of this content could’ve been done pure via text, but the video adds another dimension of engagement and consumption, which is awesome.

I am a writer, which means my talents are limited to the written word and not sleeping on time. However, given the opportunity, I wouldn’t mind experimenting with video essays. On YouTube, creators are going nuts with their extravagantly edited videos and hot takes. Evan Puschak, known better as Nerdwriter1, is a popular name in the community. Other, lesser-known creators like misteramazing are on their way into the mainstream.

But the point remains — video essays as a form of commentary are really enjoyable. Is there a specific structure these videos have to follow in order to be classified as video essays? No one really knows. There are, of course, niche communities that deal with specific matters — say, philosophy or movie screenplays. Others border on the otherworldly in their depth of subject matter, like Vsauce.

I do not believe video essays need to follow some structure — as long as there is a subject and there is commentary on that subject, that’s a video essay in my book. There’s a common misconception that YouTube video essays exist specifically to critique, explain or analyze films  —  and, indeed, it seems that a vast majority of video essays do precisely that  —  but there’s no limit to what a video essay can tackle, just as there’s no limit to what someone can focus a written article on. Games, music, a public figure, a rare plant, even — it’s all highly entertaining fair game. Stay hydrated.