The Aesthetic Ramifications of YouTube
Moving images have undergone multiple "revolutions" that redefine the experience of watching. Media changes (magic lanterns to film to video to digital) simultaneous with peripheral concerns (to watch a film means to hear its projection, splice reels, and feel the heat of the projector's lamp). On top of this, stylistic concerns often change with innovations or alterations in media. The introduction of cinemascope meant that films began to feature more deeply-focused "establishing" or "long" shots. The larger-than-life mentality began to perpetual the rival of the "epic" movie, itself a genre that flourished as a knee-jerk response to the limitations of television.
Video began to flourish in the 1970s. It began as an "artists" medium - much performance and conceptual work was captured in this new, more compact format - and was eventually integrated into television and later film production (an early example is the Frank Zappa helmed 200 Motels,
which was shot on video and transfered to film for theatrical distribution). Video was cheap but still evidently inferior to film. In the last 10 years, filmmakers have begun to see the comparable quality and cost-effectiveness of digital formats. The digital revolution has captured the contemporary world of independent film...and as such, methods for digital distribution are evangelically spreading the word.
How will YouTube (and its close cousins like Revver, Google Video and MySpace Video) alter the substance of moving images? One of the great ironies of the digital age are the two "extremes" in quality. Fixed-source media like HD-DVDs, Blu Ray discs, and DVDs are revolutionizing a viewing experience of clarity and photo-realism. On the other hand, streaming video is compressed, small, and clunky...watching a video on YouTube means enduring digital artifacts, variable bit rates, and tinny sound.
But there is more to the "YouTube compromise" than just quality. The types of videos that comprise the bulk of the site are constructed using an amateurish, and in some case non-existent, sense of film principles. The primary means of creating original content seems to be to point-and-shoot with the camera in all of its shaky glory, using the in-camera microphone for poorly mixed sound. While this is an incredibly democratizing - now ANYONE can make and distribute a "film" - it also increasingly exposes a film illiterate public to film illiterate video.
The YouTube experience is rapid-fire. Patrons of the site can watch between 4 and 40 clips during the normal length of an unedited TV program. Professionally made "clips" from larger programs - portions of TV shows, excerpts from films, commercials - seem to be more and more dictated by the principles of condensation. Montage, quick cuts, and quick punchlines are the order of the day.
There is a wealth of material of YouTube, though most of it is either cheaply amateurish (point-and-shoot "humor") or flashy, marginally professional, and FAST. As I see it, the accessible video revolution needs to have content that does not fall into either category. It needs full-length shows that fulfill classic paradigms and are carefully constructed by people who understand craftsmanship. It needs to house alternative forms that are ill-suited for fixed-media...perhaps Peter Watkins' towering film The Journey
, which is nearly impossible to see through traditional channels because of its length. If YouTube and other places for internet video are to be where the younger generations get their main burst of media literacy, there needs to be a more inclusive group of programs that show a vibrant historical connection with traditions of filmmaking that can sit (perhaps uneasily) alongside of the bulk of what passes as entertainment.