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So What’s Video, Anyway?

by Bart Weiss 3 Jul 2013 1:07 PM

As head of VideoFest, guest blogger Bart Weiss is asked this question all the time. Here’s his answer.


Guest blogger Bart Weiss is the artistic director of VideoFest and a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.

I had a meeting with Mark Perkins (of Dallas ad agency Sullivan Perkins) about designs for this year’s VideoFest. And that let to some interesting questions from him.

What is video? Are things on YouTube and Vine video? Motion graphics?

I feel like I’ve been answering these questions since 1987, but we didn’t have these specific tools back then.

Certainly every year as the festival approaches, someone from the press will ask me about what I call video. So I thought I would go public on my thinking.

Historically, there was a major difference between film and video, and I was a film guy. Film was and is expensive, looks great and requires a level of craft (loading the camera, exposure etc.) to just get an image. But film was/is a matter of class andprivilege. Plus, film was first.

Next came TV. Television in the beginning was live, then taped – first a studio show, later on location. TV was culturally different from film. For a long time, it was considered ephemeral, not serious. People who worked in TV were feeding the beast. Since you needed so much programming all the time, it couldn’t be as precious at cinema. Then in the 70s Sony came out with portable video that was both inexpensive and relatively easy to use.

There were two camps who picked up on this early video. Artists who worked in sculpture, photography and performance said it was a the new medium. The other folks were social activists who were using video to affect change. In some cases, they pointed the camera on the media; other times they documented issues around them. They also made videos for disenfranchised communities. Once Downtown Community Television Center in New York made videos of people going to the dentists in Chinatown, because many in the community had never been to a dentist and were afraid. DCTV played these videos on vans on the street. It is from this spirit that VideoFest gets its inspiration.

Video in the hands of many can be transformative.

Since those days, so much has changed. Video is no longer so grungy. In fact, today it can approach the look of cinema.

This brings us to an interesting dilemma. Marshall McLuhan (who coined the phrase “the medium is the message”) would talk about the difference between hot and cold media – the distinction in how much resolution a medium has and how much it leaves for the imagination. In the McLuhan dialectic, movies were hot and TV was cool. But what happens when TV becomes high res, as it will be soon with 4K ultra hi res? TV looses its cool and turns into a hot medium, and what will that mean?

In those old days, editing video was difficult. And there was this line of thinking that went, “Hey it’s video. It’s real, so let it play long.” (And, boy, sometimes they went very long.) But now nobody edits in film anymore. And as we know from Vine, a video can be expressive in six seconds.

And there’s the exhibition side. There was a time when independent filmmakers would show their films on 16 mm, often with the noise projector in the room and with really bad optical soundtracks. These were known as the good old days. I remember once bringing in Albert Maysles to show Salesman. I had a 16 mm print and a DVD. I showed him both, and he preferred the DVD, so that is what we showed. Video projection can be as big as the biggest move theater or as small as a mobile phone.

So what is video?

Video is all electronic moving imagery. I used to say if it was shot in video, edited in video or meant to be seen in video, it’s a video. Now, pretty much everything is video. So most of the moving imagery you see in your life is indeed video. In some ways, video seems like something old. But video is very much alive, new and constantly reinventing itself. It morphs and expands, taking up a larger part of our lives. And we will keep exploring these worlds and how they affect the real world.