How Orson Welles’ F for Fake Teaches Us How to Make the Perfect Video Essay

If you don’t under­stand what makes Cit­i­zen Kane so impor­tant, just watch a few movies made before it. In his first out­ing as a film­mak­er, Orson Welles, whether by igno­rance or oth­er virtues, pio­neered so many aes­thet­ic and nar­ra­tive tech­niques that we can now hard­ly imag­ine how the medi­um ever did with­out. If you don’t under­stand what makes Welles’ last pic­ture, the qua­si-doc­u­men­tary on fact and false­hood F for Fake so impor­tant, just com­pare it to all the video essays pro­lif­er­at­ing on the inter­net today.

If Cit­i­zen Kane was just slight­ly ahead of its time in 1940, F for Fake, which came out in 1973, now looks more than three decades ahead of the curve. Nobody knows that bet­ter than Tony Zhou, cre­ator of the pop­u­lar cin­e­ma-focused video essay series Every Frame a Paint­ing.

“I’ve stolen more ideas from this film than from any oth­er,” he admits at the begin­ning of his trib­ute to F for Fake. “Every­thing I know about edit­ing” — and he knows a lot — “I’ve learned from this film.”

The first les­son it teach­es has to do with how to struc­ture, or rather, how not to struc­ture: instead of mak­ing cuts that feel like a repet­i­tive series of “and then“s, make cuts that, in the words of South Park co-cre­ator Trey Park­er, stands for “either the word there­fore or but.” In oth­er words, whether mak­ing a video essay, a fea­ture film, or any­thing in between, build the struc­ture not out of sim­ple, unordered list-like sequences, but out of caus­es, effects, and con­tra­dic­tions.  Through­out F for Fake, “Orson Welles does the exact same thing, except he does­n’t con­nect scenes; he con­nects thoughts. Even though this movie is an essay, each moment has the con­nec­tive log­ic of a South Park episode.”

This leads into the sec­ond les­son: “Have more than one sto­ry mov­ing in par­al­lel,” so that when­ev­er one “reach­es peak inter­est,” you can oscil­late to the oth­er. (No less an edit­ing mas­ter than Alfred Hitch­cock also sub­scribed to this prin­ci­ple, describ­ing it with the phrase “Mean­while, back at the ranch…”) Welles’ bravu­ra per­for­mance, how­ev­er, rotates between no few­er than six sto­ries: of art forg­er Elmyr de Hory, of “hoax-biog­ra­ph­er” Clif­ford Irv­ing, of Irv­ing’s sub­ject Howard Hugh­es, of Welles’ girl­friend Oja Kodar, of Welles him­self (and his infa­mous War of the Worlds broad­cast), and even of the mak­ing of F for Fake itself.

Tech­ni­cal points aside, Zhou draws from all this a per­spec­tive on his work: “It’s not about what you get. It’s about how you cut it, and what comes out the oth­er end. Remem­ber, video essays aren’t essays, they’re films, so you want to struc­ture and pace them like a film­mak­er would.” And in this final major work that he him­self describes as a “film about trick­ery and fraud,” Welles presents that and every­thing else he’d learned about film­mak­ing over the past forty years doing it. Even if some say we live a “post-fact” era — a term that would have end­less­ly amused Welles, or at least the “char­la­tan” ver­sion of him­self he plays in F for Fake — the laws of cin­e­ma retain their truth.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

F for Fake: Orson Welles’ Short Film & Trail­er That Was Nev­er Released in Amer­i­ca

Orson Welles Explains Why Igno­rance Was His Major “Gift” to Cit­i­zen Kane

Every Frame a Paint­ing Explains the Film­mak­ing Tech­niques of Mar­tin Scors­ese, Jack­ie Chan, and Even Michael Bay

The Alche­my of Film Edit­ing, Explored in a New Video Essay That Breaks Down Han­nah and Her Sis­ters, The Empire Strikes Back & Oth­er Films

Alfred Hitchcock’s 7‑Minute Mas­ter Class on Film Edit­ing

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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