Documentaries about film itself have existed for decades, but only with the advent of short-form internet video — preceded by the advents of powerful desktop editing software and high-quality home-video formats — did the form of the cinema video essay that we know today emerge. Over the past few years, the Youtube channel Every Frame a Painting has become one of the modern cinema video essay’s most respected purveyors, examining everything from how editors think to the bland music of superhero films to why Vancouver never plays itself to the signature technique of auteurs like Martin Scorsese, Jackie Chan, and, yes, Michael Bay.
Alas, Every Frame a Painting has come to an end. “When we started this YouTube project, we gave ourselves one simple rule: if we ever stopped enjoying the videos, we’d also stop making them,” says series co-creator Taylor Ramos. “And one day, we woke up and felt it was time.”
She says it in the never-produced script for a concluding episode, a text that takes us on a journey from Every Frame a Painting’s inception — born, as co-creator Tony Zhou puts it, out of frustration at having to “discuss visual ideas with non-visual people” — through its evolution into a series about film form rather than content (“most YouTube videos seemed to focus on story and character, so we went in the opposite direction”) to its conclusion.
Just as Every Frame a Painting’s episodes reveal to us how movies work, this final script reveals to us how Every Frame a Painting works — or more specifically, what factors led to its video essays looking and feeling like they do. “Nearly every stylistic decision you see about the channel ‚” Zhou says by way of giving one example, “was reverse-engineered from YouTube’s Copyright ID,” trying to find ways around the platform’s automatic copyright-violation detection system that would occasionally reject even the kind of fair use they were doing. Other choices they made more deliberately, such as to do old-fashioned library research whenever possible. “It’s very tempting to use Google because it’s so quick and it’s right there,” says Zhou in a much-highlighted passage, “but that’s exactly why you shouldn’t go straight to it.”
Whatever the origins of Zhou and Ramos’ rigorous process, it has ended up producing a series greatly appreciated by filmgoers and filmmakers alike. Binge-watch all 28 of Every Frame a Painting’s episodes (up top)— which will explain to you dramatic struggle as seen in The Silence of the Lambs, how the movies have depicted texting, the cinematic possibilities of the chair, and much more besides — and you’ll end up with, at the very least, an equivalent of a few semesters of film-school education. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll come away with the idea for a cinema video essay series of your own.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.