It seems visual essays are picking up steam! The New York Times debuted earlier this month the first of a monthly series based on their column, Modern Love. Titled “Modern Love: The Matchmaker,” this lovely animated illustration serves as a humorous and curious introduction to this week’s essay on love.
The animation is by Xaver Xylophon, and narrated by Steven Petrow, who also wrote the essay. I won’t ruin it for you by telling you too much about his story. It’s totally worth a watch and read. Go, do it now. Then come back here.
Did you like it? It reminds me of one of my favorite CG animated shorts, Dublin1 (NSFW), by Monster Animation based in – you guessed it – Dublin, Ireland. Both of these narratives are essentially anecdotes told by engaging storytellers and visualized with animation. A very effective combo!
In my previous post about visual essays, I mainly argued that films that fit into this genre were more academically bent. That is, visual essays cover topics that are analyzed and supported by facts. I would like to take this opportunity to expand the definition to include personal essays like these. Dublin1 was a huge influence on the development of the genre when I was developing it and the film fits the criteria well: it is artistic; it is educational (you learn about this colorful neighborhood in Dublin, which is how the Irish Film Board sells this film as well); and it is fun to watch. You could argue that all fiction is some sort of personal essay, but I think what sets these two short films apart is that they do not have a defined beginning, middle, or end. They illustrate a short snippet of life and when you finish watching, you are under the impression that you just heard your best friend tell a great story about what happened to them.
At the end of the day, my definition of visual essays is really just to get the ball rolling on this conversation. As the genre ages, the conversation will hopefully become better defined and developed. I would like to see more examples of what doesn’t fit into this genre and why. I do not intend for it to be a catch-all for films that are creative non-fiction or science-based or what have you. It’s possible that my criteria will be replaced by more accurate ones. Needless to say, I’m excited to see where it goes.
Here is another visual essay making the rounds of social media this week: The Innovation of Loneliness by Shimi Cohen. A really beautiful animation about the psychology behind loneliness.
This is a classic example of visual essays. Enjoy. 🙂
P.S. The New York Times is taking submissions for the Modern Love column, both video and writing.
If you are a motion animator or illustrator and would like to create a video for the Modern Love animated monthly series, please e-mail your sample reel and contact information to email@example.com.
The editors of Modern Love are interested in receiving deeply personal essays about contemporary relationships, marriage, dating, parenthood…any subject that might reasonably fit under the heading “Modern Love.” Ideally, essays should spring from some central dilemma the writer has faced in his or her life. It helps if the situation has a contemporary edge, though this is not essential. Most important is that the writing be emotionally honest and the story be freshly and compellingly told. Send submissions to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Edited to add: I want to include this very good example of a visual essay that the artist, Andrew Norman Wilson, created as a “PowerPoint Performance” (his description). I saw him speak at the Dark Side of the Digital conference at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He presented “Movement Materials and What We Can Do”, a short film based on his experience working for Google as a book scanner for their controversial digital archives. When I viewed the piece, he showed it as a film and I believe he explained that he started out performing the piece, so please note that what I experienced may be different from his other performances.
The piece is fascinating and I could tell the audience was captivated. Using his true experiences at Google as the narrative, Wilson bends and stretches the story to a level of science fiction that is too close for comfort. The employees of Google are categorized by colored badges and whichever color you are designated by your job title also determines your access level around the campus. The BookOps team, as they are called, are on the lower end of the totem pole and they are not even housed on the legendary Google campus. The staff is made up mostly of minorities and lower-educated people. Very quickly, you can see the class and economic hierarchies at work, particularly when compared with the image Google likes to represent itself. Wilson adds a layer of sci-fi and transforms this world into a not-too-distant future in which society is badge-based. Your life is restricted to your color.
Wilson tackles other elements in this piece, including the ethical fuzziness of the BookOps project and the physical toll it took on the staff who were scanning thousands of pages a day. It’s a great piece and a great example of a visual essay as conceptual art.
 Screenshot from NYT
 Screenshot from Dublin1
 Image from artist’s website