This is a question that has been put to me more than once, and has led to many long and interesting discussions about vidding. Most recently, watersword and ainsley both said something similar in the comments of my Songvid Surprise Game, so I thought I'd take a stab at putting together a beginner's guide to watching vids which answered the question.
Other vid-watching guides I've seen tend to focus on trying to find the "best" vids to ease people into the groove. I'm not going to do that. Instead, I'm going to break down what cues I look for when watching a vid, and hope that it doesn't come across as too simplistic.
Basically, this guide will cover: 1) the best video playing software, 2) the two main types of songvids and how to watch them (along with a few examples, broken down step-by-step), and 3) links to some other "How To Watch" guides.
(It's the "fastest ever guide" because I'm still mired in marking hell, so I've only allowed myself an hour to expound on this topic. Please do ask questions if something is unclear, and I'll answer as I can. Likewise, please feel free to give your own take on how to read songvids in the comments.)
1. How to Play Songvids
Luckily for us, there is a one-size-fits-all video player, and it will play almost any format out there, including commercial DVDs. It's the incomparable VLC Media Player. Download it, and you should have no problems watching any format of songvid.
2. How to Watch Songvids
To grossly simplify, there are two main types of songvid: the narrative songvid, and the impressionistic songvid.
- Narrative songvids are just what they sound like – they tell a story, usually through the way the images and song lyrics go together and comment on each other. To watch these, you identify the protagonist(s), and then try to figure out what the images and lyrics are telling you about that character.
- Impressionistic songvids create a mood or visual texture. To watch these, you try to get a feeling for the pattern that's being created – it could be an emotion (like grieving), or a theme (like misogyny in a particular tv show).
Of course, there can be crossover between these two types of vids, with some of the most subtle vidders creating works which are a mixture of both. But it's helpful when starting out if you can figure out which type of vid you are watching, as it will make the vid easier to understand.
Let's try going through some examples, step-by-step.
Narrative songvids are probably the most common type, especially for beginning vidders.
Songvids which tell a story usually have the following characteristics:
- they have a protagonist (main character)
- the song is meant to be from the protagonist's point of view, and is about their thoughts, feelings and/or experiences
- there is a clear chronological sequence of events depicted through the visuals (often the same chronology as the character arc given in the show)
- the story shown through the visuals has a beginning, middle and end, just as a written story would – in fact, you could 'tell' the story of the vid to someone and it would make sense (often the story is that of the song lyric)
An example of a narrative songvid is Holding Out for a Hero by Mary Crawford (Hercules, PG-13)
Let's see how well the vid matches the narrative songvid checklist I gave above.
- Is there a protagonist? Yes, it opens with the Widow Twanky seemingly speaking the words on the soundtrack, and the songvid consistently focuses on her.
- Is the song from the protagonist's point of view? Yes, the lyrics are positioned so that it seems the Widow Twanky is thinking/singing them.
- Is there a chronological sequence of events? Yes, and it follows the song lyric, to create a story that wasn't a particular focus of canon.
- What's the beginning, middle and end of the story? The Widow Twanky despairs of finding her hero; then she finds Hercules, who is a perfect fit; after some misunderstandings and competition from other women, Hercules and the Widow connect through dance and song. It's your basic girl yearns for boy, girl is spurned by boy, girl finally gets boy's attention story.
It's a pretty good match, you see? This is definitely a narrative songvid.
In fact, if you watch it again, you can see that the images Mary Crawford has chosen directly match each line of the lyric. So, for instance, with the line "Where have all the good men gone?" we see the Widow Twanky seemingly singing the words, followed by a montage of dodgy-looking men. A bit later, at "Isn't there a white knight?" we see Hercules all glowy in a white shirt. And so on.
This technique is a simple way to structure a vid, which is why it's so often used by beginners (which isn't to say that it can't be used to very sophisticated effect). Vids which use this technique are nearly always narrative songvids. That said, a songvid can still have a narrative even if the match between the lyric and image isn't exact.
Here are two more narrative songvids, with some variations in style.
Until My Dying Day... by drgnfille (Farscape, PG-13)
This one is interesting because the song is a duet, so right from the opening of the vid, we see that reflected in the images.
- Is there a protagonist? Yes, it opens with John in the foreground and Aeryn in the background, and they are the focal characters.
- Is the song from the protagonist's point of view? Yes, most of the vid is from John's point of view, but as the song is a duet, sometimes it's both of them together.
- Is there a chronological sequence of events? Yes, and it follows the song lyric, to give a new take on the canon romance arc.
- What's the beginning, middle and end of the story? John and Aeryn meet and are attracted, but Aeryn is unsure; they fall in love; they commit to each other, til death do us part. It's a classic romance.
So far, I've chosen songvids with very clear lyrics and an easy-to-follow progression of images. Things start to get harder though, once vidders get really ingenious. With a vid that lacks the obvious cues of lyric matching image, you need to start looking at things like: how the cuts put images next to each other, colour changes, tempo changes, and inter-textuality. For instance...
The Writer by suzvoy (primarily Stargate: Atlantis, R)
This one is a great example of a narrative vid which isn't driven by a lyric, as the music is an instrumental piece. It still follows the pattern though:
- Is there a protagonist? Yes, it opens with a guy we can see is The Writer – we can tell this not only through the choice of images, but because the piece of music is called, "The Writer."
- Is the song from the protagonist's point of view? Yes, the rhythm of the song matches what The Writer does and his changing moods.
- Is there a chronological sequence of events? Yes, a very complex one, and the vid wouldn't make any sense if the order was altered.
- What's the beginning, middle and end of the story? The Writer goes on a retreat to get over writer's block; he finds an old film and is inspired by the actor in it; he writes himself and the actor into a sci-fi adventure (which, in a beautifully meta touch, is Stargate: Atlantis's canon); then The Writer finds another film with the same actor, but it's a gay romance; The Writer freaks out and destroys his creation. This is a variation on the Frankenstein story.
I don't want to flog this to death, but hopefully you can now see how a narrative songvid works, and how you go about 'reading' it.
Here are some more narrative songvids to check out:
Coin Operated Boy by SDWolfpup (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, PG-13)
Absolutely Cuckoo by zoetrope (primarily Stargate: Atlantis, PG-13)
All These Things (A Story of the Obama Movement) by zimshan (real political footage, PG-13)
Thanks for the Memories by clarityisback (Torchwood, PG-13)
If you come across a songvid and it just seems to be a whole heap of really gorgeous visuals that make no sense, then you are probably watching an impressionist songvid. If, like me, you are better at reading narratives, the most important thing to know about impressionistic vids is that one viewing is usually not enough to really get them. If the vid has been widely recced by people you trust, but you just don't get it, watch it at least twice more before you give up on it.
I encourage you to give impressionistic songvids a go -- they can be hard work, but they are really worth it. The best of them are so powerful, they will live on in your mind for a long time after watching.
Impressionistic songvids usually have the following characteristics:
- there is a subject or theme rather than a protagonist
- there may still be just one character in the vid, but the song isn't telling their story, it's echoing their mood or creating a pattern. On the other hand, there may be multiple characters, as in a multi-fandom vid, but the point is to depict their similarities to each other rather than tell a story
- chronology isn't important (the sequence of the images is, obviously, but there's no obvious beginning, middle and end)
- there's no easy way to summarise the vid. If you tried to tell someone about it, you'd say things like, "It's terrifying," or "It made me cry," or "I've never seen such rich reds," or "It made me ache for Scorpius."
So let's look at some examples.
Filthy Mind by sol_se (Multi-fandom, PG-13)
- Is there a protagonist? No, although Baltar is used as a framing device.
- Is the song from the protagonist's point of view? No. It's used to direct the stream-of-consciousness of the images.
- Is there a chronological sequence of events? No, but there are broad themes of matched images.
- What's the beginning, middle and end of the story? Um... it's about death, sex and insanity... maybe.
Heart of Funkness by absolutedestiny (Apocalypse Now, R)
- Is there a protagonist? No, unless you count "War." Martin Sheen's character is used as a kind of refrain.
- Is the song from the protagonist's point of view? No. Unless the war-torn jungle can be said to have a point of view.
- Is there a chronological sequence of events? No, although the songvid follows the sequence of the source film.
- What's the beginning, middle and end of the story? It's about the absurdity of war... probably.
Women's Work (scroll down) by Luminosity and Sisabet (Supernatural, R)
- Is there a protagonist? No single protagonist, but "violated women" is the common factor.
- Is the song from the protagonist's point of view? Yes, it's the voice of the outraged feminine.
- Is there a chronological sequence of events? In very broad terms, yes, there are themes of matched images, progressing from victims to those seeking vengeance.
- What's the beginning, middle and end of the story? It's about the usually un-noticed misogyny in popular texts.
Ambushed by newkidfan (Stargate: Atlantis, PG-13)
Circles by Laura Shapiro (West Wing, G)
[ETA: cesperanza says that if you know a particular story arc in West Wing canon, this songvid does have a narrative -- see her comment below for details. If you don't know canon, it still works as an impressionistic songvid, which is pretty brilliant of the vidder.]
One Night Fandoms: A Tribute to Yuletide by eruthros and thingswithwings (Multi-fandom, R)
Boom Boom Ba by charmax (Xena, PG-13)
[ETA: This was always meant to be on the list, but I ran out of time to add it thanks to the dreaded marking. As Mary Crawford points out: it's a perfect choice for new songvid watchers.]
Mixing It Up Again
Hopefully this guide gives you a starting point for figuring out what songvids are trying to do, but I'd just like to finish up by pointing out that I've simplified things here, and that heaps of vids don't neatly fit into one of these two categories. Some are a mix, or meta-texts, or they follow a whole different sensibility. That's one of the joys of songvids – there are so many different takes on the art form.
Here are some examples of vids that fall somewhere between narrative and impressionistic.
The Holy Egoism of Genius (scroll down) by permetaform (James Bond, PG-13)
Ecstatic Drum Trip by Luminosity (Farscape, PG-13)
I Want You (She's So Heavy) by kiki_miserychic (Supernatural, various zombie films, R)
Destiny Calling by counteragent (Multi-fandom, PG-13)
3. Other Guides to Watching Songvids
There have been some other guides to watching vids in the past, but they have tended to be aimed at convincing non-fans that songvids are worth watching. Two of note are: Henry Jenkins' How to Watch a Fan-Vid, and Kristina Busse's vidding intro via imeem.
So there you have it. The fastest ever beginner's guide to watching vids. :)
Let me know if anything isn't clear, and happy watching!