Feeling and Thought as They Take Form

The video essay landscape is littered with videos that delve into the technical aspects of filmmaking. Interesting as these may be for film students and movie buffs alike, they often do not fulfil the essayistic promise of the form. Many of those pieces are content to limit their insights to explaining some technological feat and its impact on the visual storytelling of a certain film. This great video by Assistant Professor Film Studies and Digital Media Production Katie Bird is a welcome exception: it pairs serious academic research with uniquely videographic experiments.


Katie Bird’s video essay was published in the April 2020 issue of the Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies [in]Transition and its full title is Feeling and Thought as They Take Form: Early Steadicam, Labor, and Technology (1974-1985).  That’s a mouthful, but it is a video that has a lot to say. It starts off with its most conventional segment, a mini-documentary on the early history of Steadicam and (the now obsolete) Panaglide. Bird has dug up some wonderful archival footage: demo reels for those then newfangled stabilizer technologies. They are presented as more than curiosities however. Bird analyzes the ways in which these demos helped direct and define the Steadicam style and practice, and even compares some of their visuals to famous movie scenes (putting her finger on a curious formal equivalence between those promotional movies and feature films with outspoken artistic ambitions).


The video essay then builds on its historical research with a serious of visual tests and experiments that make the most of the videographic form. No discussion of steadicam can skip The Shining, and neither does this one. But Bird’s side by side comparison of the steadicam shots that were made from a wheelchair and those that were filmed while walking around in its harness, achieves a level of visual clarity and understanding that other research would find hard to. She then devotes her attention to yet another canonical stabilized shot: the opening of Halloween. Again, a side by side comparison of three different home video releases of that movie and its famous opening Panaglide shot reveals minute but meaningful differences. Her third intervention is the most imaginative: it is an entirely speculative experiment that is easier to pull off in an essay than in more strictly academic formats. Katie Bird wonders what alternate takes of the Steadicam shots in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven might have looked and felt like. In the absence of those rushes, she “recreates” them herself using deformative techniques.


Last but not least, this piece is littered with interesting thoughts on the dancelike operation of the Steadicam apparatus and the way this results in embodied visuals. The combination of all these elements makes for an end result that is testament to the power of the video essay: not only as a way to present academic research, but also to produce it.