Video content is becoming commonplace everywhere we get and use our information: social media, libraries, news outlets. It’s no surprise that the role of video creation has become central to all levels of education, as well. From the simple media projects and science fair demos of grade school to final presentations in college, video work is vital to schoolwork – but more complex projects require a more complex process. I'll go over five ways to create high-level video essays, plus some tools you'll need to make them online.

  1. Think beyond video
  2. Voiceover everything
  3. Add background music
  4. Make your title cards special
  5. Tell a story, no matter what the subject

1. Think beyond video

Video essays come in the form of video files, but that doesn’t mean that they can only contain video. The purpose of a video essay is to make an argument or propose an idea, so your project should use every tool at its disposal to get its point across. Sociology projects, for instance, can contain graphs, charts, and still photos to show all sorts of information that videos cannot. Think about documentary film, or even news TV: pictures, cards of just text, infographics, and recorded audio can be vital to any video essay, and keep your audience engaged while making sure you get all your information across.

These stills from video essays by Mark Brown & Grace Lee show different ways that infographic-style images, background effects, and text slides can be used to convey information that traditional forms of video simply can't:

Remember: video essays are inherently multimedia projects – take advantage of all the types of media you can use, and make sure you’re creating and editing using tools developed for multimedia projects. I use Kapwing to integrate multimedia projects, since it allows files to be imported from anywhere quickly, and I don’t have to clog my storage space with photo, audio, or video draft files.

2. Voiceover everything

Video essays aren’t simply meant to replace text essays; they’re meant to enhance the essay form, presenting more complex information and richer perspective than a traditional essay can. But to make the most of your video essay, you’ll still want to use some pre-written language. A recorded voiceover is the best way to make the most efficient use of your time. The same essays provide great examples of plain visual content being enhanced by voiceovers (and subtitles!):

Of course, some “artsier” video essays might do well with longer sequences of music or silence. You make the final call, but most of the time it’s best to minimize periods of silence in your video essay. Unless the video portion is pristine, and the silence adds to your atmosphere or message,  make sure there’s some audio playing throughout the project.

Important: Always add subtitles to your videos! To make your project more accessible to disabled audiences and the significant portion of viewers who watch videos with no sound, always add text transcription so everyone gets the most out of your film. The Kapwing Subtitler tool is a great place to start.

3. Add background music

On a similar note, it’s almost always a good idea to add a subtle background music track to your video essays. Unless you’ve recorded your voiceovers and all audio tracks using professional-grade audio equipment, your sound quality (especially speech) will be sub-par, and could distract from the rest of your video.

The easiest way to fix this is to add some fitting music to the background. Not only will this clean up the sound quality of your video, but also enhance its mood and atmosphere. Desktop apps like iMovie are good places to add music to videos and edit their timing and volume, but you’ll probably want to use an editor that lets you add and customize text and images from any location, as well. Since moving large video files from one editor to another can use a lot of your time and storage space, I recommend using an editor like Kapwing that allows you to make all your edits and store your files in the cloud.

4. Make your title cards special

Video essays need to be fairly efficient – 10-20 minutes is best for most projects. But this means that if you have a lot to cover in your video, you need to do it fairly efficiently, and your video’s structure may have to do without lengthy or complex transitions. Instead, it’s a good idea to mark transitions and summarize information, steps, or events with interspersed text or title cards. However, plain text on a blank background will bring down the quality of your video essay significantly. Check out these frames from Mark Brown's "Designing for Disability" series, all with consistent & engaging visual style:

You should try to create a consistent visual style for your project whenever you can. If your essay is on medieval history, for example, your text cards can be written in cursive or calligraphic font, on a background image of parchment. To pull off interesting and custom text and title cards, you’ll need to edit your video with a tool that supports in-depth text editing and customization. I recommend using Kapwing, since it supports hundreds of fonts with custom style, color, position, and animations, and lets you search for and import any background image on your device or the web.

5. Tell a story, no matter what the subject

A video essay is not a Powerpoint presentation: you can (and should) form more of a narrative with your video essay than you might with, say, a lab report presentation. With a video essay, you don’t present anything yourself – you simply let the video play, so there’s no way for you to actively keep your viewers engaged. Your video has to keep your audience’s attention on its own.

The best way to do this is to tell a story with your essay, though it’s not always easy. But essays are inherently personal and expressive. The word has evolved from its original meaning – “attempt, endeavor” – but the spirit of experimentation remains. Use this to your advantage! Draw out the imperfections of your project, express its difficulties, and explore the gray areas. Again, a perfectly neat & tidy project is not a video essay, and won’t keep your viewers as engaged as a more free & authentic project.

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