A few years ago, Andy Baio coined the term "supercuts" to describe "obsessive-compulsive montages of video clips, meticulously isolating every instance of a single item, usually clichés, phrases, and other tropes" and launched a site to collect the best of the genre. At a basic level, supercuts are pure fun -- a way to collect and admire (or laugh at) repetitive stylistic choices in TV and cinema. In the hands of a sharp editor with a background in film studies, like Kogonada, supercuts become rich "video essays," revealing new perspectives on familiar films. Kogonada, a Vimeo user who prefers to remain anonymous for now, is a master of the genre, racking up over a million views with mesmerizing video essays on Stanley Kubrick's one-point perspective, Wes Anderson's overhead shots, Quentin Tarantino's low-angle shots, and more. In an interview below, Kogonada talks about the making of the videos and the web is changing how we watch (and make) films and videos of all kinds.
The Atlantic: From Ph.D. studies on Yasujiro Ozu to filmmaking to crafting viral supercuts, what motivated your path through working with moving images?
Kogonada: This may sound corny, but I believe in cinema. I believe in its possibility to alter our way of being. That was the essence of my dissertation. The films of Ozu had a profound effect on me. They still do. I think it's this potential in cinema that motivates me (at least partly ... the other part has to do with ego and survival).
Is making a supercut of a director's films a useful way of studying their work? Do you think editing (and remixing) classic films will or should become an approach in film studies?
Hmmm. That's a really interesting question and suggestion. I could imagine this process being helpful. More important than the remixing, I think, would be noting the formal choices being made by directors and understanding why -- especially if the director is returning to these choices time after time. You'll occasionally hear someone criticizing a director for using the same style over and over again. I often hear this criticism against Wes Anderson. To me, that's like criticizing van Gogh for using the same style in his paintings ("That brush stroke again! C'mon, Vincent, give us a break!"). I'm not suggesting that Wes is van Gogh, or that his stylistic choices shouldn't be critiqued. Like Kubrick, Wes is fond of using the one-point perspective, but it doesn't seem to carry nearly the same weight. In comparison, it might even seem a bit frivolous. While I wouldn't fault Wes for having a recurring style, I might question the significance of his style. Is it merely style for its own sake? We might ask the same about Tarantino. (I'm hoping to do a more analytic essay on these questions.) With that said, I'm much more interested in these directors than directors who lack a distinct form or approach. Ozu used to get criticized for making the same film over and over again. His response: "Although I may seem the same to other people, to me each thing I produce is a new expression, and I always make each work from a new interest. It’s like a painter who always paints the same rose.”
Could you describe how you select and edit clips? You clearly take some time to shape these supercuts, making associative connections and juxtaposing shots in interesting ways, set to music. Why is this important to you?
I'm interested in creating work that might attune us to a way of seeing. In this case, it's form in cinema (which means something to me). Equally important, I want to make something that's aesthetically pleasing on its own, especially in its editing. In regard to the actual process, I think there might be a notion that this is an incredibly time-consuming process, but it's not so bad. I usually have a good idea of what I'm going to do before I get started. Then it usually just takes me one pass to collect the footage, and then I start putting it together. It usually goes pretty quickly. I've always had a knack (and love) for editing.
What about music?
The choice of music is really about the editing and overall piece. I'll usually start with music from a director's oeuvre, but if nothing works for me, I'll move on to something else (since I don't imagine these to be tribute videos.) You know, I had a funny moment with the Clint Mansell song that I used for the Kubrick piece. My memory of that song is primarily from Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream. I had a good idea of how I wanted the Kubrick piece to move and intensify, and I went through almost all of Kubrick's soundtracks. I never found something that worked for the entire piece. Then I used the Mansell song, and it worked perfectly. Now, here's the funny part. I thought I had discovered this old song from the year 2000 and that I was about to unleash it to a whole new audience. I'm serious. Later, I googled the piece to see if there was a remix version that might even work better, and that's when I started to seeing all these online comments (mostly from 2010) about how people were sick of hearing this song, and how it was overused, etc, and I thought, "what the ---?" I was basically finished with the piece, but I spent another day looking for an alternative song. And then I had this thought. I watch a lot of films. I was online in 2010. But I had no idea that this song was overused. Maybe the majority of people are like me. Maybe it's familiar, but they're not sick of it. I had a few people watch the piece, including a young hipster intern, and they all had the same response as I did. So I went ahead and used it. I know there are folks out there who have seen a lot of trailers and online videos and are really exhausted by this song, which is understandable. But I think most are probably not so deterred by it. Anyway, for me, it's a great piece of dark, existential music (especially in its original context). I suppose you could say that some of Beethoven and Mozart's music is overused, but there's also a good reason for it. The music is great and moving. I think the real issue is how a piece of music is applied. Kubrick often used familiar music in magnificent ways.
Is online video changing how audiences watch moving image-based work (feature films, experimental shorts, etc)? Will it change what kinds of work gets made?
I think so. If you think about some of the more aesthetic pieces that have gone viral in the last couple of years, it's pretty amazing. 10 years ago, these pieces might have been viewed in a museum (on a loop) or maybe some avant-garde film festival. I think the general audience has definitely become more sophisticated and has a greater appetite for the poetic. I think this might change what is being produced in two ways. First, it encourages experimentation and innovation on a mass level. Commercials and music videos have always served this purpose in the past. You know, Kubrick used to be fascinated by TV commercials. He thought they were some of the best examples of cinematic art and referred to them as "visual poetry." It reminds me of the first time I saw the Nike commercial "Move." I was completely overwhelmed by it. I only caught it once and was desperate to see it again. I was eventually able to find a copy, and I've watched it countless times. It's a masterpiece. If it existed today as an online video, I think it would be passed around and celebrated. If you look at the stellar work of Everynone, you can see the technical traces of that commercial in their pieces. Secondly, I think we're hurtling towards a new era of artistry. The standard of quality in video production is being raised at breathtaking speeds. Not too long ago, a good time-lapse or tilt-shift piece would demand attention. Now it seems that these are being produced every week, and so I think the threshold to breakthrough is going to be pretty high. It's no longer going to be a matter of being technically proficient. You're going to have to offer something more: something exquisite, something substantial, something distinct.
Do you plan to continue this series with directors, or would you branch out and explore another element of cinematic style? For example, cinematographers? Or screenwriters?
There are a few more directors that are on my list, but I do plan to branch out in my explorations of cinema (although probably not in the way of cinematographers and screenwriters). I have some ideas.
If Ozu were a young filmmaker making videos for the web today, what would they look like?
Why are you trying to hurt me? I'm glad Ozu was born when he was born.
What's next for you?
Outside of this series, I have a couple narrative projects in the works. I'm also going to be teaming up with Sam Cryer and Intermission from London to create a piece for the 2012 British Independent Film Awards. I'm really excited to be working with them. And it looks like I might be doing something similar for Amsterdam Film Week with another splendid group from Amsterdam. There are some other exciting possibilities as well. Finally, I've been working on larger film project that explores the way of time via Ozu, boredom, modernity, and the concept of mu (nothingness). Yeah, I'm serious. It's going to be thrilling, I promise.
For more work by Kogonada, visit the Vimeo channel.