Francesca Coppa on the vidding underground
Since the 1970s, an underground subculture has been making and privately screening short films. The artists are fans—and critics—of cult TV shows, from Star Trek to Homicide: Life on the Street. Their movies are music videos, edited from pieces of those programs and other sources into something new: a story, an essay, a mood piece, a love note.
These vidders, as they call themselves, weren't the first filmmakers to re-edit existing footage into new works, but they may have been the first to do it as a self-conscious community, training one another in the art and craft of vidding. They also did it invisibly, shying from the spotlight both to avoid copyright infringement lawsuits and simply to keep the work away from viewers not likely to appreciate the form.
Today, of course, YouTube is filled with remixed videos, from "Machinima" movies set in video game worlds to sharp and/or crude political satires. As such activities become more mainstream, the older vidding culture is emerging from the underground and tentatively allowing some of its clips to find a larger audience.
Sometimes those clips find a larger audience accidentally. In mid-2006, for example, Salon, bOING bOING, and other popular websites discovered an unusual video—Closer, by the vidding duo t. jonesy and killa—that recut scenes from Star Trek to a Nine Inch Nails song to suggest a violent sexual encounter between James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock. A skillful but disquieting reinterpretation of the source text, Closer was widely circulated but also widely misunderstood, with many viewers taking it either as a joke or as a creepy piece of porn. Other vidders have deliberately exposed their work to the world. By the end of 2007, New York magazine was profiling an auteur called Luminosity, praising the way she "samples video in order to remix and reinterpret it, bending source material to her own purposes." Vidders might not be famous yet, but they are increasingly recognized as trailblazers in the booming remix culture.
Now a nonprofit called the Organization for Transformative Works is creating an ambitious oral history of the form. The group also hopes to start a preservation project centered around an online archive of vids, although it faces two significant challenges: getting permissions from privacy-conscious vidders and staying on the right side of copyright law. "The legal status of vids is trickier than that of fan fiction or some other fan arts," says Francesca Coppa, a member of the group's board of directors. The movie studios have recently tended to be tolerant of the remixers, she reports, but the music industry "seems to be less savvy about these issues, even though vidding absolutely sells music: I can't tell you how many songs I've bought after hearing them for the first time in a vid."
Coppa, a Brooklyn native, is an associate professor of English and the director of film studies at Muhlenberg College. She is also a vidder herself, having been involved with fan culture since she attended her first Star Trek convention in 1982 at age 12. I interviewed her in February, shortly after meeting her at the DIY Video Summit at the University of Southern California, where she presented a program curated by the prolific vidder Laura Shapiro.
reason: Which came first for you: being a vidder or being a scholar of vidding?
Francesca Coppa: I'm a vidder first. I don't normally write on fan stuff. It wasn't my academic area of expertise.
I started doing this work because I knew enough to try to present the vidding community fairly. If you're going to start documenting subcultures that have been doing interesting things in the world of film and video, vidders deserve a place at the table. The stereotypically female desire to keep our heads down should not keep us out of the history books.
That's what happened with the novel. There were women who wrote novels in the 18th century, and then the novel "went professional" and the men came. Now people will tell you that the first novel was by Henry Fielding or Samuel Richardson. This whole women's culture that came before that got written out and later had to be recuperated by feminists. And I feel that I would rather not die out and have to be recuperated by feminists. Maybe some of us could actually articulate ourselves right now and never be lost in the first place.
I was going to academic conferences about remix culture and hearing people say, "Since the dawn of YouTube…" Or the Machinima guys: Very early on, they were saying, "Hey, we have this history. We've been doing this since 1996." I think it's great that the Machinima guys have been making their stuff since 1996, but I thought, "Hey, we've been doing this since 1975. And nobody even knows we exist!"
reason: Were you doing film scholarship on other topics at this point?
Coppa: My area is dramatic literature. My interest in television comes from seeing it as an extension of popular theater and popular storytelling. Vidding and other user-generated films came next.
I think fandom and vidding represent the kind of grassroots theater that used to happen. Women used to get together and put on tableaux. It was a 19th-century form. You had a costume box and you'd dress up and stage scenes from literature or history. It was a popular theater activity.
reason: Who was the audience for that? Just other members of the group, or was it a larger neighborhood activity?
Coppa: It was more of a country house kind of a thing. Just you and your guests and your friends. It's backyard theater—a lot of remix culture is just backyard theater gone high-tech.
reason: It's part of the vidding narrative that the form started in 1975 with slideshows like Both Sides Now. But musical slideshows were already a vernacular art form. There might be a class trip, and some students would make it into a slideshow set to some Boston song. When did this evolve into what people think of as vidding, with actual video edits?
Coppa: I'm not invested in making hard and fast rules or in flag posting. But even in Kandy Fong's earliest slideshows, she's using a song to tell a particular kind of story about Star Trek. This was happening in a moment when you weren't getting any new Star Trek. The show was canceled, and it was before the first film. People were hungry for new Trek. And the slides she used were outtakes.
This story she told about seeing the world from both sides now was a mini-essay on Spock and his character, and was told from his point of view. The issue of point of view in vids is very important: Whose voice is it? What is it about? What is it trying to say about that character? It's those analytical moves that make it a vid. Kandy presented a vision of Trek that was about Spock and his duality of experience as a human and a Vulcan. That she used music to create an argument is what makes it a precursor to vidding. The music is an analytical device, not a soundtrack.
Kandy would show her slideshows at conventions and fan gatherings, making the cuts live with the slide projector, essentially making the vid as she stood there. Later, she used two slide projectors to make faster cuts between her slides to tell the story she wanted to tell.
I hadn't heard that there was a previous history of slideshows, but I wouldn't be shocked. I mean, I've been to rock concerts where there would be slideshows, and Kandy got the idea from the Beatles' Yellow Submarine. But I don't think most slideshows have the same storytelling urge.
reason: Kandy Fong made her slideshow within the Star Trek culture. At some point afterward there emerges an actual vidding culture that stretches across different shows and that uses videocassettes, not just slides. How does that transition happen?
Coppa: One of the missing links is the development of what we call "media fandom," which comes out of Star Trek fandom but is a different thing. The other precursor is The Man From UNCLE, which had a huge fan base but gets talked about less.
There was a break between literary science fiction fans and people who liked other science fiction media as well as books. And then there was a huge number of people who not only were Trekkies but also liked Star Wars, Doctor Who, Red Dwarf, Hitchhiker's Guide—a "media geek" culture. So something that was not just Star Trek fandom but a larger media fandom started to emerge. The focal point of that was a convention in Lansing, Michigan, that started in the late '70s called MediaWest.
MediaWest had a vid room. This became the focal point. It was the first time there really was a "place to show vids." There are lots of people still today who make vids for MediaWest. MediaWest also had fan fiction zines, cosplay [costume play], filk songs, plays and skits, crafts—the whole rich culture of fannish behavior. Vidding starts to slot in among those fan arts.
reason: Was vidding from the beginning an overwhelmingly female activity?
reason: Does that follow the media fandom makeup?
Coppa: Yes. And also Trekkies, at least from the split between book fandom and media fandom. This is one of the funniest things about fan culture. Everybody assumes they're all adolescent boys, and in fact it tends to be women 25 and up.
reason: Do you have a theory as to why that's the case?
Coppa: Initially? Sure. To the extent to which Mr. Spock was a really important figure, and was treated as an alien in a military culture who had inappropriate emotions, I think he was a model for women in the sciences. (Laughs.) If you go back and watch Trek, it's quite hilarious, he's almost sexually harassed through the series. There's a constant sense of "You're different, you're strange, you're weird, what are you doing here?"
Spock actually replaced the original first officer of the Enterprise in the pilot, who was a woman. He is literally in the position of the woman who isn't there. I think a lot of women in the sciences in the '60s and '70s understood what it was like to be treated as an alien, whether or not they articulated that to themselves. They had no problem identifying with Spock.
reason: When you started getting involved with vidding yourself, was it part of a larger interest in media fandom? Were you a fan of a particular show?
Coppa: I was already active in media fandom. Part of it was just watching people do it. I had been to people's houses, seen their vidding setups, enjoyed vids as a fan. Initially you think, "Oh, I'll never do that. It's too time-consuming. It's too detail-oriented. It's too labor-intensive." But vidders always like to say, "Hey, come and try."
One of the great stories of vidding is that it's a sort of female training ground. Fandom in general has been great for women teaching women technological skills: Web design, video editing, coding, Photoshop. It's such a great site of grassroots peer group learning. Vidders want to teach other people to do it. People resist, and then they go, "OK, I'll try that, sure."
reason: What are the major genres or schools of vidding?
Coppa: MediaWest vidders are those who really congregated around that convention. Vids would be shown in the vid room all day, and people could wander in and out; it wasn't a big, solemn screening. So the vids that were successful there had to be spectacular, splashy, funny, because they had to be understood by people who didn't necessarily bring a lot of context to it.
The followers of Mary Van Deusen were the opposite. Van Deusen called her vids "literary music videos." We call them "living room vids," because they are designed to be watched by fans of a show multiple times in a relatively quiet environment where you can study all the visual choices. You know the source, so you're sitting there trying to figure out the argument the vidder is making about the character. A vid that comes out of that school of storytelling really has to be watched multiple times to be understood, as opposed to a MediaWest vid, which has to be gotten in one shot and then it's over.
People started to talk about a San Francisco School about 10 years ago, because it was noted that a lot of vidders on the West Coast were storytelling in the way that Mary Van Deusen and her followers were, but a lot of them came out of an art school sensibility and were using color and motion in a different way. They were more concerned with the visual than the classic literary vidders had been.
reason: How have vids been distributed?
Coppa: Well, it's a fan activity. There were people who made vids to show at conventions, and that was one community. There were people who made living room vids, which were really designed for fans of the show, distributed often on videocassette. Now, of course, vids are all over the Internet, on YouTube and imeem.com.
reason: Were they advertised in fanzines, or was it more of a need-to-know basis?
Coppa: It was almost the opposite of advertising. Rather than trying to sell a product, you had people making things for their own pleasure. And if you let it be known that you were the kind of person who liked such a thing, somebody might poke you. You might find out that so-and-so was a vidder and that if you wrote to her and said, "I would love to see your vids," they were available for the cost of shipping.
That was how I saw my first vids. People would make compilations of them.
reason: Were those like albums, with careful sequencing or a unifying theme?
Coppa: You would do play lists. You would think about the order you'd put them in. It had a cover. It would often have liner notes—a little brochure inside the VHS that someone would type up to tell you what the vids were and who made them and what they thought they were doing.
reason: Do you plan to put some of those liner notes online?
Coppa: It's tricky. It's only within the last year or so that the community tipped to the point that they were willing to go public. I'm part of the contingent that says, "Let's get out there, because we're going to get written out of the story." I think that is because I'm also an academic and I'm really aware that the kind of thing that we've been doing as vidders is now hip and popular, and people are interested in it, and it's becoming a mainstream thing. But there's a substantial part of the community that prefers to keep it an invisible, underground activity. And as we've learned, you lose control of something the minute you put it online.
So the issue of putting things online is a tricky one. At last year's VividCon [an annual vidding convention in Chicago], there was a town hall on visibility and around 100 people showed up.
reason: Which is the stronger impulse, the fear of intellectual property suits or the fear of being misunderstood by a larger audience?
Coppa: I don't think it's primarily intellectual property. I think it's this sense that a vid won't make sense, that it's risible, that people won't get it. That it'll lose its context.
There are some people who are nervous about intellectual property. After this town hall, we encouraged a bunch of people to start putting their work online. Some vids started getting taken down. These sites are often unclear about the reasons for takedowns, so it's hard to tell if that's serious or not, if someone's objecting to the clips or the music or something else. Luminosity did a famous vid called Vogue that made New York magazine's list of the best online videos of the year. imeem took it down—which they totally have the right to do—because, they said, "Somebody complained." She wrote back and asked, "Why is it down?" And they said, "Oh, never mind, you can put it up again." It's all very unclear.
reason: To what extent is that fear of being misunderstood a reticence about what might happen, and to what extent is it people already feeling bitten?
Coppa: It's not really a fear of being misunderstood so much as it's this: We're proud of this work. And in an odd way, I think it's very easy to look at a vid and think it doesn't amount to much, if you're not enmeshed in the context. It can be ego-bruising. Some of the best vids in the world don't look like anything special unless you know how to read them and interpret them. I think a lot of people felt like, "Why would we make it more public?" Having to demonstrate that it's the kind of thing that you like starts to sort out your audience into people who can enjoy it and appreciate what you do. If you don't know the show, you don't even know what someone's done with the clip.
reason: Could you give an example of a clip you think is really exceptional but you don't think outsiders would necessarily get?
Coppa: Almost any vid could be said to do that. Superstar, which is a Buffy vid about Buffy and Faith, is made from clips that are quite loaded if you know that arc and what happened. There are moments when they're body-swapped—if you know the show, you know that the actresses are playing each other's roles. That's totally over the casual viewer's head. That's invisible in a vid, but it adds tremendous amounts of meaning.
There's a terrific Battlestar Galatica vid called Fix You. It's a tender song about wanting to help someone who's broken. But the vid's done from the point of view of the Cylons: The Cylons want to fix the damaged, oh-so-imperfect humans. If you know the show, and which actors are Cylons, and what that means within the show's mythology, it's really chilling.
Or—here's a good one. There's a really funny Stargate Atlantis vid which just looks like a sappy love story between two of the show's characters. But the joke, if you know the show, is that the vidder has worked the footage to put these characters into scenes that they weren't in together. The vid's called Too Good to Be True, for the love song: "You're just too good to be true/Can't take my eyes off of you," etc. But this footage is literally too good to be true. Half of these scenes never happened!
reason: The vids I found most accessible at the DIY conference were videos like A Fannish Taxonomy of Hotness, where you don't have to be familiar with a particular show to understand them but you have to be familiar with TV and the clichés of the medium.
Coppa: Right. Vids are arguments. A vidder makes you see something. Like a literary essay, a vid is a close reading. It's about directing the viewer's attention to make a point.
A vid like A Fannish Taxonomy of Hotness is very much about the way fans watch television. All of the scenes where somebody's chained up. All of the scenes where somebody's half naked in a bathtub. All of the scenes where there are sunglasses. We're not "supposed" to find these scenes sexy. But I think, particularly in the female community that I come from, often watching TV is: "Yeah yeah yeah, plot. Oh, look at the line of his neck." As a feminist, the technical term for this is "reverse scopophilia." Women looking. The traditional film relationship involves female bodies being fetishized and admired and lusted after on the screen. So the Media Cannibals, Sandy and Rache, did this vid that shows you male bodies, largely, doing a series of behaviors that you're calling clichés but that are also essentially sexy. They're part of the vocabulary of sex.
reason: What I mean about the clichés is the way the vid finds shots that are almost identical in two different shows, and cuts from one to another.
Coppa: Right. But almost every show has a sunglasses scene, a naked-in-the-bathtub scene, a being-tied-up-and-whipped scene. Yes, there's technical expertise in showing how visually similar these shots are, that these tropes transcend any particular show, but the vid is also suggesting: "We look for these scenes. And we're enjoying them every time they come up."
I think particularly with women, there's this sense that you're bad somehow if you're watching TV for the eye candy. But just to say that women are watching for these eye-candy moments is provocative. How many shows had a cross-dressing episode where the hero, ha ha, ends up in drag? So you see these things happening over and over, and you're supposed to think they're funny. But we think they're sexy.
Another vid that demonstrates how fans watch television is Lim's Us. That's the vid where she really works that footage so it has a hand-drawn quality. And then, in a lot of frames, she highlighted particular elements in color. I think fans really loved that vid because it seemed to stage that fannish way of seeing. We often get very obsessed with particular details. With Doctor Who's scarf—I guess it would be Harry Potter's scarf with these kids today. But the details that we pick out and love: She actually dramatized that act of fannish looking.
There's a whole section in Us where Lim does a six degrees of separation thing, connecting actors across their roles. I think it starts with Walter Koenig on Babylon 5 becoming Chekov from Star Trek, and then going from William Shatner on Star Trek to Shatner as he is now on Boston Legal, and on Boston Legal there's James Spader, who's also the guy who played Daniel in the Stargate movie—it goes very, very quickly. But one of the things fans do is track an actor across multiple properties. It's lightning quick, but she follows all these actors through multiple roles across shows.
reason: How do you distinguish vidding from other sorts of unauthorized re-editing?
Coppa: In general, that it's primarily analytical. That it's primarily trying to make an argument about the source text.
reason: But that's true of the political remix videos as well.
Coppa: That's right. I think that the agenda there is more likely to be something like "the Bush White House stinks." Vidding is more like arts criticism, as opposed to political criticism. But they're neighbors. In a vid, instead of writing an essay about your show, you make a visual essay about your show. A political remix is also a visual essay, making a political argument.
In some ways, vidding is closer to political remixes than to fan-made anime music videos. Though now I think everything is very close. YouTube is making everything cross-pollinate.
reason: What are the feelings within the vidding community about that cross-pollination?
Coppa: The vid Walking on the Ground is sort of a history of vidding. He says, "I'm going to take the train like God intended," then "I'm going to take a plane like God intended." As a whole, vidders grumble—and then move on to the next thing. You'll hear, "What's this newfangled thing there? What is she doing? We don't do it like that!" And then next year it's all old hat.
There were people who didn't like digital footage, who didn't like special effects. Us is still actually controversial. A lot of people loved it. A lot of vidders hated it. They felt that it was too painterly, that there was too much between them and the show—too much visual artistry, not enough about celebrating the text or letting them see the shows underneath those effects. But in general, people are pretty excited.
The Web is another reason there's been this explosion. Up until recently, you just couldn't get the bandwidth. I think we now take it for granted. I still know people on dial-up, but I think in the last year or two we've reached the tipping point of people who have the bandwidth to be able to watch and trade video in this way.
And there are tools now that are available on every machine. Just in my own work as director of film studies, my students come in and they have iMovie or Windows Moviemaker on their laptops, and they've already started to make stuff.