Interview with Prof. Francesca Coppa
Director of Film Studies at Muhlenberg College
November 18, 2008
Professor Francesca Coppa is the Director of Film Studies at Muhlenberg College and a founding member of the Board of Directors for the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), a nonprofit organization dedicated to celebrating and preserving fanworks and fan practices, including vidding.
She has written and lectured extensively on vidding and directed a series of short films explaining vidding to middle and high schoolers for MIT’s New Media Literacy project.96 She is also the director of the OTW’s “Vidding History” project, which is documenting the oral history of some of the first vidders. Her lectures and publications on vidding include:
“A Fannish Taxonomy Of Hotness,” Cinema Journal (forthcoming Summer, 2009)
“Vidding,” for Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy: An Encyclopedia, ed. Robin Reid (North Carolina: Greenwood, 2008)
“Women, Star Trek and the Early Development of Fannish Vidding,” for Transformative Works and Cultures (Published by the Organization For Transformative Works.) Issue 1, September 15, 2008.97
“A Brief History of Media Fandom,” in Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, ed. Hellekson & Busse, (MacFarland, 2006) p. 41-59.
Curator, In Media Res, an experiment in collaborative, multi-modal scholarship sponsored by Media Commons.
Panelist, “Media Cannibals: A History of Vidding Women,” IP/Gender: Mapping the Connections (American University School of Law, April 4, 2008)
Speaker, “Media Fetish: The Vidshow,” Beyond Queer: The Spectacle of the Performing Body (Brown University, April 6, 2008)
Panelist, “From Number One to First Lady: Trek’s Christine Chapel and the Development of Fannish Music Video,” Slash 3: The Final Cut (Leicester, UK; Feb 25, 2008)
Presenter, “Geneology of Vidding,” 24/7: A DIY Video Summit (February 8-10, 2008; School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California)
Panelist, ‘”We are controlling transmission’: Female Video Editors and the Literary Music Video,” “Creative Transformation: Specificity and Continuity in Unofficial Creative Authorship,” MIT5: Creativity, Ownership, and Collaboration in the Digital Age (MIT, April 27-29, 2007)
Panelist, “Media Cannibals: A History of Vidding Women,” Inside/Outside: The Gaze and Psycho Analysis. Feminism(s): Film, Video, and Politics Symposium. (University of Hartford, April 21, 2007)
Could you briefly describe what sets the vidding community apart from other clip-based video creators? Do vidders see themselves as different from many more recent creator communities who have been getting attention on sites like YouTube?
I think that vidders, who are overwhelmingly female, differ from other DIY artists in their aesthetics and purpose. Many vidders use vids to analyze or supplement their mainstream film and television viewing, to draw out their preferred subtextual readings or otherwise reframe visual elements.
Vids are visual essays that respond to a visual source. Many vidders use music to create, extrapolate, or analyze the relationships between characters, or to articulate a character’s otherwise opaque interiority. (One of the first VCR vids ever made, in 1980, set the Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes” to a single, wavering frame of Starsky from Starsky and Hutch—the best she could do—thereby imputing an interiority and emotional subjectivity to the Starsky character that the show never gave him.)
Vidders tend to feel that they were making “user-generated content” uphill in the snow both ways—that is to say, long before the internet and the rise of digital culture made it much easier. The organized vidding community dates their art form from the slideshows that Kandy Fong made in 1975, and there was a twenty-five year period where VCRs were the dominant technology. Many of the aesthetic and technical problems vidders face existed before the web and digital video. For example, vidders have always wanted to get clean source, to isolate the most beautiful frames, to be able to color tint footage, or otherwise create emotionally meaningful color palettes. They’re now artists working mainly with digital tools, but they’re trying to solve technical problems and work to aesthetic standards that predate the digital world.
Are most vidders amateurs in video editing? Are their activities generally noncommercial?
Yes, most vidders are amateurs with no professional training in filmmaking or film editing, though many of the best vidders did some sort of art (drawing, painting) at school, and others have technical or computer backgrounds. I have argued that this latter point was important in the vidding community: vidding women tend to be women who are not afraid of technology, and they tend to see vidding as a series of technical challenges without being aware of the legal issues associated with those technologies. The vidding community is a great source of technical and aesthetic mentoring, particularly for women who might not otherwise ever have thought of themselves as filmmakers, but it does not prepare them to deal with the legal questions.
Vidding is entirely noncommercial, part of fandom’s “gift culture.” Vidders just want to share their work with like-minded fans, and so will stream their vids online, or offer them for download, or give DVDs away at cons. Some vidders charge for the cost of the DVD disc or shipping. (I saw my first vids on VHS, on a tape that was mailed to me for the cost of shipping.)
That being said, non commercial does not mean “not serious.” Vidders take their art seriously, and there is a culture of public review and criticism. Moreover, vids are being recognized as “art” in various ways. My essay in Cinema Journal, above, is one of three dealing with vids in that issue. Lim’s vid “Us,” which was shown at 24/7 DIY at USC and was part of Michael Wesch’s presentation on YouTube to the Library of Congress, is now going to appear in an exhibition entitled “Mediated” at the California Museum of Photography (January 24, 2009 – April 4, 2009). Luminosity’s vid “Vogue” was cited as one of the 20 best user-generated videos of 2007 by New York Magazine.98 Seah and Margie’s vid “Handlebars” was sent to the creative team behind Doctor Who, who then raved about it in their blog. Those are only three of many recent examples.
Do vidders frequently rip commercially-released DVDs in order to extract clips? It sounds like some vidders use .avis downloaded from unauthorized BitTorrent sources (are all the source materials available that way? obscure shows?). Others rely on video capture from analog outputs. Is DVD viewed as superior to these alternatives?
Vidders want the best-looking footage available, and will rate “crisp source” highly when discussing a vid’s merits. While there are some folks who still capture, capturing is more expensive, requires more technical expertise, and typically looks less good. Ripping from DVDs tends to get you better source than downloaded .avis, which are frequently recorded off broadcast television, and may be low-resolution or have bugs or other visual artifacts.
Vidders typically want the cleanest, biggest clips their systems can handle, because they want to transform/rework the footage in various ways—changing speed, color, adding effects, creating manipulations, masking out elements—and the better the footage you start with, the more you can do with it.
This was always a concern, even before DVDs. First generation broadcast tapes (VHS taped off television) were prized; in the days before everything was on DVD, you might only have seen an old show because someone had double-taped their tapes for you, so most vidders were working from tapes of tapes of tapes. Vidders raced to buy the first professional VHS issues of popular fannish shows like Star Trek and Highlander when they became available, though few TV shows made it to professional VHS. Vidders then bought the DVDs of those same shows when they became available, and are likely customers for anything with bonus footage or extended editions. (For example, the blooper clip version/easier egg clip of Yoda dancing that appeared on the Star Wars extended edition was featured in a vid. It is also worth noting that vidders tend to keep every version of a beloved source, so many Star Wars vidders are holding onto their VHS cassettes of Star Wars to vid with since Lucas changed the source in subsequent editions.)
Could you make a rough order of magnitude estimate of the number of vids that have been created by self-identified vidders?
By self-identified vidders, tens of thousands easily. That number goes into the millions if you look at YouTube and what organized vidders sometimes call them “Feral” vidders—vidders who have been inspired by vids they’ve seen, or have just invented some version of the idea for themselves in their basement, without becoming involved in the community of self-identified vidders.
Is the quality of the video source important to members of the vidding community?
Yes, very much so, see question four, above. I want to reiterate again that vidders are visual artists. They are deeply invested in aesthetics. They want to make smart vids that are also beautiful. And the better the source footage you start with, the more you can do to it, the “shinier” it looks. It is also worth noting that vidding is a real labor of love. Some vidders may spend half a year on a single vid.
Do you think the vidding community has a clear understanding of what the DMCA prohibits, particularly the legal difference between digitally “ripping ” a DVD and using the “analog hole” to capture from a DVD?
While vidders tend to think more about copyright and DMCA than the average person, no, I don’t think there’s a clear understanding of DMCA: certainly not of any legal difference between capturing and ripping.
I’d say that the big legal line many vidders draw is between “paying” and “not paying” for source footage—vidders are likely to pay for DVDs, even to pay multiple times for multiple sets of DVDs, and to feel that they have the right to make art from them.
96 Available at http://techtv.mit.edu/tags/2522-otw/videos.
97 Available at http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/44.
98 Logan Hill, The Vidder, NEW YORK MAGAZINE, Nov. 12, 2007, available at http://nymag.com/movies/features/videos/40622/.