Like all good cultural criticism or stand-up comedy, the power of an effective video essay lies in the ability to strike an unlikely chord of recognition. The essayist presents something you’ve always kinda sorta noticed without ever thinking too deeply about and then dives in to explore just why that thing behaves the way that it does, and what might be important about it. These can be huge, cosmic things. Or they can be as simple as asking, “Why are so many rappers seemingly obsessed with Grey Poupon?”
But the intersection of hip-hop and faux-luxury mustard is just one of the topics explored by Vox video essayist Estelle Caswell in Season One of her ongoing Vox Pop music series Earworm, which explores topics as wide-ranging as the origins of “gated reverb” drumming and the secret genius of Captain Beefheart’s borderline-unlistenable 1969 freak folk classic, Trout Mast Replica.
Though she took a more traditional route through film school, Caswell quickly became a self-taught motion graphics whiz, parlaying her experience as a digital native into a position at Vox Media and finding an unexploited niche in applying Vox’s popular “explainer” editorial voice to the world of pop culture.
We recently spoke to Caswell about the benefits of the video essay form, the benefits of working for an established media organization, Vox’s editorial process and much, much more (including—yes!—mustard). Here’s the conversation:
VOX POP’S ESTELLE CASWELL
For those who might be unfamiliar, can you describe what Vox Pop is and tell us a little about the Earworm series?
Caswell: Yeah. Vox.com, of course, is a general news site. Our bread and butter is covering national politics and policy, and over the last four years we’ve really made a name for ourselves in science and culture reporting. What I found a niche in is coming up with interesting ways to adapt our explainer/understand-the-news voice to cultural reporting, and doing that through video. Vox Pop was really just a series title to help me hone my voice. And that quickly transformed into music-related content [with Earworm], but Vox Pop in general is pop culture.
How did you get into making video essays in the first place?
Caswell: I actually went to film school in Los Angeles, to Loyola Marymount University. I graduated in 2011 and sort of did the standard film production route. There was really no understanding of opportunities outside the funnel of Hollywood. I knew that I really loved post-production and editing. I really loved animation and motion graphics—although I really didn’t learn that in the classroom, I taught it to myself. After school I ended up working for a digital agency as one of their motion graphics editors. That’s how I ended up at Vox, just because I was able to adapt easily to the internet and the things that were in demand at the time. Which in 2014 was still motion graphics; everyone wanted their stories to be told through animation. I started [at Vox] as a designer, and after a year or so of animating other people’s scripts, I started pitching my own ideas. I realized that while I didn’t really have an interest in policy and politics, I did have a fascination around pop culture and music. Ultimately the music thing happened because there was this huge hole in the internet where music criticism and video were just, like… there was nothing there. It became a thing that I really wanted to try and master and figure out how to do every day.
What are two of your favorite pieces that you’ve done, and why do those stand out to you?
Caswell: “Why Rappers Love Grey Poupon” is definitely one of my favorites. Only because the idea of it really came from just noticing a trend and then doing the really hard, manual work of finding every possible example of it. It hadn’t been written about before, so I had to really create an original data set—scrubbing lyric databases and finding every instance of Grey Poupon and putting it into a spreadsheet. That process took forever. I didn’t actually pitch the story until I was finished with that process because I didn’t know if there was a story. I tend to really love the videos I make that just come out of a random observation. Sometimes that observation hits a nerve with other people and they’re like, “I’ve always thought about that, I just never really looked up the answer to it.”
How long does it take to put one of these videos together and who else is involved?
Caswell: It’s usually, like, “pitch three ideas that all have headlines.” So if I pitch “Why Rappers Love Grey Poupon” I have to come up with a headline for that and a brief synopsis. If it’s greenlit by our story editors, I’ll immediately begin reporting on it. I’ll call people up who may be experts in that area, or characters in the story if there are no real experts. Like the Grey Poupon story, there are really no experts. So I called up one of the ad agency guys who helped come up with [Grey Poupon’s] marketing in the ‘80s. And then I’ll start writing a script around my research. The script will be edited by a story editor who holds me accountable to making sure the story is visual—the whole point of video is that you’re talking about the thing onscreen. That process normally takes four or five days. If I’m lucky, I might get a week and a half. From there, the animation process begins, recording the voiceover, stitching it together and doing all the motion graphics and animation. That’s about a week of work, maybe a week and a half. Then we hit “publish” and wait for the internet to react. So in total I think it’s about three weeks or so, if we’re taking our time but doing it right.
Why is YouTube the ideal platform for this sort of work?
Caswell: For me it’s ideal because there’s just a lot of freedom. You can upload really short content or really long content, and it can go viral if it’s 50 minutes or it can go viral if it’s 20 seconds. There’s a DIY aspect to putting a video on YouTube. If I’m uploading to a streaming platform like Hulu, I’m held to a different standard of video quality. That’s one [thing] I constantly think about. And with any sort of traditional medium, you’re automatically dealing with a lot more constraints. Things like fair use are harder to deal with. Like, could I have told this story if another organization asked me to? How much would it cost? The rapping deconstructed video would’ve cost me $20,000 for licensing the music. And I did it for zero dollars.
Last question. Who are some of your own favorite video essayists or new media creators?
Caswell: I actually tend to watch things that aren’t video essays on YouTube. One of my favorites has been Andrew Huang. He makes endlessly creative videos around making music with almost found objects. He’s very tech-savvy, so oftentimes he’s got this instrument or synthesizer and walks people through it in a really creative way. I think he’s probably one of my favorites recently.