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Using Video Annotation Tools to Teach Film Analysis

[This is a guest post by Chuck Tryon, an Associate Professor of English at Fayetteville State University. He is the author of On-Demand Culture: Digital Delivery and the Future of Movies. He tweets under the handle @chutry.]

One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced in teaching undergraduate film courses is developing students’ close reading skills. This can include not only teaching the formal aspects of film—lighting, cinematography, sound, editing, and other techniques—but also aspects of the film’s content, such as historical references and other details that students might overlook.

With that in mind, I was excited to learn about SocialBook’s new video annotation feature.

Screenshot of SocialBook video annotation tool.

Click to enlarge.

SocialBook, a project from The Institute for the Future of the Book, has primarily been used as a tool for allowing groups to comment on books, whether on the book in general or at the level of individual paragraphs. The new video annotation tool works similarly, allowing users to comment either on the film in general or on individual shots. Students can enroll for SocialBook using their Twitter or Facebook login information or by creating a new account. The site uses streaming video with play, pause, and volume controls, as well as an option to view the film in full screen.

Users can comment on individual shots by clicking on a plus sign on the top right-hand corner of the video, creating what SocialBook describes as “inline comments”:

Screenshot of SocialBook video annotation tool with 2 elements highlighted: the "Plus sign" that users click to add comments, and the column of "inline comments" in the righthand column.

Click to enlarge.

The video then automatically pauses, allowing users to post reactions. Once a user comments, his or her avatar will appear on the scrollbar beneath the video, where others have the opportunity to post replies. As the video plays, the avatar will be illuminated when the video reaches that student’s comment. Films are divided up into chapters ranging from about three to seven minutes, which made it easier to identify specific comments on the scrollbar, although it had the potential side effect of making some editing techniques more difficult to identify. Despite this concern (which could be remedied by showing a DVD version of the film in class), SocialBook makes it incredibly easy to highlight a very specific moment within a video, allowing both students and the professor to return to that scene later.

I had the opportunity to experiment with this feature in my Introduction to Film and Visual Literacy class, a core course at Fayetteville State University that focuses on documentary film and includes a diverse group of students, most of whom are English and Communication majors with a range of competencies in film analysis. Further, because the course primarily focuses on debates about documentary ethics, I often struggle to work in important discussions about film language. A final challenge involves the goal of introducing students to a wide range of documentary styles. To ensure that students would use the service, I set a requirement that they post three substantial inline comments on the film.

The film I used to experiment with SocialBook was Salesman, the 1968 cinema vérité documentary directed by Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin. The film focuses on a group of door-to-door Bible salesmen who travel across the country to sell expensive Bibles and devotional guides to working-class Catholics. Like most cinema vérité documentaries, Salesman uses a fly-on-the-wall approach and avoids many forms of overt commentary, including voice-over and non-diegetic. Because the film avoids making explicit arguments, I anticipated that many of my students might find the film especially challenging. More crucially, I worried that many of the film’s historical aspects might be difficult to follow without some of the contextual clues offered in other forms of documentary. With that in mind, I watched the film on SocialBook myself and left a few comments before making it available to students in order to frame some of the film’s key scenes.

The inline comment feature proved to be an incredible boon to class discussion and allowed students to establish which aspects of the film they were most interested in discussing. Students posted a wide range of comments. Some focused on formal elements, speculating about why the Maysles brothers might have held a specific shot or noticing how the directors used sound bridges to link particular shots. Others made contextual observations, taking note of how a sales conference early in the film resembled meetings they had attended or pointing out the gender and ethnic dynamics at play during key scenes. Finally, some commented humorously on aspects such as the late-1960s fashions, with one student in particular reacting to a woman’s eyeglasses as “tres chic!” With these comments as starting points, I could then direct class discussion to these key moments.

During class discussion, several students reported that they enjoyed using the SocialBook feature more than the typical practice of watching the film on a streaming service such as Netflix. Because my course does not include required film screenings, watching the movies can often be a solitary activity, one that is likely done in a state of distraction, with the film playing on one browser window or on a TV screen while they read or consume media on a second screen. They also reported that they enjoyed seeing other students’ comments and suggested that SocialBook had made watching the film feel much more like a communal experience. While I was only able to test SocialBook using one film, I could imagine developing more specific prompts for future films, asking students to watch for specific formal or historical details.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of using SocialBook is that rights to specific films have to be negotiated on an individual basis, which means that the cost to individual institutions could escalate. The inline commenting works best in Chrome and Safari, but it was relatively functional in Firefox, as well. But despite these challenges, SocialBook offers a powerful new way for students to conduct meaningful conversations about the films they watch.

Have you used SocialBook’s video annotation tool? If so, what are your thoughts? Have you used a different tool for collaborative video annotation? Which one? Please share in the comments!

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