Hamilton Anyone? Lyrical Kinetic Typography

Curator's Note

In today’s overwhelmingly visual culture, lyric videos force us to listen with both our ears and our eyes as they literally shift the visual focus to the words themselves. Lyric videos that employ the technique of kinetic typography are undoubtedly my favorite. Early examples of kinetic typography include this infamous animation of Samuel Jackson’s speech from Pulp Fiction; yet the technique is far more lively in lyric videos. 

My exemplar video, Playing Hamilton, employs a multichannel approach to kinetic typography, one which represents all the singers from the eponymous song; the movement of the words is timed to the musical track, creating a wonderful sense of coherence, beckoning us to sing along. Visualizing the song this way is not only pleasurable to view, it can be productive, showing, for instance, how little Hamilton actually sings in this song, as one YouTube commenter noted. 

These videos also call attention to something that goes relatively unremarked in the economy of video essay production that separates them from their theatrically released counterparts in film: that is, words do wonderful and interesting things in digital space. But most video editing software has precious little emphasis on words (often calling them ‘titles,’ which reflects their presumed supplemental quality).  So, while video editing tools are increasingly democratizing the production of video, kinetic typography remains relatively difficult to produce, requiring specialized knowledge of visual effects. But that is shifting with Stepworks, the open-source tool with which Playing Hamilton was created and which is freely available for use. 

Both the Playing Hamilton video and Stepworks were created by Erik Loyer, the lead designer of the multimedia authoring platform, Scalar.  Loyer made this demo video, as well as 'step by step' directions for creating content with Stepworks (which even provides a brief lesson on XML). Unlike tools created by media conglomerates or tech giants, these tools are built by academics for academics. And they foster critical media engagement in a media-saturated world since students learn about the rhetorical choices that have gone into the production of a text when they must face those choices themselves. Stepworks is particularly exciting for me on a practical level: I’ve been teaching video essays every semester since 2008 and am always on the lookout for tools that help animating text; most of them are hacks of tools made for other purposes (so I can never be sure when they might disappear). 

Can lyric videos foster media literacy? I think so. Or at least they can help, especially if students make them as well as consume them. 

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