Vanity Plate

Creator's Statement

On reading the presented text (which has since been withdrawn) I found myself stuck on trying to interpret the author’s intent and reflect it in my video. What film was being discussed? How old was the viewer? Where did it take place? Paralysed by an inability to know what was intended, I decided to instead focus on what the text presented to me. Taking the writing word-by-word in a close reading, some ideas jumped out: transmission, awe, sublimity, invention. Combining those, I was drawn to the image of RKO’s famous vanity plate, a transmitting tower perched atop a globe.

The study of film paratexts has predominantly focused on elements actually within creative control of filmmakers (titles, opening sequences); the vanity plate (or more commonly production logo) stays constant across multiple films, with some notable exceptions. Divorced from individual creative intent, the vanity plate is a reassuringly constant element of cinemagoing experience, but nevertheless is an authored media that carries its own meaning. In certain respects, these are significant and largely unchanged insights into the creative and business philosophies of early film, as most were codified by the late 1920s.

In creating my essay, I wanted to move the vanity plate from its usual ignored spot at the start of a film and place it centre-stage. I worked with the historic Rio Cinema to show vanity plates on its century-old screen.  By framing the plates within an auditorium for the majority of the video, the audience is invited to remember their own role in ascribing meaning to these images; as a child, I had an extensive internal lore surrounding the Dolby Temple vanity plate, for example. And the Rio would have shown the original RKO films on their initial release, placing my film in a historical continuity with those early audiences.

The final image of the video - a facsimile of the titanic RKO tower looming over the skyline - works double duty in the audiovisual text. As an image, it reflects both the space the RKO logo occupies in my mind and its significance in cinema history, by towering over London. And as a process, creating the shot was an opportunity to link this film with the craft of vanity plates, which were significant visual effects undertakings in their early forms and continue to be a spectacle today.


Will Webb is a writer-director based in London. His films have played at BAFTA-qualifying festivals including London Short Film Festival and PÖFF Shorts. He was awarded the BFI Future Film Award for Fiction in 2015, selected as a Hospital Club Emerging Creative in 2017, and a member of BAFTA Crew 2017- 2021. His videographic criticism includes online commissions for the British Film Institute, Little White Lies, and on-disc physical media releases for Arrow Video. He created two micro-essays for the Essay Library Anthologies, which received an honorary mention in the Sight & Sound best video essay poll for 2021. He has also programmed films for the Chronic Youth Festival (Barbican) and Sheffield Doc/Fest and devised workshops for the BFI.


Reflection by the curators

William Webb’s “Vanity Plate” is somewhat of an anomaly in this collection. For one thing, it is the only video that focuses on the industry side of cinema; it is also the only video in this issue that (like Chloé Galibert-Laîné’s entry from the previous one) is composed exclusively of original footage. Moreover, it is an “orphaned” video, as the original text that inspired it has since been withdrawn from the collection. Therefore, it appears here without the source text and without a reflection from its author. Since Webb only used the text as a starting point, his video already works as a fairly standalone piece as it is.

The video focuses on production logos – a marginal element typically ignored when discussing film and the viewing experience. It is an interesting choice, connecting someone else’s film memory with what we do not generally consider to even be a part of any film’s “text” – and yet a part that is a repetitive, ubiquitous and iconic element of all of our screen memories (for a companion piece on production logos, see this video by Luís Azevedo).

Finally, there is the choice of location: made in the time of the pandemic, when most theatres were still closed, viewing this video – at home, on our laptops – and its images of a public theatre, and an empty one at that, provides a somewhat uncanny viewing experience. At least the final shot brings some public life back into the picture, with the (masked) pedestrians going about their lives, oblivious to the looming digital tower overhead.


Ariel Avissar is a PhD student and Tisch Film School Scholar at Tel Aviv University. His videographic collaborations include Once Upon a Screen (co-edited with Evelyn Kreutzer) and the “TV Dictionary.” He is an associate editor at [in]Transition and has also co-edited Sight & Sound’s “Best Video Essays” poll (2019-2021).

Evelyn Kreutzer is a postdoctoral researcher at the Film University Babelsberg Konrad Wolf, where she leads the project “The Digital Video Essay,” funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). She also serves as an associate editor at [in]Transition. Her written and videographic work has been published in journals like The Cine-FilesMusic, Sound, and the Moving ImageNECSUSResearch in Film & History, and [in]Transition.