David Fincher and David Prior’s anthology essay series “Voir” is only six episodes, but fully half of those came from Taylor Ramos and Tony Zhou. Their skill with the form comes as no surprise to fans of their YouTube channel “Every Frame a Painting,” which almost served as a proof of concept for a show like “Voir” — and that millions of people would be interested in videos exploring just how the grammar of filmmaking impacts its meaning. When done well, video essays combine the thrill of knowing a secret and the joy of learning more about a long-held passion. Zhou and Ramos spoke to IndieWire about how the process of creating that joyful learning shifted and expanded when working on “Voir.”
“YouTube was very constricting because of things like copyright and DMC,” Ramos said. “The license that Netflix and [David Fincher] gave us, it was very, ‘Oh, we can do anything and everything!’ And [that] was, I don’t want to say daunting, but —”
“It was mildly terrifying,” Zhou added.
More than access to money for media libraries and rights lawyers, however, what Ramos and Zhou had to contend with was the ability to scale how they presented their ideas, expanding from narration over picture to mix in other modes of filmmaking. “Videos are a weird hybrid that have elements of narrative and elements of documentary,” Zhou said. “So [there are] elements of this show that tilt towards narrative… or documentary, in our case. We went out and shot interviews, which we would have done in a doc format, or things like motion graphics, like actually building an animated character.”
Zhou and Ramos’ work on the series represents this hybridization. “Film vs. Television,” narrated by Ramos, follows a viewer from a movie theater to their home, even as the episode uses contrasting film and television footage — sometimes rewardingly shot by the same director or adapting the same material — to illustrate the difference. Zhou narrates the “The Ethics of Revenge,” which contains fascinating interviews with experts sometimes addressing the interviewer and audience directly, which shifts the piece to a more subjective framing. And “The Duality of Appeal,” the episode on which Ramos and Zhou share writing, producing, and directing credits and which Ramos narrates, dramatizes the process of creating an animated character from concept to full CGI rendering, and rewardingly answers a larger question of why female animated characters tend to hue to similar face and body types. “This is gonna be for animators,” Ramos enthused about the “Duality of Appeal” episode. “Like, I hope other people come in, because I want everyone to watch more animation and engage with animation more. But I’m like, ‘This is for my fellow line animators!'”
“It’s for like five Tumblr blogs,” Zhou added.
“The Duality of Appeal” speaks to Ramos and Zhou’s own appeal: They balance a specificity rooted in expertise with relatable, jargon-free language and clarity, and a healthy dose of humor besides. The moment the viewer in “Film vs. Television” flips a table is perfectly timed to the clip the audience is likely having a similar reaction to, and the funniest moment in maybe the entirety of “Voir” is a hard cut to a title card that simply reads “Client Notes.” But the difference between achieving that balance required them to jump into live-action filmmaking in a way they never had before. “In animation, you have to create literally everything. It’s an empty space,” Ramos said. “[In live action, you’re] dealing with physical space and the limitations of that. And that just brings a whole host of problems. I’d be like, ‘Well, why can’t I get that shot?’ And [the crew] would be like, ‘Well, because there are walls there, Taylor.'”
But Ramos utilized her animation background when organizing the live action sequences as well. “I asked to get plexiglass put onto the monitors so that I could get a dry erase marker and draw [on it],” Ramos said. “If I need this cup to be moved to where there’s a shine here, or I can see a light here, or I need this person they’re facing this way, I would actually draw people’s profile.” They would also storyboard shots they knew they could control in advance. Ramos said of the “Television vs. Film” episode, “Basically, we had our script and then I storyboarded it. And so all of the shots you see are almost one-to-one recreations of the boards that I did. We made an entire animatic of that episode.”
“The thing I’m most proud of learning [was] the process of adapting what was effectively a two-person workflow to like 40 to 50 people,” Zhou said. “It’s one of the weird things that they don’t really teach you in school. They’ll teach you protocols for how to do certain things on set, but they don’t necessarily teach you how do you take something that involves just two people talking and make it 40 people without causing chaos.” Ramos added how much she loved learning, from artisans on sets and from her own “client” notes on cuts from David Fincher and David Prior, and how that love bleeds into the final product. “I like the feeling of learning,” Ramos said. “And I liked that there were people on our team that were smarter than us and were enthusiastic to make this project with us and help do good work. That’s always just really nice.” The three episodes of “Voir” made by Ramos and Zhou capture that feeling of learning, with a mix of earnestness, enthusiasm, inquiry, and wry humor, and that’s always just really nice, too.