One of the films that screened at this year's recently concluded Berlin International Film Festival is Transformers: The Premake, a 25-minute short by Chicago filmmaker and critic Kevin B. Lee. In his career as a critic for Fandor.com and other outlets, Lee has established himself as a master of the “video essay,” a relatively new form of criticism composed in the language of the very medium it seeks to analyze. Most video essays consist of clips from other films that have been cleverly edited together and accompanied by voice-over narration in order to make points about the audio-visual aspects of cinema that cannot be readily conveyed through mere writing. Transformers: The Premake is also a “desktop documentary,” a subgenre of the video essay that, in Lee’s own words, “treats the computer screen as both a camera lens and a canvas, tapping into its potential as an artistic medium.” The result is easily Lee’s most ambitious and impressive work to date.
Transformers: The Premake, made and released before last summer’s premiere of the latest installment in Michael Bay’s popular franchise, is primarily an inquiry into the role of social media in the production and dissemination of the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster. It utilizes footage that Lee himself shot behind the scenes of the Chicago-made segments of Tranformers: Age of Extinction, as well as footage shot and uploaded to YouTube by literally hundreds of other amateur filmmakers. Lee incorporates the aesthetics of YouTube, Google Maps and Instant Messaging as means of conveying information into the overall design of his film, and the globe-spanning myriad of data that results adds up to an intellectually vibrant and viscerally pounding half-hour of pure cinema. Interestingly, Transformers: The Premake’s successful film festival run began only after Lee had made it available to watch for free online at YouTube and other sites—a phenomenon that would have been unthinkable only a couple of years ago but one more sign of how much film culture has changed in the Internet Age.
You can learn more about Transformers: The Premake (and watch it in its entirety) at Lee's website.