I’m in a YouTube wormhole, and it’s not just passive entertainment I’m enjoying. It’s intelligent analyses of media I previously watched over and over, yet I have never really seen what this video essayist is revealing until now. 

First, I’m on Omaha Beach watching bullets zip through the air to strike American soldiers in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. A voiceover explains how Spielberg expertly mimicked war footage to ensure the fictional film felt as realistic as possible. Side-by-side comparisons drive that point home even further.

Then I’m clicking on a related “suggested video” by the same channel, which dissects how Jack Nicholson uses anger to highlight the emotions his characters feel. The same voiceover narrator reveals, through various scenes from Nicholson’s impressive cinematic catalog, the many ways the actor expresses anger even though we might not see this right away in his outbursts, like fear in The Border.

I couldn’t help clicking on another video to help guide me through the genius of the Helm’s Deep battle in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. As a Tolkien nerd, I’m all smiles as every nuance of that epic battle, from the lighting to the camera angles, are broken down by the uploader’s keen eye.

And that eye belongs to Evan Puschak of San Francisco, a.k.a. nerdwriter1 on YouTube, accumulating 2.7 million subscribers. His video essays, released weekly for the past three years, reveal the talented minds behind the films and TV shows we’ve enjoyed for decades. His essays have looked at the layers behind films by Alfred Hitchcock, David Fincher, Peter Jackson, Quentin Tarantino, David Cronenberg, Ridley Scott, Peter Weir and many more. 

He’s not the only one bringing expert insight to TV shows, movies and even what it feels like to use certain drugs. 

Puschak’s nerdwriter1 is a savant at ensuring we don’t miss anything popping up in the background of our favorite films. In his video-essay on Children of Men, he tells us how the camera becomes preoccupied with what is happening beyond the perspective of the film’s main character. We see beyond his eyes to get glimpses of a bleak totalitarian world overrun by menacing cops, dirt-ravaged streets and caged illegal immigrants. 

This essay makes sure we catch some obvious symbolism: In a scene where a pig float is hovering outside a window, never mentioned by characters, Puschak says it’s a reference to the Pink Floyd album Animals, which reportedly riffs off George Orwell’s Animal Farm, itself a satirical indictment of authoritarian socialism. 

Entertain The Elk (237,000 subscribers) is best known for the series The Day ____ Died with such episodes as “The Day South Park Died,” where he critiques a show’s jump-the-shark moment and how it all went downhill from that head-shaking episode. 

Lessons from the Screenplay (1.14 million subs) doesn’t focus too much on directing or where the camera wants you to look, but instead acts as a writer’s channel for all things Hollywood. How did Moonrise Kingdom blend story and style? What tools of suspense did Tarantino employ for Inglorious Basterds? Or dip into Christopher Nolan’s mind to learn how he created the Joker as the ultimate antagonist in The Dark Knight.

When I want to wade into the minutiae of filmmaking, I turn to Every Frame a Painting’s archive (it stopped uploading vids three years ago). This video essayist focused on well-known films and directors, such as Spielberg, to pull back the curtain on filming and editing techniques that aren’t often explored in-depth. Film nerds will especially enjoy his piece on how Spielberg seamlessly peppered his films with the “oner,” a.k.a. the one-take shot. For Looney Tunes fans, watch his brilliant exposé of artist Chuck Jones (which also delivers a hefty dose of nostalgia for anyone over 30).

Mainstream media isn’t the only target of these video essayists. Drugs are also under the microscope for channels such as Drugslab. Funded by the Dutch government, the channel is part of a program called “Spuiten en Slikken” (Shoot and Swallow) on BNN, a public broadcasting station in the Netherlands. The first episodes launched in 2005, and Drugslab vids have racked up more than 72 million total views.

The hosts try drugs such as acid, speed, E, DMT, salvia, Oxy, ayahuasca and cannabis. The vid titles sum up what to expect from following a host who is self-dosing and cataloging a drug’s effects: Dzifa can’t sleep after using speed, Bastiaan floats like a balloon after taking the psychedelic saliva, MDMA makes Bastiaan feel like a child again, etc. 

They speak in Dutch, but English subtitles provide context to their fun videos.

What works for Drugslab is that as serious as the subject matter can become, like what you shouldn’t mix Xanax with, their Go-Pro vids capturing their drug-fuelled experiences add a lighter tone to the educational messaging. It helps that the vids are long enough to go deep into a drug experience, with ayahuasca even getting the three-part treatment due to interviews explaining how an ayahuasca ceremony works.

There’s an intriguing relationship between Drugslab and essayists such as nerdwriter1: whisking off the mask of things we take for granted, from the appeal of Martin Scorsese’s use of silence to what it’s like to dance on psychedelics. By giving us a close-up angle of pop culture or drugs, we can learn about the many shades making up an entire experience, whether we’re familiar with it or have been meaning to try it one of these days. 

Main image: Street art by Banksy. 

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