Evan Puschak, aka the Nerdwriter, has gained a massive YouTube following with his videos showcasing what makes great art.
I’m in a YouTube wormhole. And I don’t want to leave.
First, I’m on Omaha Beach, watching bullets zip through the air to strike American soldiers in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. A voice-over explains how Spielberg expertly mimicked war footage to ensure the fictional film felt as realistic as possible.
And then I’m clicking on a related suggested video, which dissects how Jack Nicholson uses anger to highlight other emotions his characters feel. The same voice-over reveals, through various scenes from Nicholson’s impressive catalogue, the many ways the actor lets anger express feelings we might not see right away in his outbursts, such as fear in The Border.
I couldn’t resist going deeper into this YouTube session, once again hearing that familiar voice 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, is analyzed by the uploader’s keen eye.
That eye belongs to Evan Puschak of San Francisco, aka nerdwriter1 on YouTube. His video essays, released weekly for the past two years, reveal the talented minds behind the films and TV shows we’ve enjoyed for years. The Nerdwriter has looked at the layers behind films by Alfred Hitchcock, David Fincher, Peter Jackson, Quentin Tarantino, David Cronenberg, Ridley Scott, Peter Weir and many more.
His video essays have broken down TV shows such as Breaking Bad, The Office, Seinfeld, Sherlock, Game of Thrones and even the cult classic cartoon Ren & Stimpy.
I’m not alone in finding myself immersed in the Nerdwriter’s filmic philosophies. More than 1.5 million have subscribed to his channel, and total views of his videos have reached 86.7 million.
To best explain how engaging and unique Nerdwriter videos have become to cultural conversations on film, let’s look at one of his essays. In his analysis of Saving Private Ryan’s reenactment of the Normandy Landing, Spielberg spirals us into a chaotic bloody battle full of blood wounds, crying soldiers, missing limbs. But the studious film nerd (Puschak studied film at Boston University) sees the techniques beneath the horror.
Thanks to Puschak, we learn that Spielberg borrowed ideas from actual World War II footage, such as keeping the camera low to the ground and adding shakes during running sequences and after explosions. We also might assume the hellish battle includes dozens of quick edits and jump cuts, but Puschak’s essay says different: in the 24 minutes of this scene, Puschak counts 200 shots, which comes out to 7.2 seconds per shot. And that’s much longer than you’d expect in a typical battle scene.
“You’re asked to comprehend so much…so Spielberg eases the pressure on your brain by panning, tilting or moving the camera, when others would just cut,” explains Puschak. “This way you don’t have to waste too much mental energy on orienting yourself and you can absorb the relevant information as it comes.”
The Nerdwriter then spends the next segment looking at the many shots, from close-ups to inserts, that comprise a 12-second shot.
Even to the rookie film buff, it’s apparent Puschak is in love with the minutiae of film. He’s the kind of guy who counts shots in 24-minute scenes. And he’s brave enough to go back to film’s formative era to introduce Hollywood masters who might’ve been unfamiliar to millennials.
One of my favorite videos by the Nerdwriter is titled “How Hitchcock Blocks a Scene,” which carves an opening scene from Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Through crafty editing, Puschak splits his screen to show the film’s scene on the right side and an animated illustration of the blocking of the actors on the left side. This way, he can tell us when a character’s posture becomes aggressive, as one moves closer to another for the first time in the short scene.
We also learn how a camera’s movement can say a lot. When it pans backward, “it calls attention to itself… To Hitchcock, blocking involves the position of the camera too.”
Puschak is a guru at ensuring we don’t miss anything popping up in the background of our favorite films. In his video essay on Children of Men, the Nerdwriter 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, caged illegal immigrants.
This essay makes sure we don’t miss 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 has been known to be riffing off George Orwell’s Animal Farm, itself a satirical indictment of authoritarian socialism.
The Nerdwriter also goes neck-deep into hit TV shows. In his Breaking Bad video essay, Puschak discusses how reaction shots show viewers intense emotions instead of focusing on the action at hand. Spoiler ahead: Remember when Hank got shot in the episode “Ozymandias”? We didn’t see the gory details; we didn’t need to, because the camera instead panned to Walter White’s horrified reaction. His pain became our pain.
If you’ve ever chatted with friends about a movie or TV show and eventually learned something new about a scene thanks to their insight, that’s how it feels watching essays by the Nerdwriter. He’s that insider, that movie specialist and hard-core fan, all rolled into one, so passionate about the machinations of Hollywood he can’t help himself. You can almost hear the tremor of excitement in Puschak’s voice when he divulges something truly astounding about a director’s undervalued technique.
The Nerdwriter isn’t the only film essayist on YouTube, but he’s by far the most prolific. He is unafraid to show off his range, whether that means tackling the subtext behind classics such as It’s A Wonderful Life or spending eight minutes to showcase the genius of certain film titles.
Puschak also uploads video essays beyond Hollywood analyses. He’s waxed poetic about fidget spinners, Facebook, politics, Bon Iver, Picasso and much more. While they hit the mark in execution and aha moments, the Nerdwriter is best known for his takes on film and TV.
There is deep intellectualism in all his videos, no matter the focus. It’s that attention to detail that draws us into his videos. We might have seen Seinfeld dozens of times or watched Reservoir Dogs obsessively over the past 20 years, but what attracts us to the Nerdwriter’s videos is how we can see something new in the old. With the right tour guide, we can appreciate the architecture of pop culture as we never have before.