Ever since the 1999 release of the Blair Witch Project, the ‘found footage’ sub-genre has grown exponentially, and is now embedded firmly in the horror genre.
As a narrative device, it presents the film as a recording of an event, discovered afterwards, and subsequently shown in cinemas. Herein lies one of the great strengths of found footage; it suspends disbelief in a different way to standard cinema, in that even as you watch you can imagine that it is real, that someone really has found an old video camera with this (usually supernatural) footage on it.
There is something about the visceral realism of that home video look that makes for a compelling viewing. More so since the advent of Youtube and video phones, which have given us some very interesting real found footage, and so heighten the perceived authenticity of cinema made using this device. There is an element of voyeurism in watching a home video too, a sense of looking in on something that wasn’t necessarily made for your eyes. As well as this, found footage can give more creative licence to filmmakers, especially those on a shoestring budget, as the lo-fi look eliminates the need for polished visuals.
After finding further success in films such as Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity, it seems every producer with a horror/disaster flick in mind is turning to found footage. But it has its limitations.
As with 3-D (which is way up at the glitzier end of the narrative device spectrum), there is a line between successful, innovative usage, and gimmick. Sadly, in the deluge of ‘homemade’ films that bombard cinemas (if they’re lucky, most go straight to DVD) each month, this line is frequently crossed. One issue with found footage is that for the most part the angle of shots is limited to the stretch of an arm, and in the periods of films that aren’t shock or scare scenes, things can become very drab, as parts of Blair Witch were.
Some films realise this, and bypass it by making the film only part found footage, for example the recent Lovely Molly –produced by Blair Witch’s co-director Eduardo Sanchez – which is for the most part shot normally, the creepy bits tending to happen when the protagonist picks up the camera, which she does when she feels she senses something malevolent. It works, to an extent.
Another recent release, which tackles the inherent issues in a different way, is superhero flick Chronicle, a film that, like the previous mentions in this post, benefited from a very savvy viral marketing strategy.
Chronicle is set in Seattle, where pretty much everybody walks around filming the whole time, at least if you take this film’s version of the city as gospel. This ‘
Found footage films can be clunky and rather lacking direction at times. One could describe Blair Witch as a film without a director, but rather a film with an editor piecing together lots of found footage instead. A criticism that can be forgiven in the sub-genre’s first outing – Blair Witch was after all greatly innovative for its time – but becomes increasingly irritating as later films fail to address its shortcomings. This doesn’t mean that the found footage sub-genre is dead though: Within the glut of subpar found footage films, there are exceptions that make good and innovative use of the device. Yes found footage is on trend, yes there are movies that use it as a gimmick, but this is no different from any other aesthetic, technique or technological innovation that comes along. Both colour and sound were criticised for being gimmicky when first introduced. Found footage will never change cinema like they did, but it does give directors another creative avenue to explore.