In defence of found footage movies

Are found footage movies a cheap-to-make fad, or are they a natural extension of classic storytelling? Here’s Ryan’s view of a divisive genre…

The finest storytellers are confidence tricksters. It’s their ability to convince us that what they’re telling us is real that makes their tall tales so engrossing – they blur the lines between fiction and reality, to the point where are brains struggle to see the join between one and the other.

This is why so many novels and short stories were written in the first person, or incorporated real-world events: their writers wanted to convince their readers that what they were reading was fact, even as the stories span off into unreality. Robinson Crusoe was written by Daniel Defoe as a first-person account of a castaway. Jonathan Swift’s  Gulliver’s Travels was written in the style of a traveller’s work of non-fiction, and early editions even carried a portrait of its fictional author to heighten the illusion.

A century later, Edgar Allan Poe became infamous for his made up tales and hoaxes. One of his stories, which later became known as The Balloon-Hoax, was printed as fact by a New York newspaper in 1844. Many of Poe’s other stories were based on contemporary news stories – his detective tale The Mystery of Marie Rogêt was based on the real-life murder of tobacco shop clerk Mary Rogers in 1841. The fictionalised version of events in Poe’s story were so close to those of the real case that some have rather foolishly suggested that Poe must have somehow been involved in Rogers’ death.

Poe is an example of a writer who could expertly weave words and real events to create a believable story, and there’s a clear line, from Defoe via Poe to the storytellers of the present, who will use any technique they can to suspend the disbelief of their readers.

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It’s a confidence trick that has spread far beyond novels and short stories, too – Orson Welles’ 1938 radio adaptation of The War Of The Worlds, perhaps the most famous radio broadcast ever, caused mass panic when listeners took its news bulletin format as fact.

On 31st October 1992, the BBC broadcast Ghostwatch, a fake documentary so controversial that it’s never been screened on UK television since. Presented as fact, the 90-minute broadcast took viewers on a ‘live’ investigation of a jaunted house in Greater London. Although the BBC added opening and closing credits to highlight the fact that Ghostwatch was a piece of fiction, the use of recognisable presenters – among them Michael Parkinson and Sarah Greene – led some viewers to believe that what they were watching was real.

Ghostwatch triggered a wave of complaints. An estimated 30,000 callers rang the BBC, disturbed at what they’d witnessed. Although the BBC insisted that it had taken steps to mark the show out as a hoax – even airing it during its 9 o’clock drama slot – the Broadcasting Standards Commission took a dim view of it. “The BBC had a duty to do more than simply hint at the deception it was practising on the audience,” the BSC ruled. “In Ghostwatch there was a deliberate attempt to cultivate a sense of menace.”

The ripples from Ghostwatch’s shockwave headed across the Atlantic, and it’s probable that it became the unwitting parent of new kind of modern filmmaking: the found footage movie. Did Ghostwatch inspire filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez to head off into the woods to shoot The Blair Witch Project in 1999? It’s certainly possible, given that the pair have admitted to seeing Ghostwatch a few years before. The Blair Witch certainly has more in common with Ghostwatch than Cannibal Holocaust, Ruggero Deodato’s infamous 1980 horror that was also shot in the style of a documentary. Other pre-Blair documentary-style movies include Man Bites Dog (1992), Alien Abduction: Incident In Lake County (1998) and The Last Broadcast (also 1998).

At any rate, this tiny film, shot on handheld cameras for a few thousand dollars (estimates on its actual budget vary), became a phenomenon, grossing almost $250 million worldwide. Part of The Blair Witch’s success was due to clever marketing – it was among the first films to make genuinely clever use of the Internet, with its website full of police reports and snippets of footage – but also because of its thick veneer of realism.

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Like the first-person horror of Poe or his similarly influential successor, HP Lovecraft, The Blair Witch’s subjective viewpoint and wobbly camerawork placed the viewer in the shoes of its terrified protagonists. Whether you were under the impression that The Blair Witch was a real documentary or not – by the time it came to the UK, the ruse had already been rumbled – for those 79 minutes while the lights were down, the film had you in its grip.

What’s surprising about The Blair Witch is that, although it was enormously lucrative, it wasn’t immediately followed by a legion imitators, as, say, Halloween was in 1978. Found footage movies undoubtedly emerged – among them The St Francisville Experiment (2000), The Last Horror Movie (2003) and September Tapes (2004) – but these appeared at a relatively slow rate of around two or three per year.

It was the arrival of Paranormal Activity in 2007 that appeared to open the floodgates. Another minimalist ghost story, this time set in a young couple’s California house, it generated almost as much cash as The Blair Witch Project. And with the 2008 financial crisis just around the corner, the time was right for an explosion of cheap-to-make found footage films.

In 2010, approximately 17 found footage movies were produced – among them the extremely effective The Last Exorcism, Paranormal Activity 2 and Troll Hunter. A similar number was released last year.

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With so many filmmakers hopping on the found footage bandwagon, it’s inevitable that some are better than others. Films like Paranormal Entity and 8213: Gacy House were swiftly-produced knock-offs of Paranormal Activity, while 2008’s Monster was a cash-in on the big-budget Cloverfield, released the same year. The Devil Inside, released in January, appeared to be little more than an elaborate advertisement for a website, and reviewers (plus vocal cinemagoers) quickly rounded on it.

Critics of the found footage genre will often point to its limitations: why do their protagonists continue to film everything, even in the presence of certain death, as was the case in Cloverfield? It could also be argued that found footage movies struggle to find interesting new ways of ending. Virtually every single one concludes with the camera landing on the floor with a bang, followed by a brief flash of something horrible or supernatural, and then a rapid fade out.

It’s the same problem writers are faced with in first-person narratives. If your protagonist is also the writer, how do you kill them on the final page? Authors often get around this by ending a story with the hero’s writing being interrupted by an ominous, supernatural bang at the front door, or an epilogue written by somebody else.

While it’s true that the found footage genre forces filmmakers to work within certain confines, it’s notable just how diverse the genre is becoming. It’s gradually moving out of the realm of the supernatural, and into comedy drama (the forthcoming Project X) and comic book superhero movie (Chronicle).

Chronicle is particularly notable for its fast-and-loose approach to shooting a found footage film. Initially shot from the perspective of amateur filmmaker Andrew (Dane DeHaan), the film later cuts between his viewpoint and that of another filmmaker, Casey (Ashley Hinshaw). Later still, Chronicle’s director Josh Trank comes up with a brilliant conceit that fits perfectly with the movie’s telekinetic plot – Andrew and his friends can make the camera float with their minds, freeing the film from the fixed perspectives of most found-footage flicks, providing otherwise impossible shots that are dizzying and sometimes breathtaking.

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Chronicle’s use of multiple perspectives and security camera footage suggests a move away from what has become a rigidly traditional use of the genre, where every cut has to be somehow explained within the narrative. It’s something that some have found refreshing and exciting, but provoked confusion among others – Guardian critic Ben Childs complained that “We end up thinking about the unfeasibility of the set-up more than the events taking place on screen”, for example.

It’s possible, though, that Chronicle is a comment on the YouTube generation’s habit of filming everything – go to a gig, and you’ll see a crowd filming the band and each other on their mobile phone. On the way home, the members of the crowd will probably be filmed on CCTV. Chronicle takes the aesthetic and immediacy of the found footage genre, but doesn’t feel the need to adhere to an arbitrary set of rules.

It could be argued, in fact, that Chronicle’s practice of switching between different viewpoints in a found footage movie is akin to the earliest uses of film cutting and multiple perspectives. Before 1903, it was uncommon for filmmakers to move the camera at all, and most early movies simply filmed a single event from one viewpoint. But gradually, assembling a story from multiple bits of film became accepted as a vital, readily understood element of filmmaking – a director could cut from an establishing shot that showed the outside of a house to the people inside it without fear of confusing the audience. Perhaps the found footage genre is heading the same way – its techniques are gradually becoming assimilated into the accepted language of filmmaking.

Although some have argued that the found footage genre is running out of ideas, or that it’s a trend that will pass in time, I suspect it’ll continue to endure for many years yet. They make sense from a financial perspective, since they’re cheap to make, and people will pay to see the better ones. They feed into our modern landscape of ubiquitous cameras and streaming video. But most importantly, they’re able to place the viewer into a situation – often terrifying ones, as in REC or Paranormal Activity – and for those few brief minutes while the cinema’s lights are down, make them feel as though they really are stuck in the filmmaker’s version of reality.

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