There’s a trend with film-makers working on relatively low budget productions now to go the ‘found footage’ route. It was once primarily the domain of horror pictures but with the likes of the superhero movie Chronicle this year, other genres are starting to be subsumed by this filmic ‘style’.
Of course, it was The Blair Witch Project in 1999 that really exploded the found footage bubble (though there were others before this like 1980′s infamous Cannibal Holocaust), purporting to be the ‘actual’ documentary film that three teenagers were making, the film was presented as the chilling record of what might have become of them. The brilliance of this approach was that (a) you could get away with some very dodgy and amateur camerawork (b) you could legitimately break the fourth wall and try to connect with the audience more directly (c) you really put the audience in the character’s eyes and (d) you could get away with not explaining things or showing stuff that might otherwise push your non-existent budget.
By dint of this, The Blair Witch Project grossed over $248 million worldwide off of a $60,000 budget and made a lot of people very, very rich. Thus the formula was established for the studios: dirt cheap films and huge profits.
After The Blair Witch Project the second, third and fourth most successful found footage films of all time are the Paranormal Activity movies. Off of a tiny $15,000 budget Oren Peli’s slow-burn, cheap-shock horror grossed over $193 million, with the franchise having grossed $576 million worldwide from a series where the budget – at most (pre-marketing) – has been $5 million. Those figures, quite frankly, are astonishing.
Elsewhere the top 10 found footage movies of all time is littered with the likes of The Devil Inside Me, The Last Exorcism and Quarantine. Whilst Cloverfield, Apollo 18, Troll Hunter and Chronicle at least bring something a little fresh to the genre, we have the likes of Todd Phillip’s Project X coming out this year which attempts to bring found footage to the ‘teen comedy’ genre.
However, as the trend for found footage movies continues and studios start to allow the budgets to bloat, (Cloverfield cost $25 million, Chronicle and Project X each cost $12 million) I can’t help but wonder where the line should be drawn and when a film should banish the, perhaps, gimmicky and ultimately limiting concept of being a ‘found footage’ picture and instead just be a ‘real’ film?
For me, Chronicle was an ok film and it was precisely because of its reliance on being made from ‘found footage’ that the film suffered. Firstly, I found myself asking such unimportant – yet frustrating – questions such as “Who found this footage?” and “Who edited this?” throughout the entire film, and as the viewpoint leapt from camera to camera the whole found footage concept became even more muddled. In fact, it didn’t really seem to be a found footage movie at all, which isn’t a bad thing, it just seemed to be a film only told from people’s cameras, which is an interesting concept, but when that limits the dramatic and emotional impact of your film I can’t help but wonder why the filmmakers didn’t just make the film ‘normally’?
Chronicle was littered with moments where it was all too convenient or convoluted that someone was filming a scene at a particular moment (Casey answering her front door, Andrew’s dad snooping around his room, even the confrontation during the lightning storm) and I couldn’t help but feel that the filmmakers should have used the personal cameras of characters as a story-telling device but not the sole viewpoint for the entire film. An example I turn to is Wes Bentley’s character in American Beauty who we are introduced to through his camcorder’s view filming a dead dove, and later he records his father beating him, Thora Birch’s character stripping through a window and, in a peculiar and emotional scene, shows her his recording of a carrier bag blowing in the wind.
When the three main characters return to the subterranean cave where they acquired their powers to find it has collapsed in on itself, one remarks that Andrew has definitely lost his old camera now, which raises a question mark of how all the footage leading up to them getting their powers actually emerged and got edited into this movie.
As the film draws towards its conclusion the contrivance of having our view restricted to people’s personal cameras (or the occasional hop into CCTV) just became more and more limiting, not just visually but dramatically and as a result the film’s finale lost its focus. I couldn’t help but feel that certain aspect of the sequence would undoubtedly of benefited from traditional film-making techniques. Which made me wonder, why, when a film has the budget Chronicle has, does it feel the need to be a ‘found footage’ movie? There is no scene in this film that couldn’t have been shot in the traditional sense but in exactly the same style as the finished film? Why restrict your camerawork, your editing choices, your actors and the overall mood of a film to such an extent when it seems so ultimately unnecessary? When it makes the choice to have the film be ‘found footage’ feel like a gimmick and nothing more?
For all my own personal distaste of The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, the faux-real style was stylistically and dramatically appropriate. Likewise, Cloverfield book-ended its story with title-cards that claimed it to be government property, which at least gave context as to how the footage had emerged; it also used the ‘un-edited’ nature of the tape to cleverly hop back and forth in time giving us a bittersweet look at characters before the film’s dramatic events. Is context so important in found footage movies or, like Chronicle, should a film just use the protagonists’ cameras as its viewpoint, as if we’re witnessing some sort of electronic telepathic live-feed?
I think my biggest issue, primarily with Chronicle and potentially with the forthcoming Project X, is that the ‘found footage’ idea seems to be a gimmick tacked onto an otherwise standard film idea to give it some sort of contemporary relevance and excuse potentially ‘shoddy’ film-making. But, that’s the strange thing about Chronicle, its story alone was interesting and relevant enough without the gimmick, and the characters were competent camera-people, so there seemed to be no good reason for the view to remain awkwardly fixed inside their personal cameras, and I longed for the filmmakers to realise this, give up on the gimmick and just tell the story.
What do you think? When is the ‘found footage’ style beneficial and when is it limiting?