The found-footage genre has come a long way since The Blair Witch Project back in 1999, or perhaps I should say since Cannibal Holocaust from 1980. But it was really Blair Witch that kicked off the filmmaking craze and made it accessible for moviegoers. That film, about a trio of film students who head out into the woods to make a documentary about the Blair Witch, arrived with the premise that the students went missing, but their footage was found. Thus, the found-footage genre (as its come to be known) was reinvented for the masses.
Why are you filming yourself?
After attempting to make my own mini-found-footage film while running through The Walking Dead Escape at San Diego Comic-Con, I can confirm that it’s absolutely impossible for someone to run from a witch or any kind of monster and still manage to shoot watchable footage. Your life vs. camera stability? I wonder which you would pick. But hey, this is the film industry we’re talking about -- it’s okay to bend the believability rules a bit.
However, it’s not okay to 1) give a character a lame reason to be filming him or herself, or 2) offer absolutely no reason for a character to be filming him or herself. The documentary angle is generally a good play. It works in both Blair Witch and Troll Hunter. On the other hand, the excuse of needing to show people how something is really going down can be absurd. Cloverfield is lucky it’s so enthralling, otherwise I’d seriously be questioning Hud’s judgment. Then again, that concept does work a little better in REC and Quarantine. Something terrible is happening, but the people who are supposed to rush in and save the day are leaving victims to die in a nightmarish apartment building. Something isn’t right and the public has to know.
Then you get something like Chronicle. While I thoroughly enjoyed the film, there’s no denying that Andrew Detmer simply waking up and feeling the need to tell his story is one of the lamest excuses to wind up with found footage.
Are we maxed out on found footage?
Keep crying wolf and see how many people believe you when that wolf finally does arrive. There should be a found-footage movie quota. How many times a year are we expected to believe that people suffer through some horrific or out-of-this-world experience and someone’s up for the task of recording the entire thing? In 2011 we got three sizable found-footage movies and this year we’ve already got five and will add one more come October 19 with Paranomal Activity 4. They’re fun and I’m a total sucker for them, but the horror subgenre is on the verge of satirizing itself.
How do we spice it up?
A portion of the answer to this question lies in the difference between found footage and shaky cam. As previously mentioned, found footage is footage shot by characters who are never seen again. Shaky cam, on the other hand, is handheld camerawork, and the fact that it can apply to both a character holding a camera and to more traditional camerawork -- as a way of putting a viewer in a character’s shoes without it being a straight POV -- suggests that that could be found footage’s way out.
How End of Watch Breaks the Boundaries
Let’s take care of this little issue right off the bat: End of Watch is not a found-footage movie. Yes, Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, Brian Taylor, often films his police work with his partner, Mike Zavala (Michael Peña), and you can make the case that just about anyone could have stumbled upon his camcorder and released the footage, but the idea that a certain someone could collect the additional footage shot from different vantage points and in different styles, and stitch together a story is just absurd.
Rather than try to sell the point that Gyllenhaal and other practical cameras just happened to catch every piece of their story, director David Ayer nestles the purpose for the use of shaky-camera techniques on a much deeper level of the story. He doesn’t just give Brian a reason to be filming and leave it at that; it’s brought up throughout the narrative, raising the stakes in a far different manner than the prime scenario -- Brian and Mike vs. the drug carter -- in turn, enhancing the experience. First off, Brian is not allowed to film while on duty, period. Then there’s the fact that both he and Mike are constantly bending rules. Forget the fact that they’re throwing themselves into a dangerous investigation; Brian can also get them into some pretty big trouble with his footage.
And the way Ayer pieces that footage together is far more refreshing than any standard found-footage movie. Rather than set up Brian’s camera and leave it at that, Ayer goes with whatever is best for the story and whatever will be more effective in his effort to put us in Brian and Mike’s shoes. We get Brian’s camera, but we also get the police-car camera and more. Admittedly, the results can be quite jarring for those with a mild case of motion sickness, but if you can adjust, you’ll feel like you’re in the movie more so than with any 3D film.
Is Found Footage Fading?
Even before movies like End of Watch hit theaters and proved there’s life beyond standard found footage, we’ve already got a couple of films running scared.
Remember Chernobyl Diaries? You thought that was a found-footage movie before you saw it, right? Talk about an awkward surprise. At first, it was a bit of a relief to know you weren’t about to go through 90 minutes of dizzying camerawork, but as the movie progressed the shaky-camera style was still there, but without the found-footage backbone, so there was just no reason for it. If you’re going to ride the found-footage wave, you better go through with it.
Then there’s the latest entry of the REC franchise, REC 3: Genesis. Now this is an absolute travesty. REC built its fan base around the fact that these are films about virus outbreaks told from a camera on the inside. Paco Plaza had exactly what he needed with cousin Adrián and his handheld camera at the wedding and even had a second perspective courtesy of the professional photographer on the premises, but then he abandoned it completely for more “standard” filmmaking techniques -- ones that wholly strip REC 3 of the franchise’s tone and utterly ruin the experience.
At the moment, other than the potential continuation of the Paranormal Activity franchise, the only other found-footage film we know is coming in 2013 and beyond is Oren Peli’s Area 51. Does this mean found footage will soon be extinct? Absolutely not. The style may be becoming more and more hackneyed, but that doesn’t change the fact it generally means smaller budgets and bigger profits. Even with dismal reviews, The Devil Inside turned its $1 million production budget into $101 million at the worldwide box office.
Then we’ve got movies like Chronicle and Project X, both of which were successful enough to garner sequel talk and suggest that perhaps found footage could have a fresher appeal in non-horror genres.
The Future of Found Footage
So where could found footage be heading from here? There are a number of different avenues available and worth exploring, but I’m banking on enough success from End of Watch to spur more shaky-cam/found-footage hybrids; films that have a degree of found footage at the core, but use character camerawork to enhance story rather than just being a reason to tell it.
While I highly doubt that shift or any shift will come with Paranormal Activity 4 in October, Barry Levinson’s The Bay does look as though it’s got the potential to shake things up a bit.
What do you think? Are you sick of found footage or do you think it’s got room to grow?