Here at Nightmare on Film Street, June has been all about one of the most divisive sub-genres of horror: Found Footage films. Most fans either love them or hate them, rarely falling someplace in between. It’s interesting how much debate there has been over found footage, considering it’s one of the youngest sub-genres. Compared to slashers or zombie flicks, which have roots going back to the 60s, the first true found footage film didn’t come around until 1980. Maybe time plays a factor in solidifying the subgenre? Slashers were introduced in the 60s, but didn’t seem to perfect its formula until the cinematic heyday of the 80s.
Has found footage found its formula yet? Hard to say, but in this article, I’ll attempt to break down the elements I believe are necessary to make a successful found footage film. Get out your notepads, time for some Horror 101: Found Footage edition!
Found (Footage) Facts
Before getting to the breakdown, let’s lay a little groundwork: what is found footage and where did it come from? Found footage can be described as a film presented as recorded events, seen through a camera (or multiple cameras) operated by characters involved. Most found footage is presented in some sort of documentary form, whether it be for a fictional documentary, news coverage, home videos, etc. Their small budgets, the use of unknown actors, and the “shaky cam” effect would go on to become trademark elements associated with found footage films.
Cannibal Holocaust, released in 1980, is credited as being the first true found footage film in cinema. Often mentioned on “Most Controversial Films” list, Cannibal Holocaust shook the world with its use of found footage to enhance the gore and brutality of its subject matter. Director Rigger Deodato was so committed to maintaining the illusion of it being recovered footage, he had the cast sign agreements to not partake in any media whatsoever, strict privacy. Deodato managed to convince the public so much, he was taken to court on obscenity and murder charges believing the deaths on camera were real.
It would be 19 years before the genre really took off with the viral sensation of The Blair Witch Project, but more on that in a minute. Found footage would become a somewhat revolutionary addition to the horror community, opening the door for creative storytelling, added layers of terror, and big box office returns. The sub-genre proved to be effective in generating big scares on a small budget. For similar reasons, found footage often receives flack for being lazy, cheap, or derivative of the films considering the large number of found footage films we got during the ‘oughts (150+ since 1999, compared to only 8 before).
So let’s get to the bottom of this divisive sub-genre: what makes a good found footage film? For this article, I’m gonna break down 5 elements I believe are necessary to a successful found footage film, with some specific examples. And the categories are…
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- Amplification of Fear
- Sense of Urgency
Let’s start with the most important, the element that sets the foundation for found footage and what makes the sub-genre so enticing: authenticity. Found footage is done to make you believe that what you are seeing is real, or at least trick your mind into thinking so. So rather, the illusion of authenticity. The Blair Witch Project changed the game in 1999 becoming one of the first films to be primarily marketed on the internet, one of our first viral sensations. The website for the film was outfitted with fake newspaper articles, cryptic clues, and missing person posters for the characters. Similar to Cannibal Holocaust, audiences truly believed what they were seeing was real. Similar to Deodato’s methods, the actors were unknowns and were restricted from the media.
Taking things a step further, filming was a grueling process subjecting the actors to unfavorable conditions. The script was only 35 pages with all the dialogue improvised, with the crew giving the actors direction through film canisters in the woods. This lead to terrifying reactions in real time, putting the audience into the paranoid headspace of the actors. To throw another wrench in, the director mixed actors and real townfolk for the interviews unbeknownst to the actors to clarify where they were filming was indeed a real town. The Blair Witch Project managed to bamboozle audiences into levels of hyper terror and a staggering $248.6 million dollars. We salute the Godfather of Found Footage films.
Amplification of Fear
The next biggest thing found footage films have to offer is amplifying your fears. If a movie succeeds in its authenticity, it immediately magnifies your fears of you’re watching. You put yourselves in the shoes of the characters and situation. Take Paranormal Activity, another seller found footage horror. The simple premise of a suburban family experiencing a supernatural presence in their home, easily relatable to just about anyone. The realism portrayed through found footage amplifies the fear that you’re watching your neighbor or a situation you could easily be in.
The narrative angle isn’t the only way found footage amplifies fear, but the filming technique as well. The kinetic energy from the shakey-cam engages your senses and the limiting view makes any unseen angle a threat for something terrifying. Take As Above So Below, for example, a found footage set in the dreary French catacombs. The film is dark and extremely claustrophobic, in which you feel the weight and dread of viewing the adventure through a singular camera. As Above So Below features a terrifying scene of characters crawling through a tight space and you feel every ounce of their fear because you’re right there in the tunnel with them.
Sense of Urgency
Another aspect found footage can easily enhance is the sense of urgency within the film. In most cases, found footage makes for a higher paced film. With events happening in real, the audience is kept on their toes without time to breath and enhances the viewing experience. This is where shaky cam can be positive, as well. Cloverfield might be the best use of the filming technique. Characters are on the run from a mysterious alien monster and it maintains a breakneck pace for a majority of the film. The shaky-cam is believable because obviously in this situation, nobody has time for smooth camera motions. Shakey-cam tends to be what turns most audiences away from found footage films, but Cloverfield’s sense of urgency sets it apart from the pack with its very necessary kinetic energy.
Now we get to, in my opinion, the most underrated aspect of a found footage film: purpose. Why are you making this film found footage over traditional styles? And more importantly, why are the characters in the movie filming this!? Earlier in the month, I dove deep into underrated gem Grave Encounters. What I love about this film is that the found footage isn’t a gimmick, it builds the world of this faux paranormal reality show. Makes complete sense why it’s being filmed: it’s a TV film crew. But then they expand this world in the sequel, with Grave Encounters being a movie in its own universe and being truly found and having fans.
The Sacrament is another film that gives found footage purpose. The film is presented as a journalist from real-life media outlet VICE out to document a cult where his sister is being held captive. This real-word grounding allows for a unique presentation compared to other found footage films. It’s a lot less shaky-cam and has a more polished look as these are professionals filming and editing the work. It gives the film room to be more cinematic, like featuring an intense interview scene and other incredible shots often to found in the sub-genre.
The final key element to a great found footage is style. We established the ‘why’ when it comes to making found footage, but what is it actually bringing to the table? And what is going to set it apart from other found footage films? You could go the mockumentary route like Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon to parody and pay homage to other genres complete with interviews. You can present your film via real computer applications a la the Unfriended films for a truly unique viewing experience. There are also films such as Sinister, where it’s told in traditional filmmaking but uses found footage as a plot device interwoven into the narrative. The reason found footage became such a phenomenon is that it presented a way to watch films in a completely new way.
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Hate It or Love It
Filmmaking is never this cut & dry, there are definitely more than 5 elements that go into a successful found footage film. However, I believe if a film achieves these elements it has a better chance at success and setting itself apart from the many movies in a very saturated market. Though we are seemingly past the peak of found footage, it remains a very divisive sub-genre amongst the horror community.
Whether you’re a big fan or absolutely hate them, found footage remains an enigmatic sub-genre and appears to be here to stay. So I throw it back to you guys: what makes the perfect found footage film? Let us know your thoughts on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit.