Let’s talk ‘Found Footage’

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Among all of the sub-genres film has to offer, I’ve noticed one unstoppable force that is, for the most part, hated by the reviewing community – and that is “Found Footage”. You know what I’m talking about, a movie that focuses on the perspective of the cameraman and nothing else? It usually begins with an ominous message in the beginning that says “This footage was found in the wreckage at so-and-so, State. It has been released unedited at the request of the victims’ families.”. Then, the movie itself is probably attempting to scare the audience, as the cameraman accidentally captures something impossible on camera, and just can’t stop filming, because they need this evidence on tape.

What is perfect found footage?

Now, people hate found footage with a passion – but to be perfectly honest, I like it. If it is done right, I love it and cannot stop praising it. The three films that come to mind as a perfect example of found footage done right are The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, and even the first (and only first) Paranormal Activity. There have been others that, while not a perfect example of found footage, is still a lot of fun, like Chronicle. How do I define “The perfect example of found footage”? Simply put, it’s filmmakers that take the craft seriously. The best found-footage movie that’s out there is without a doubt The Blair Witch Project. That sucker was filmed by the cast on a VHS recorder. It’s full screen, horrible quality (VHS), the cast used their real names, and before the movie came out, there were news stories released that these random people vanished, and they didn’t make themselves known until after the movie was released. That’s devotion. Devotion will take you far, and there are people out there that still believe The Blair Witch Project was a real documentary. It looks real, and by real, I mean something that filmmakers wouldn’t make, just regular people, and that’s the primary key for found footage.

The Shaky Cam Dilemma

Found footage is what I like to refer as professionally amateur. The entire concept of the thing is supposed to look like it’s not filmed by anyone in Hollywood, but rather just your average everyday Joe Shmoe. That means, every actor must be unknown at the time, or at least playing themselves in the feature. It also means it needs shaky cam. Shaky cam is always, ALWAYS exaggerated by critics, in reality it’s never as bad as they say, it’s just not as smooth as regular Hollywood movies. Guess what? I have a ton of homemade movies with my family during events like birthdays and holidays. After that, my brothers and I made movies together – guess what they all technically have? SHAKY CAM, because we are amateurs, and for movies to replicate what happens when normal people film extenuates the realism that it needed for its message of “Regular, everyday people running into something impossible…could it be real?”

Unedited?

Of course found footage movies are edited, but if you can make it look unedited, you’re a freaking genius. While The Blair Witch is also a good example of this, the best unedited look in found footage is clearly Cloverfield. Not only did Cloverfield have absolutely no opening credits, but the way they shot it was perfect. Notice the shots when the cameraman thought he turned off the camera, but instead filmed the ground, or when he thought he filmed something important, but missed everything. Or, the obvious parts where it cuts to footage that was previously on the tape they were recording over when they went back to look at the footage. It was very reminiscent of how things actually work when you’re not a part of Hollywood, and I can’t stop praising that. It made it THAT better, and it actually makes me want to watch it again.

I also love Paranormal Activity, but more based on their idea of horror than anything else. Their found footage clearly has its faults, but when I watched it, I didn’t really have an issue with it, and found reeled in with the characters and events – it’s not the best found footage for found footage, but for me, it’s definitely up there.

When found-footage goes bad.

You won’t see me ever, ever complaining about shaky cam, because I think you need shaky cam for found footage to even work. If you had something really nice and calm, you don’t have found-footage, you just have a movie. Where it really goes bad is when they don’t understand how things work and just don’t take it seriously. How many found footage movies have you seen where the camera angle doesn’t make any sense, or has changed angles when there’s only apparently one camera in the scene? How many movies have you seen with subtitles or opening credits that clearly suggest it’s edited? How many found-footage movies have production-value lighting and sound, but still insist on being found footage? Unfortunately MOST found-footage will have one or more of these easy mistakes, and if I could say one of them that DOESN’T really bug me, it’s the production value lighting and sound, but I can see where it would bug others.

Found footage is amazing, it just has to be taken seriously. Yes, over the years, it has gotten a little old, and people have felt obligated to find new ways of found footage, like Skype and X-Box Kinect, but I still like the classics, which are still more believable. The changes can be fun now and then, but you don’t need them, really. I vote for more found-footage films that take themselves seriously.

What do you think?

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8 thoughts on “Let’s talk ‘Found Footage’

  1. I agree with what you are saying, i try to find the good in this sub-genre i personally enjoy ‘As above So Below’ because it uses the idea of found footage but actually turns it into an experience with the group with the tight space. i think the best way to show a good found footage is to enter into the ideas of VHS where we only see a short version of the story and yes i know certain ones are not as good. one film i would recommended is called ‘Skew’ it works nicely for the genre.

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  2. A great, thoughtful post. I do enjoy my fair share of found footage but like you they have to be taken seriously for the magic to really work. I don’t have much more to say, I think you really hit the nail on the head with this rapidly burgeoning subgenre.

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