Editorial: Why Found Footage Deserves to Die

Posted on October 11, 2012 by editor

By Keri O’Shea

For as long as home video cameras have been around, there’s been the potential to make movies about people making movies. And, once upon a time, as hard as it is for us to believe today, this was a novel idea. You can make a strong case for Cannibal Holocaust introducing the world to the notion of found footage all the way back in 1980, when the use of the recovered documentary footage which makes up the second half of the film really did seem to bring something new and different to the table. But, perhaps because this movie took a long time to find its audience, or perhaps because Deodato didn’t make it look too easy, the framework he employed didn’t catch like wildfire at that time. The rest of the Eighties came and went, and there was no new film subgenre to contend with. But then, in the Nineties, this happened:

Yep, The Blair Witch Project. This picture of Heather Donahue filming up her own nose has to be one of the most ubiquitous (and parodied) images in modern horror. Now, cards on the table, I actually loved BWP; it was the first film of its type I’d seen (I saw it long before I saw Cannibal Holocaust), I thought it was authentically creepy, and importantly I don’t think Myrick and Sánchez had any idea of what they would spawn (or cared, probably). But, like it or not, the film’s great commercial success owed a great deal to its format. It was made on the very cheap, looked very pedestrian, and yet the returns it got were huge. Suddenly, wannabe filmmakers were pricking up their ears…could it be that all you needed to make a movie were some handheld cameras, your friends and perhaps an online campaign?

No. NO.

Sure, there are some good found footage movies – those rare, occasional flashes of brilliance, like Troll Hunter, that can overcome all the motion sickness, but they’re so few and far between that they could never compensate for the rest of the imagination-free dross we’ve had to suffer through in these dark, post-BWP days. Almost as soon as the found footage subgenre became a recognisable thing at all, we were straight into overkill, and this pervasive, lazy bullshit shows no sign of letting up yet. In fact, it now carries such a weight for many genre fans like myself that even finding out about the style it’s been shot in can seriously imperil the impact of a movie, even before I’ve seen it. And if that isn’t reason enough to reconsider, let me explain more specifically what I loathe about the found footage phenomenon; if I can reason one, just one, future filmmaker out of using this format for the sake of it, then my work here is done. And, if not, I get to rant about one of the worst trends to sneak its way into horror in recent years. Here, then, is what the hell my problem is.

The type of people who watch the world through a camera are not people I can identify with

We’ve all been stood behind someone at a gig who, rather than using his or her own brain and eyes to watch the band instead stands there, mobile phone aloft, filming the entire thing. On a bad night, you can find yourself behind a wall of these selfish arseholes, none of whom are actually looking at the band, instead staring intently at their phone display. These people do exist, so it isn’t as if filmmakers have invented them for the sake of convenience; they are out there, filming and uploading, filming and uploading, ad infinitum. But the problem with making someone who behaves like this both main star and chief cameraman of a film is that it’s then instantly impossible for me to empathise with them. When you’re expected to invest in the on-screen events and care about what happens to the soon-to-be-chased, the film’s at an immediate and huge disadvantage (see also: making every damn protagonist an irritating screechy twentysomething). To put it succinctly, the sort of person who films absolutely everything is inevitably a twat, and therefore I don’t want to spend ninety minutes observing what happens to them. But to give credit where credit’s due, in real life people seem to know how to use their own cameras; they don’t spend the entire time whirling around like drunks. In the movies, spasming camerawork seems to be the norm, even before bad things start to occur. Found footage films are far from easy viewing when this is going on; so often, the style of shooting has more of a chance of causing nausea than anything the film actually contains.

Only horror fans are expected to put up with this shit

Do we have rom-com equivalents of the found footage subgenre? Has there ever been a shakeycam Western? No, funnily enough. No one else would wear it. Find me a top paid actress who is happy to do all her own camerawork and I’ll show you a swimming giraffe. This format doesn’t seem to have taken root outside of the horror genre – or sci-fi, at a push – and accordingly horror has far and away taken more of its share. We’ve had people filming their feet as they flee a huge variety of barely-glimpsed beasts: ghosts, zombies, demonic beings, sea monsters, dinosaurs, even Bigfoot; we’ve had lots of Nasty People doing the chasing too, of course, and you can bet good money on the fact that someone, somewhere is coming up with yet another idea for a cheap moneyspinner just at this very moment. To me, the fact that we can even have a discussion about a subgenre of film which, as a matter of course, circumvents everything from music to writing an ending says a lot about how horror fans are regarded, even by (or especially by) people making movies ‘for them’. The found footage phenomenon hinges upon a belief, somewhere along the line, that horror fans will swallow anything, no matter how shabby. I strongly resent and refute that.

Found footage films legitimate crappy filmmaking

Horror movies have often been made on shoestring budgets and no doubt will continue to be; the difference between found footage and other types of formats is that the former is under significantly less pressure to make the film look great for the money. It’s supposed to look real – it doesn’t have to look good. When cash has been tight in the past, it’s led to some real ingenuity on the part of filmmakers and their teams – who would have had to think creatively to have any hope of engendering scares. I would argue that pressure just isn’t there in found footage. With a roaming camera and constant movement, why bother getting it absolutely right? There’s nothing wrong with hinting at or implying scares, of course, but sometimes this style of filming allows filmmakers to duck the bother of including them at all. Or does it? Should it? After all…

It’s not as easy as it seems

Because it really, really isn’t, even if it looks that way on paper. A filmmaker might opt to make a film of this style because they think it’ll be an easy way to get out of having to edit structure into it, but of course they inevitably have to do that anyway. There’s usually a twenty minute ‘getting to know you’ set-up before anything startling starts to happen, just as with a conventional style of film, because it seems people invariably want to film each other doing absolutely nothing for an extended and strangely similar length period before the horror happens (thus giving the filmmaker the opportunity to opt out of a lot of the considerations of pace and characterisation, leaving us to pick the bones out of all of the superfluous footage in order to do their work for ourselves). If you have chosen to frame your film by saying that the tapes have been found as-is, as so often occurs, well, the lie is usually given to this within the first couple of frames. Even adding credits can provide a real problem – with the film then occupying a weird hinterland between ‘movie’ and ‘found footage’; when this is the case, it so, so rarely works well as a movie, and it’s just one of a list of common mistakes which suggest that filmmakers don’t do themselves any favours by going down the ‘simple’ route.

To conclude this tirade, let me say that I understand that money is tighter than ever before; I know that, to get a film made, it’s a struggle of immense proportions. But invariably going for found footage is not the solution to the problem, it’s the beginning of a new set of challenges. In those rare cases where the format does work, it works because the filmmaker in question is smart enough to start where all good films start – with ideas, characters, a workable plot and a direction in mind. Bypass these things at your peril! It’s a saturated market out there, and I think I speak for many of us when I say that our patience is being severely tested by this tiresome, apathetic, tripod-lacking bandwagon. Horror fans deserve much better.