Editorial: Why Found Footage Deserves to Die

Posted on October 11, 2012 by Keri 14 Comments

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.

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  • damien thorn says:

    I share your frustration, but you’re venting in the wrong direction. Found footage isn’t a genre, it’s a directorial style. One that’s been shown to work effectively in the horror genre by a few very successful examples: you might as well campaign to ban smash cuts and crash zooms in horror films.

    I don’t want to ban zombie films just because I’ve had enough of cheapo junk like Teatime Of The Naughty Dead etc, and I don’t want found footage vilified while there are still films like Skew showing up, which I loved lots.

  • Keri says:

    We could debate on whether or not it’s a genre – I believe I called it a subgenre, because there are enough shared characteristics that, more often than not, you know the formula and what tropes to expect. And it’s that formula which I’m tired of. The purpose of this editorial was to express that ire, first and foremost.

    I didn’t say I wanted anything banned; you’re seeing things in the article that I didn’t put there. I said I would be avoiding films of this type in future, for all the reasons I stated. (And I acknowleged that some – SOME – of them have worked well. That’s where I began.)

    And I’m not sure I see how venting about films on a cult films site which I write and edit for is venting in the wrong direction…we do have directors and filmmakers reading and posting here, so why not address some of my frustrations to filmmakers who would potentially adopt this formula?

    • Damien Thorn says:

      Ok yes you’re right – you never said ban.

      Venting in the wrong direction because you sound like you’re cross at the slapdash lazy way film makers are abusing the found footage tropes to throw together something that’s just rubbish.

      I did say that I share your frustration, and I really do. Perhaps it’s the slapdash laziness that needs venting against though? Rather than the style they choose to adopt.

      I respect your ire, and of course your opinions or I wouldn’t read the site as avidly a I do.

  • Keri says:

    My opinion is that adopting the style is usually evidence of that very slapdash laziness! I think I see the format as basically dead in the water, whereas you respect the films which have used this format and worked well enough to give found footage more credence.

    i think we’re all exasperated with laziness in the horror genre, though. It’s the curse of the horror fan – we’re seen as practice posts by so many filmmakers.

  • Kit Rathenar says:

    I feel kind of obliged to defend those who make their own home documentaries – having been involved in one myself, and a ton of fun it was. And indeed one thing that bewilders me about found footage is precisely the fact that it’s often shot in a way that no even halfway competent home movie-maker would countenance. Filming, on that basic level, is quite easy. You point the camera AT the interesting thing, not above it, below it, or at your own foot. You attempt to keep the interesting thing in shot as and when it moves. If necessary you narrate over the film; if the thing being filmed is self-explanatory, you do not. It’s not rocket science. However, because it’s being used as an excuse not to pay for special effects, most found footage doesn’t even manage THAT, and instead we get the film-own-feet effect. Or film-up-own-nose effect, which is even more ridiculous as it is not hard to put a running camera down on a surface and then look into it from a sensible distance, if you must do a talking head segment.

    Really though, to address your point about unlikeable characters with cameras, I think the real problem there – and not just with found footage, but with other segments of horror too at the moment – is that somehow filmmakers have got it into their heads that horror audiences don’t WANT characters we can care about. That all we want are cyphers, human dolls whose screaming, suffering and bloody deaths we will gleefully wank over regardless of whether either the characters or the entity doing the killing are anything more than cardboard stencils. We’ve got directors out there who genuinely seem to believe that their target demographic is a horde of sloping-browed sociopaths. While there probably ARE horror fans out there who have low-gain brains and will be satisfied with that, plenty of us won’t – and it’s that stereotype that we need to fight, because it’s a ball and chain on the genre’s ankle. Horror fans are not a swarm of identical blood-drinking little monsters. Some of us like splatter, some of us like scares, some of us like special effects – and some of us like sympathetic leads. Some of us want the heroes and heroines to win, some of us want the monster to win. All of these are options a movie can explore.

    But as long as we’ve got mediocre directors who don’t appreciate that diversity, we’ll keep getting low-budget, no-brain horror, and found-footage as a subgenre will get an unfairly high percentage of them precisely because it’s one of the cheapest and easiest styles to knock out but ironically, one of the hardest of all to actually do well! How do we fix this?

  • Keri says:

    Amen, Kit. I don’t know that there’s an easy way to fix any or all of these rotten expectations, but at least if we keep on reiterating what we think and feel in a cogent manner, perhaps someone will listen, or at least halfway notice what we’re saying. You never know…

    How believable, let alone sympathetic characterisation started to get cut out of the loop is a mystery; it’s the bedrock of art. I know there are gorehounds out there, and fair play to them if that’s what they want out of a film (the insane splatter of something like Naked Blood certainly has its appeal) but there are far, far more people who want writers to do them the credit of treating us like we’re capable of being humane. It’s why a film like Some Guy Who Kills People works so fantastically – it has a real heart, and real characters, so that even though the premise isn’t mindblowing, it’s handled in a sensitive, considerate way which never belittles or insults its audience.

  • UK Editor says:

    This is a lot like the whole remakes debate. Yes, there are good ones out there, but for the most part these are films being made purely to make money and nothing more. The sludge outweighs the gold by a great margin. So, as ever, what we’re screaming for above all else is quality control.

    I’ll say this on the subject of found footage, though. I was working in a cinema when Last Exorcism and the first two Paranormal Activity films were released, and without fail the late night screenings brought out the wankers in force. Drunks starting fights, in the bloody cinema! Guess that’s what we get from marketing that rants on about how this film is the scariest thing you’ll ever see, blah blah blah, so we get morons approaching it as a means to prove their steel; the cinematic equlivalent of a pie-eating contest. But that’s a whole other editorial…

  • Keri says:

    …Which I’d like to read, Ben.

  • Marc says:

    Bottom line for me is the mere fact I prefer my films to LOOK CINEMATIC. For all the gimmicks and cheap scares these FF movies provide, the fact remains they are equally effective (if not more so) watched alone in the dark on a laptop. I just find them uncomfortably close to the voyeuristic TV culture of today and devoid of the atmospheric escapism. I have reviewed a fair few for SGM and I try to be fair as some folk must appreciate these things otherwise they wouldn’t make so many! But when subtitles appear on recordings viewed for the first time by the police in a story ( the truly awful THE PARANORMAL INCIDENT) it is quite simply an insult to the viewers intelligence. I couldn’t believe what an all out con Closed Circuit was, yet FrightFest backed that!!
    Cannibal Holocaust is timeless, and I am glad you stood up for Blair Witch because I found that effective when I saw it (ironically in a Cinema in the USA before the hype kicked in). But these are rare examples. There is quite simply a glut of these ‘movies’ around at the moment all chasing each other’s tails. I mean what’s next? WebCam horror….? Sssshh I haven’t seen V/H/S yet….

    • Keri says:

      That’s a very good point Marc, and one I hadn’t thought of – those who work in television have had a good run of successes with programmes which have no scripts, direction, camerwork, and so on…perhaps both things have gone hand in hand? Where TV is concerned too, I’d like to see more of the excellent programming that has come to exist in recent years, and less of the ‘fly-on-the-wall’ petty voyeurism.

      As for there being enough fans of the FF school to keep the trend going, I think the returns on these things can be so low versus the cost of making them that it’s a chance a lot of filmmakers/execs are willing to take – what they have to lose is so much less. I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s genuinely enthusiastic about FF (and please, if anyone reading this is a fan, shout!) so I’d guess that there’s a cross between moneysaving and The Emperor’s New Clothes going on, and little else.

  • Knox Harrington says:

    I have a love/hate relationship with Found Footage. I find it fascinating, because it has such a specific set of rules and restrictions. Subgenres defined by a restrictive structure (like slashers) usually have a pretty poor batting average, but when someone finally does manage to do something new and effective within that structure, it’s pure gold.

    So, like you’ve said, there are great Found Footage films out there. Blair Witch, Chronicle, etc. Cloverfield, with its use of old footage overlapping with new footage, found a great way of working a “flashback” into its structure. It’s inventive filmmaking like that that still makes me think there’s hope for the medium.

    But then you get the lazy ones. The Last Exorcism would do dumb things like show show us a single timed event from multiple angles, even though we the audience know that there’s only one camera present in the story. They completely break their own rules and think the viewer won’t notice.
    Paranormal Activity loses its authenticity (and common sense) when they show us the characters watching the footage they shot the night before. Why on earth would they film that? Or why do they film themselves having conversations? After a while it feels nothing at all like watching “real” footage, but rather like watching a reality TV show.

    And that’s really this subgenre’s biggest hurdle: You have to justify the presence of the camera at all times.

    If you can’t, your story loses its believability. And believability is everything. Like William Goldman said, your movie doesn’t have to be realistic, but it always needs to be believable. It’s the reason we can completely immerse ourselves in a film. It’s the reason why Spielberg could have that shark do the craziest things at the end of Jaws, because at that stage of the story he has us so wrapped around his finger that we would gladly follow him down any path he takes us.

    Found Footage is capable of doing this, but more often than not its own nature and design works against itself.

  • FilthyMidget says:

    I HATE with a capital H found footage. I HATED BWP & everything else in between. Troll Hunter to me was the only film that surpassed all the craptastic found footage films I have seen & will still see to hate on them. Well, beside Cannibal Holocaust which is Epic & always be Epic. I never forget each & every time I see it. You can have some found footage in movies if you can make it work, but it found footage is all you have to work with…………………well then it will still be crap, when all you have is crap.

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