The Found Footage Project

Commenting on the Critics with Simon Columb

Charlie Lyne writes for The Guardian about how found footage films are dominating cinema – and the functional problems with this

The central conceit of the found footage genre – fictional characters, be they priests, partygoers or palaeontologists, suddenly being struck by the inexplicable urge to immortalise the drama of their lives on film – can be a difficult one to sell to an audience, but that hasn’t stopped film-makers in their hundreds trying their hands.

Read the full article here.

My own experience with found footage films dates back to The Blair Witch Project. Though I didn’t see the film at the cinema, I recall buying the film on DVD and still, my friends and I were unsure whether it was a true story. As a keen camper in my younger years, I related to the woodland-walking, awkward-bags-on-back and within-tent discussions. I remember watching the film on my own and becoming exceptionally scared – and then, upon recommending it to my friends, we watched the film and to cover our own awkwardness, we joked, laughed and mocked the characters on screen. Funnily enough, we didn’t find it as scary the second time.

It was only when the Paranormal Activity series became a staple of Halloween did the genre really pick-up pace. Now with a production of Paranormal Activity 5 under way, it seems that the horror-in-the-house found-footage is still popular. It picked up a huge amount of support when Empire’s Olly Richards graded Cloverfield five-stars and Chronicle, only recently, gained positive press too.

The reality is that the found footage genre is merely a progression on the use of in-film recreated footage. Personally, my own favourite found footage moment is within M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, whereby the family in their own house are watched news footage and the TV reveals the first appearance of the alien visitors. Joaquin Phoenix moves close to the TV, desperate to see what is going to happen – as are we. Children shout and run around a house, Mexican families point outside… and then an alien, by accident, walks in shot. The TV commentator rewinds the tape – and we see it again. It pauses and we watch in awe.

Independence Day even managed to include it’s own element of ‘found footage’ as the wide variety of TV stations showed how the UFOs were affecting the various parts of the world. In a brilliant ‘feature’ of the DVD, you could watch the many, many TV reports which were created to play in the background of scenes to add an element of authenticity. The use of media within Independence Day truly is fascinating as TV stations obsess about the alien invasion – and with 24 hour news channels now, you can only imagine the repeated footage replayed and dissected time-and-time again on TV. Another brilliant use is within The Dark Knight as The Joker tortures a Batman-wannabe – shouting “look at me!” down the camera – absolutely terrifying.

This week’s incredible End of Watch has had to deal with its own onslaught of criticism for the choice to film using found-footage. Anton Bitel for Little White Lies writes how “Ayer deploys his voguish POV style in a manner that some might call postmodern, but those less generously inclined will regard simply as half-assed”. With regard to this specific element of End of Watch  I believe it manages to straddle a style of filmmaking that is still finding its feet – End of Watch is not exclusively the footage ‘found’ on LAPD Cop Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal); it is a combination of footage on criminals mobile-phones and footage elsewhere. In some cases, it is clearly simply a stylistic trait – whereby no-one is ‘behind’ the camera. This is a different approach and at the very least, is innovative in its use of the filmmaking style.

We live in a video-obsessed world. On the London Underground, rather than merely posters – stations now have screens every metre as you move up the escalators. We’re talking at least twenty separate screens – on each side of one escalator. Huge posters are now videos – with bus stops including a small screen playing a silent film trailer. You only have to look at Blade Runner to see where we are heading. Combine this with the constantly uploaded videos on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Those shakey-videos whereby someone recorded a Macarena dance-routine late in the night and only in the morning do you realise that everyone has seen it online. This is an inevitable future and we, as an audience, are becoming more adept at interpreting this footage – and relating to what is on-screen. “Found footage” films, in cinema, is still a new form of filmmaking and they are still learning the ropes. Imagine two films released – one in cinemas and one on DVD. The former a high-class, glossy production; the latter a handheld ‘we-were-there’ personal-video of the event. Maybe a TV series akin to Vantage Point whereby each week an event is captured in a different way – mobile-phone, CCTV, skype, filmmakers, etc.

We cannot be angry with ‘found footage’ films, we simply need to wait for the current ‘trend’ to pass over and then, it will simply be a different way to digest a story, rather than a genre unto itself.

Simon Columb

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