Why Found Footage Is The Best Film Genre Ever Created
Prove me wrong. Or right.
These days, the found footage genre probably feels more overdone to excess, and no one can really be blamed for feeling that way given the sheer number of movies that have been, and still are, being done in this genre to today. The fact that found footage films are generally cheaper and faster to make than movies in other genres does not help matters either. However, putting aside that notion, there is something to be said about how unique the genre is, compared to others. In many ways, it can be considered the most exciting and creative film technique incorporated into the art of filmmaking.
Throughout the history of making films, genres and sub-genres were born and tested. Many are loved, some hated, with the rest falling under that gray, neutral space in between.
Found footage is a technique usually used to give the audience a more intimate sense to the characters in a movie, T.V. Show, web series, etc…, intentionally shot as such to mimic footage as if it was lost and recovered from some mysterious event (e.g. Cloverfield, Chronicle, to name a few.) The usual effect, when done right, gives the viewer the feeling as if they are a part of the events themselves.
Moreover, the found footage style is usually portrayed in one or a combination of four styles.
- First-person Perspective
- Pseudo-documentary (or Mockumentary)
While not everyone is a fan of genres such as horror or romantic comedies, and I don’t think it is really about what genre a person loves, but that it really boils down to the appreciation of the art for what that genre is trying to bring to life. Each genre appeals to different audiences, with qualities which help enhance the narrative that the film is trying to emulate.
Moreover, in the world of the ever-expanding list of sub-genres, I personally find found footage particularly unique, compared to any of the others.
To me, found footage can offer a sense of intimacy between the viewer and the characters, that no other genre could achieve. As I mentioned before, it makes you feel as if you are a part of the events yourself.
Furthermore, it can give the narrative a sense of realism that none others, thus far, could display. Sure, maybe not everyone could handle the ever-popular shaky camera effect used in most films in the found footage category, (I think Cloverfield might be the worst offender of this, as good as it was, but I digress.)
However, that is one of the best aspects of the style, by making the audience feel like they are a part of the events unfolding onscreen before them, it helps sell the sense of urgency or threat that the characters onscreen are experiencing during stress-induced, dangerous scenes, the same way a viewer might feel if put in a similar situation in real life.
Now, the narrative behind found footage pretty much consists of the actors recording themselves rather than through traditional camera setups. The aforementioned shaky camera technique, pretty much a chosen staple of the sub-genre, comes into play. In addition, the naturalistic acting from the actors is done to sell the point home that the footage “shown” was recovered from some real, mysterious event, rather than a studio.
Also, like any genre starting out, the initial reactions from the first movies in this sub-genre, spawned as a result of being “a new thing” for its time, much like how many were not prepared for the shock value and severity of violence that The Exorcist (1973) introduced upon audiences. Many early films in the found footage style shocked and disturbed viewers. Maybe even more so than The Exorcist.
To better understand where, when and how found footage came about, one should be aware of how it started.
The earliest start to the found footage genre is suggested to have come in the form of Cannibal Holocaust (1980, Italy), which followed a group of explorers as they travel through a foreign island with a lush rainforest inhabited by an uncontacted tribe of natives.
The film is widely regarded as the first genuine film of the genre.
Shortly after its release, it got effectively banned in multiple countries for its use of actual footage of animal slaughter, among other graphic depictions of violence and gore. The gore and violence depicted were so believable that it became mistaken for a legitimate snuff film.
As a result, the director had various charges brought against him, with multiple counts of obscenity.
The infamy that Cannibal Holocaust left, as a result, made future filmmakers uncomfortable with the idea of using the found footage style themselves for many years, with the few that did despite the controversy, leading to failure.
Not until the early 1980s, did filmmakers attempt the genre style again, albeit fearful of facing a similar backlash.
Movies such as Vietnam-era mockumentary 84C MoPic (1989, USA), satirical mockumentary Man Bites Dog (1992, France), Alien Abduction: Incident in Lakewood Country (1998, USA), and The Last Broadcast (1998, USA).
A year later came the release of The Blair Witch Project (1999, USA), which is unquestionably be considered the best film in the genre’s history. A title it still holds today.
Part of The Blair Witch Project’s success came in the form of the unprecedented use of the internet to market and advertise the synopsis of the movie as a ‘true event.’ Later found footage films would incorporate similar methods, however, they never reached the same success as The Blair Witch Project, which included its own failed sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000).
Following the first Blair Witch movie, other found footage films, both domestic and foreign, found success of their own; some even becoming full-fledged franchises in their own right.
Such franchises that were born and found such success include REC (2007, 2009, Spain), which became so popular, an American remake was made called Quarantine (2008, 2010). Another popular franchise that even led to a spin-off is Paranormal Activity (2007-). Further examples include Diary of the Dead (2007, USA), Cloverfield (2008, USA), The Last Exorcism (2010, USA), Grave Encounters (2011, Canada), The Devil Inside (2012, USA), with the latter three serving to represent a “new age” in which filmmakers began further testing out different methods and narratives to the traditional form found footage was established on up to that point (e.g. always through the lens of a handheld camera.)
Additional films which would use the found footage style to some degree today include The Purge (2013-, USA) and three more which all came out in 2015 in the United States: The Gallows, Unfriended (2015, USA), and The Visit (2015, USA). I could go on, but I think you get the point.
What’s more is that many filmmakers have gone on to take the traditional found footage style format, (i.e. through a handheld camera) to update and play around with the newer methods of filmmaking for the narrative.
As a point, Unfriended (and arguably its sequel, which I have yet to see), manages to use the style in a different way.
Rather than the footage being filmed through a handheld or traditional camera like in others before it, the film experimented with the idea of almost an entire movie filmed through both a screencast of a character’s laptop, as well as their web camera.
Another, one of the most recent films to utilize this same format as Unfriended, is 2018’s Searching.
Arguably doing much better in its use of the genre and its reviews than Unfriended, Searching follows a desperate father’s (played by John Cho) attempts at finding his beloved daughter after she mysteriously goes missing. Told primarily through the point of view of his daughter’s laptop, John Cho’s character at some point takes matters into his own hands by searching through his daughter’s online activities. What follows is discovery after discovery of hard truths, painful secrets, the power of deception and fakery of the online presence people will keep up, and the lengths people would go to for ‘likes’ and keep their secrets.
Furthermore, although the found footage style has become more or less a staple of the horror genre, some filmmakers have experimented with and mixed it with other genres such as science fiction and comedy.
Additionally, it also serves as a great vehicle for pseudo-documentaries.
Movies such as Chronicle (2012, USA), which follows three high school boys as they discover the consequences to obtaining superhuman powers while simultaneously still dealing with typical high school life. It also explores the theme of what it means to be a human, after suddenly obtaining superpowers, the different paths that could be taken, as well as the choices that are made following that.
Other movies to incorporate the genre include parts of District 9 (2009, USA), Monster (2008, USA) and Apollo 18 (2012, USA.)
One movie in particular, Project X (2012, USA) and, presumably its fabled sequel, introduced the rather well-received marriage between found footage and comedy. Following a trio of high school senior nobodies who decide to throw the most epic house party imaginable to finally be noticed. However, things quickly get out of hand, and absolute anarchy, hilarity, and chaos of epic proportions ensues.
Additionally, the genre has even reinvented the way in which fairy tales can be told, with Troll Hunter (2011, Norway) being a perfect example.
In this film, a group of student filmmakers, investigating reports of illegal poaching, when they encounter a man who slays trolls for the government.
The movie introduces its audience to the concept of what it would be like to live in a world where supernatural creatures legitimately existed, and the lengths the local government would take to keep a lid on such a revelation.
As can be seen, when done right, found footage can is a great, unique albeit overused way for a narrative to play out. Its roots in horror, and while may not have a fan in everyone, it has succeeded in mixing well with other genres, at least some of the time.
Also, having successfully sparked the creative realization of the profitably that the internet had for advertisers for its unique marketing and advertising purposes through the Blair Witch Project.
And, serving as reinvention in how fairy tales, folklore, and other original narratives are told, in the cinematic equivalent as that of a storyteller passing their stories down verbally. Where the creatures and supernatural phenomena are presented as if they were “real.”
Whether you are a lover or a hater of the style or just plain indifferent to it, it is hard to argue that found footage has not planted roots and refuses to die down for years to come.
Nicole Henley is a writer and storyteller. An East-coast girl whose obsessed with shows like The X-Files, Buffy and almost every crime procedural series under the sun. Writing the story is merely half the journey. When she’s not covering cold cases or mysteries, she’s watching movies or writing poetry, short stories, and flash fiction that may or may not be based on horror.