The surprising story of ‘Found Footage’ films.

“On September 2, 2015 a writer went missing. All we found was this blog…”

Almost everyone is familiar with ‘found footage’ movies by now. The cinema going public has been there (to the cinema) and seen that (The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield etc.) And as with all things in popular culture, there’s been no shortage of hype, sequels and knock-offs spawned by a few examples that landed a commercial hit with audiences. And there’s no sign of found footage stopping anytime soon. It’s a style that’s made its way into TV shows, TV movies and of course, still cropping up in the cinema each year. But have you ever wondered where it all began?

Imagine the scene:

A group of teenagers (middle aged film bores) lost in the woods (having a beer), investigating the creepy legend of a local witch (arguing about whether the 1999 The Blair Witch Project was a good film or a load of gimmicky tosh). As their trip (to the pub) descends into a nightmare (late night curry), the terrified young woman (bearded scifi writer) resolves to confront the truth (do some Googling about the history of found footage movies). These tapes (this blog post) is all the remains…

How much do we really know about found footage?

Well first of all, contrary to popular belief The Blair Witch Project didn’t start it. In the last 35 years there have been over a hundred found footage cinema releases, and at least 300 more TV movies. It’s hard to count precisely because the format gets used in various different ways, but the common device they all share is instantly recognisable: they are stories that feature amateur documentary elements, purporting to be cut together from shaky camcorder shots and filmed by participants who have gone missing. That last ingredient is crucial, without the implication that the people behind the camcorder are missing or dead, the footage you’re watching couldn’t have become ‘found’ in the first place.

Most found footage movies are low budget productions that slipped into obscurity without much attention from reviewers, but enough have made it into the public consciousness for found footage to be considered an established format. And given the obviously worrying idea the original film crew has gone missing leaving only film footage behind to hint at what their fate was, it’s a format that has appeared most often in the horror genre. But it’s a surprisingly adaptable format, there have been a few notable found footage comedies / spoofs (Finding Silver -1995, Trollhunter – 2010, Babysitting – 2014).

Found footage is, in essence, a device to build audience anticipation before the the film even begins. From the moment you see the trailer or hear the buzz, you know the protagonists are in jeopardy of some sort. And jeopardy is, without question, one of the key elements for building dramatic tension and hooking an audience.

You might argue that obvious jeopardy is present in traditionally shot movie trailers too – and you’d be right – but there’s something different about found footage jeopardy. The change of perspective a camcorder serves up over a full blown Hollywood film shoot makes it more intriguing. It seems more realistic, making it easier to suspend your disbelief. And the more realistic the jeopardy, the more anticipation you experience from the promotional material.

The dramatisation of academic research?

Interestingly, found footage uses a device that stems from academic research and is usually obscured from the general public, namely the notion of primary evidence. Primary evidence is something most of us seldom experience in our school studies. When we’re at school, reading history or science textbooks, we experience the content of the textbooks as a structured narrative. That’s analogous to a traditional film structure, i.e. The presentation of a finished, polished story.

It’s easy to overlook the facts of how the textbook came to be written in the first place. Before that finished narrative could be produced, someone had to dig through bundles of letters in a dusty old castle cellar, and trawl through scrolls and manuscripts, or perform endless experiments to discover what happened when chemical a mixed with compound b in a little glass test tube or whatever. Every book sitting on the school library shelf is the end product of someone’s efforts to assemble a narrative out of detective work with primary sources.

Found footage takes the academic detective work of primary research and applies that model to filmmaking. It presents a faux primary source and guides the audience through a detective process. It’s a strange but compelling mix of puzzle and storytelling.

The surprising literary heritage of found footage

You might be surprised to learn that found footage is a storytelling format that’s been around for over five hundred years. It was a literary invention of medieval Europe. The first documented example is Cárcel de Amor, c.1485, a book by Diego de San Pietro, a Spanish writer we don’t really know much about except for the theory he was a major literary figure in the court of Queen Isabella of Spain.

This book (translated as ‘Prison of Love’) really nailed the concept in book form. It’s the first recorded ‘epistolary novel’, a style of fiction where the story is comprised primarily of letters written by the characters in the book. And letters were the closest thing to found footage in medieval times. It’s a style more famously immortalised in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) which took the genre further by moving beyond letters, and adding diary entries, newspaper clippings, telegrams, doctor’s notes, ship’s logs, and such. If the main strength of found footage is balancing believability with dramatic tension, the epistolary novel set the template.

The influence of documentary filmmaking

If you’re going to be really nit picking about it, found footage began in actual documentaries, because the whole point of found footage is to present fictional filmmaking as documentary. Perhaps most notable is the 1958 film Moi, un Noir, by Jean Rouch, a documentary that introduced elements of fiction into its factual content. It hinted at the found footage genre of later years in sequences where the subjects of the documentary – a group of Nigerian immigrants – imagined fantasy lives which the filmmaker portrayed in dream like, poetic sequences. It also recorded dialogue in some sequences after the film was shot, rather than capturing every word live. So it’s a documentary with scripted, constructed elements rather than true found footage films which are wholly scripted, constructed elements with a documentary style.

Arguably, this film started the (mostly French) Cinéma Verité movement, where the documentary evolved to deliberately include the obviousness of the camera and director in the filmmaking. It foreshadowed the obviousness of the camera and filmmaking process inherent in all found footage cinema.

Key moments in found footage cinema

In the cinema, found footage as pure entertainment began with Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) which revolved around found footage, but wasn’t entirely comprised of it. The story follows a rescue mission that discover cans of cine film, shot by the people they went to rescue (who have disappeared). As they review the cans of film, the horrific events that killed the people who shot the footage is shown. In this film, the found footage replaces the role of the more traditional flashback sequence. Cannibal Holocaust was arguably one of the most controversial films of the 20th century. It depicts shocking animal cruelty (animals were harmed in the making of the film) and Deodato himself was tried for murder because the authorities suspected the film to be a snuff movie. Deodato was found not guilty, but the film still divides opinion to this day.

When it comes to critically acclaimed, accessible found footage, Man bites Dog (1993) really set the template for the genre most cinema lovers would recognise. It’s a witty, humorous ‘mockumentary’, which presents itself as being shot by a professional film crew following a hit man. The thread of tension running through it is intense, the dark side of the story placed in stark relief by a single scene where the filmmakers participate in a brutal rape and murder. This counterpoint to the belly laughs you were enjoying moments before really slams home the potential of found footage. The film builds to a climax that also established the key element of true found footage… the camera crew disappears.

Six years after Man Bites Dog, The Blair Witch Project was a significant breakthrough that took found footage into the mainstream. It’s got credibility too, it was genuinely indie and shot on a very low budget, yet grossed $248 million worldwide. It also shifted the nature of found footage storytelling. The handful of films that cropped up with found footage before The Blair Witch used convoluted plot devices to explain why the footage was being taken. The Blair Witch Project was the first film that presents itself as real footage and lets the audience decide whether it is fact or fiction. Its global success has influenced many films since, all of which have adopted the same is it or isn’t it approach.

The future of found footage?

Like most people, you might wonder if found footage is now more gimmick than a genuine filmmaking style. You might argue that found footage is a storytelling form, like the ‘road movie’, which never seems to get old. On the other side of the debate, you could also argue that where the road movie defines a certain kind of narrative and therefore doesn’t age, found footage can’t maintain its is-it-or-isn’t-it-real attraction because it has become instantly recognisable as a movie style. If the whole point of found footage is to hook the audience with a story that appears to be real, now that cat is well and truly out of the bag, the whole point has been lost. Like working out that the magician isn’t really sawing his assistant in half, once you’ve learned to recognise the trick it loses its inherent entertainment value.

But even so, there’s no sign of found footage as a filmmaking style stopping anytime soon. Which is a good thing, because there’s been no rom-coms yet. Or tear jerking romances. Or hilarious buddy movies. Perhaps it’s a filmmaking device that is merely taking a bit longer to break out of the typecast horror roles and finally get to spread it’s wings, like so many Hollywood actors that we think are one trick ponies but end up playing Hamlet, or treading the boards in a musical. Whatever the end of the tale, one thing we can say for certain is The Blair Witch Project is to found footage what Dracula is to the epistolary novel, i.e. an example of evolution, not revolution.