The Found Footage genre goes way back to 1980 with the release of Cannibal Holocaust, but didn’t catch on until The Blair Witch Project scared the bejeezus out of audiences.  There has been a bumper crop of found footage movies released in the last couple of years including Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity, and this past weekend’s box office champion, Chronicle.

And this brings us to the question of the day: Does the Found Footage Genre help in telling a story, or is it a gimmick to hide an otherwise problematic plot?

 

The Author

Stephen Schleicher

Stephen Schleicher

Stephen Schleicher began his career writing for the Digital Media Online community of sites, including Digital Producer and Creative Mac covering all aspects of the digital content creation industry. He then moved on to consumer technology, and began the Coolness Roundup podcast. A writing fool, Stephen has freelanced for Sci-Fi Channel's Technology Blog, and Gizmodo. Still longing for the good ol' days, Stephen launched Major Spoilers in July 2006, because he is a glutton for punishment.

You can follow him on Twitter @MajorSpoilers and tell him your darkest secrets...

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17 Comments

  1. February 6, 2012 at 9:10 am — Reply

    I haven’t seen “Chronicle”, but I really have high hopes for blending superpowered stories with found footage.

    That said, what frustrates me most about “found footage” is it is all too often an excuse to end a film without a satisfying conclusion. “Blair Witch” worked because it lampshaded the ending far in advance – and wound up scaring the crap out of us by just ending with someone standing in a corner. Lately, though, its all to often a case of “Someone dropped the camera! BOO!” with little regard what happened to the characters. I’d like to see a “found footage” that gives us a better indication of how the story ended, or at least, gives us a reason to care about what we just saw.

  2. Some Dude
    February 6, 2012 at 9:33 am — Reply

    Found Footage is a gimmick/money saving technique nothing more
    In fact the only reason Chronicle was a found footage movie was because it was cheaper to produce overall the movie was really good however the found footage crutch only handicapped it preventing it from becoming a great movie

  3. GeorgeDubya
    February 6, 2012 at 9:49 am — Reply

    Actually, Chronicle specifically calls out things that prove that it can’t be a found footage film. It is a POV camera film, but at no point is it claimed that it is found footage. Heck, the first camera that one of the characters had is left in a collapsed cave very early on and he has to get a new one. I for one really enjoyed some of the ways they kept things as a POV film. A few parts felt kind of forced (namely the gas station and hospital), but for the most part it help codify the movie. You were watching (for the most part) the things that the characters felt were important.

    That all being said, I’m not a fan of most found footage films. They tend to shake the camera about so much in an attempt to remind you that it is a handheld camera that I almost get motion sick. Additionally, unlike Chronicle, the fact that it is normally a single camera and thus a single point of view, limits the scope of the film to something that I just don’t tend to like.

    • Some Dude
      February 6, 2012 at 9:59 am — Reply

      motion sick? dude you need to watch The Bourne Ultimatum or as we on the internet call Revengance of the Shaky Cam, Its literally so bad that the camera looks like it is in a paint mixer at all times

      • GeorgeDubya
        February 6, 2012 at 10:19 am — Reply

        Yeah, there are several movies with that kind of “We’re going to shake the camera during action/fight scenes” mentality and it gets annoying too. Most found footage films do it for the ENTIRE film though.

    • Xian
      February 6, 2012 at 10:36 am — Reply

      I disagree that Chronicle isn’t a found footage film on the basis that “no one says it”… it’s implied in the title. That is, “this is an accurate and reliable chronicle of events based on ‘real’ footage” provided by an omniscient finder (collecting from damaged and lost cameras, private parties, security footage, public feeds, and so on).

      You might say that no one in the fiction of the story found this footage (which I tend to agree, unless our deus ex machina power-source also hijacked all these videos) but the film forwards that all of this footage is “found” by our omni-editor to suggest veracity. What makes it distinct from a purely POV film (which all films are, technically) is that the POV are from entirely in-story mechanical recording sources… and I think that latter distinction makes it more a found footage film than the technicalities of how that footage reaches us.

      • Xian
        February 6, 2012 at 10:42 am — Reply

        btw, assuming the found premise, it’s not impossible to recover the camera from the cave-in… given that events go rather public, it’s not unreasonable that our editor works backwards from the original found footage and uses that to unearth (literally) other sources such as the blogger’s camera, security feeds, and- once the location of the cave is known- digging out that lost footage.

        • GeorgeDubya
          February 6, 2012 at 11:35 am — Reply

          See, to me, found footage film means that the premise of the film is that someone found this footage and put it together for us to see. In most found footage films, this is explicitely stated (at least it has been in the few I’ve seen). In Chronicle, it isn’t stated anywhere, and several of the cameras are destroyed, lost, or otherwise unavailable.

          Maybe it is just that I haven’t liked any other found footage movies, but this movie just doesn’t seem like it fits with the genre.

          • Xian
            February 6, 2012 at 12:07 pm — Reply

            I’m saying the “found” part isn’t as important as the “footage” part and that we can dispense with explicit statements of the mechanics of “finding” and still be in the genre. Look at it this way… if you consider “documentary” a genre, you can have documentaries where the mechanics of the documentary are exposed- where the documentarian reveals themselves on camera, shows their quest for the topic, while discussing the topic itself, etc- or hidden… where only the topic is discussed and the documentarian is never on camera, maybe no narrator exists, maybe you never hear the interviewer asks questions of all the interviewees, yet the topic is discussed, etc. But both are still documentaries.

            So you can have a found footage “documentary” where the level of “foundness” is exposed or not, but either way the film is still found footage. The “exposed” way of doing the film would be for a caption at the end to explain the government found the last camera, confiscated all available footage, and dug up the buried camera (the only genuinely “lost” footage- in-story they make a big deal out of rescuing the camera from the fall, for example)… then some documentarian took all this footage, edited it together, and presented it to us. While that could be in the film, I think it would only dilute the story further which is why it was excluded (and why some documentaries choose to present their topic this way)… and excluding it doesn’t prevent it from being found footage just like excluding the documentarian from his own documentary doesn’t make his film not-a-documentary.

            All that said, this is pretty unimportant semantics, but just trying to clarify my POV. ;-)

  4. steviecool
    February 6, 2012 at 9:55 am — Reply

    The one thing that Chronicle touches on that no movie I’ve seen does – it uses every possible viewing source instead of just the main characters’ cameras. This was a good way to go, as it added that sense of realism – like how we scrap together all footage later when we make a documentary…

    Traffic cam scenes
    Other no-name characters watching from their apartment
    News choppers
    Cop cameras

  5. Xian
    February 6, 2012 at 10:18 am — Reply

    I think Found Footage- like any tool- can help immerse viewers in the experience… but if overused or used poorly it is problematic.

    Training the actors in kung-fu and do their own stunts and wire work can be done to immerse viewers into the experience because they’re seeing the actor perform the action- we don’t get as many stuntmen stand-in shots or camera tricks- and the fantasy is supported. However, as much as it helps you believe a computer nerd suddenly got a martial arts upgrade it can be a gimmick in following film because you’re never going to accept a twiggy Cameron Diaz as a fighter. 3D in Avatar tended to make the film more immersive… and it has tended to be a gimmick since.

    The main storytelling benefit of using found footage is to provide something seemingly genuine and thus immersive… unfortunately, it’s also an incredible shortcut on a lot of other filmmaking staples (staging, plot, editing, endings, dialogue, acting, etc) which means it’s mostly been a gimmick and a distracting one at that. Aside from the shortcomings of using consumer-like filming, for me, the biggest distraction is seeing whether they’ll obey their found footage premise and all the places where it falls down.

    So rather than bringing me into the world where this footage was found, I’m sucked out of it looking from above at the filmmakers trying to pull off found footage.

  6. JKP
    February 6, 2012 at 10:32 am — Reply

    More so than the plot, it’s the casting that makes or breaks a FF film. I want the psychological/visceral reaction of going through the events with the same ‘experience’ as the POV character(s) in a FF film.

    The FF genre is all about experiencing/knowing only what the camera shows us. Ostensibly this means we experience the happenings through a single POV, with characters who should be acting with very limited knowledge of the larger plot/goings on. I don’t need to know what/why/how these things that are driving them came to pass, in fact it’s better if I don’t as that separates me further from their experience.

    This means the cast itself carries extra weight on a FF film. Two examples of casting in FF that I think make that point, for me anyway, are Blair Witch and Cloverfield.

    Cloverfield is kind of a failure (for a few reasons) as a strictly FF film, but it is a fun, Lovecraftian-esque, monster flick. The biggest, most immediate problem was with casting. The cast was relatively unknown, however some of them were somewhat known. This pulls of the veneer of a FF immediately. When watching a FF film I shouldn’t be thinking, ‘That’s the girl from that one show that I saw on Ellen that one time…What’s her name…?’. The cast were also all too conventionally attractive IMO. Felt very Hollywood trying not to be Hollywood.

    Blair Witch on the other hand took a small group of average looking kids, who I’d wager that no one outside of Summer stock theater aficionados had ever seen before, and tossed them into the woods with a camera and a ghost story. The cast looked and acted just like any college kids would. Such that it wasn’t hard to imagine that when they weren’t out filming in the woods, or taking classes, they were probably serving you a cup of coffee at a local coffee shop. These kids weren’t J Crew models on the side. It felt very authentic.

    Barring continuity blunders and other such mistakes, I don’t think the plot is that important in FF films when compared to more conventional movies. Anything that breaks those authentic POV moments is what kills a FF film for me.

  7. Andrew O.
    February 6, 2012 at 1:36 pm — Reply

    I don’t consider Chronicle to be a “found footage” film, but rather a film based on the perspective of the world around it.

    Every shot is a viewpoint from a character in that film, alive or inanimate. The traffic cams and security cameras allowed us to see the situation as many off screen characters would see it; it provided our most complete third person view.

    The perspective of most of the movie was brilliantly done in my opinion. They established early on that ***SPOILERS*** Andrew could “hold” the camera at will allowing for any perspective to be accomplished, something you almost never get in “found footage” films.

    • Xian
      February 6, 2012 at 5:28 pm — Reply

      I don’t think that’s right since every image comes from an inanimate recording device. We’re never given a character’s first person view, for example, and the third person view never leaves the scope of recorded footage (like it does in a traditional movie with the invisible story non-existent camera). They are all in-story devices that can be perceived and interacted with by the in-story characters. Not every shot is from a viewpoint of a character in-film, off-screen or not. The man recording the ruckus and telling his wife to get down could be called a “character”, but it’s an enormous stretch to call 10 seconds of security footage the POV of an off-screen silent “character”… and if you go so far as to call that silent viewer a character, then he might as well be our omniscient found footage editor.

      In any case, those other shots don’t really make up the bulk of the film, and certainly the primary camera, action, and 90% of the film intentionally exploits the found footage tropes even if you want to name it something else as a matter of semantics.

  8. ray
    February 6, 2012 at 7:28 pm — Reply

    Found footage = lazy. However, Chronicle is the best super power movie I have seen in a long time. I rather see this than most comic book adaptations.

  9. Alexander D.
    February 6, 2012 at 8:03 pm — Reply

    While I haven’t seen Chronicle as of yet, I do have to say that the Found Footage Genre of films is rather a hit-and-miss sort of thing.

    A hit in the Genre, from my experience, is the Youtube Series called “Marble Hornets”. It follows a teenager who had received these tapes from a friend who was filming a student-run project and eventually gave up on the project due to increased irritability and paranoia. After 3 years of having those tapes sitting in his closet he rediscovers them and decides to post his findings on youtube, in case anything happens to him. Nonetheless he stumbles upon some freaky stuff (including, but not limited to, the discovery of the fabled “Slender Man”) and eventually decides he needs to find his friend and figure out what’s been happening. Story aside, it takes advantage of how raw footage can be handled and how all the “Bad” effects (such as messed up video quality and screwed up audio) can be integral to the story.

    A miss would have to be Cloverfield. It was advertised as a monster film, with most of the trailers showing only a brief glimpse into the regular lives of the characters and then this huge amount of monster-related mayhem going on. In reality the party-scene took way too long and the only time I ever had the chance to watch it, I left the room in favor of something more entertaining, and when I returned the movie was already in its climax.

  10. Oldcomicfan
    February 7, 2012 at 8:02 am — Reply

    Found Footage is just a technique, which can be used effectively to tell a story. It can also be abused to cover up a bad plot. But, more importantly, it’s a false technique. None of the “found footage” is really found footage, it’s all shot by the director in order to made a film. Whether it’s a good technique or a bad one depends on the skill of the film maker. It can scare the pants off a viewer, or annoy them. I think it’s a fad, like the 70’s fad of ‘theater in the round’ that probably won’t last. In the 40s and 50s the technique was “film noir” where nearly everything, including some Bugs Bunny cartoons, was filmed in start black and white. Some of the films were classic, others were just cheap trash, using light and shadow to mask the fact that the director skimped on sets. Speaking of minimalist film making, may I suggest you view two of John Ford’s movies. Rio Grande was done on such a low budget that Ford was only able to build one wall of the stockade and a handful of Army surplus tents for sets. The other film was The Informer, where he used fog and shadows to disguise the lack of sets. Yet each is a strong film, where the acting and directors skills tell a great story despite the “minimalist” sets and costumes. It shows what a master can do with a technique. Some directors will be able to use “found footage” to great effect, others will not. Imagine what Alfred Hitchcock might have done with the technique!

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