THE SIX COMMANDMENTS OF FOUND FOOTAGE FILMMAKING
Probably the most contentious of all sub genres of horror (aside from maybe the “Italian cannibal freak out film”) is the “found footage” category. Here is a succinct definition of found footage from the nice hive mind over at Wikipedia.org:
Found footage is a plot device in pseudo-documentaries in which all or a substantial part of a fictional film is presented as if it were discovered film or video recordings. The events on screen are typically seen through the camera of one or more of the characters involved, often accompanied by their real-time off-camera commentary. For verisimilitude, the cinematography may be done by the actors themselves as they perform, and shaky camera work and naturalistic acting are routinely employed.
There are many reasons why filmmakers go the route of this kind of movie–they are MUCH cheaper to make than any other (there are a few examples that boast ONLY a couple characters running around with a single inexpensive camcorder), you can get away with using less experienced actors a lot of the time, and when the style works it’s actually quite good at generating terror.
However, because of the affordability and relative simplicity-to-make of these kind of movies, there is a metric shit ton of them out there and SO MANY OF THEM REALLY, REALLY, SUCK!
As a public service, I offer the following “Six Commandments” to any and all filmmakers who decide to go this route. I can’t guarantee you will have a good film if you follow them all to the letter, but I do guarantee that folks will be less likely to hate your movie and wish to drive over it with a truck.
1. THOU SHALT DECIDE BEFORE YOU START IF YOUR MOVIE REALLY SHOULD BE SHOT IN A FOUND FOOTAGE STYLE OR NOT
An example of a movie that really works as found footage would be [REC] or THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, where both the set up and the storyline harmonize well with the illusion of watching discovered footage. Many promising movies have been, in my opinion, ruined by filmmakers trying to stuff them into this sub genre, rather than allowing their projects to be what they really are.
MR. JONES is a good example of this, where the idea, plot, and imagery is all excellent, but the decision to film it as found footage just does not work. Another is FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY, which would have us believe that we are watching the footage shot by a Russian soldier toward the end of WWII, as his unit explores a deserted church in Germany. The monster design is AMAZING, like truly visionary. But, oh man… With the technology of the time there is no way this poor Dimitri guy would have been able to schlep over a dozen cans of film, switch them out quickly without screwing them up as weird hulking machine-men attack, etc., AND, the footage just looks like frikkin digital video from the 21st century. Why go through all that, when all it does is knock people out of your movie?
2. THOU SHALT THEN DECIDE AHEAD OF TIME WHAT CATEGORY OF FOUND FOOTAGE YOUR MOVIE IS
This one is easy. There are basically two kinds of found footage movies–one where we are supposedly watching the raw, undoctored film, and the other where it’s presented as a “mockumentary”, meaning that it has been edited, scored, etc.
The films LAKE MUNGO and NOROI: THE CURSE are presented as if they are finished, edited, and scored documentaries. Thus, the studio quality lighting in places, the great editing, eerie music, etc., is all explained ahead of time. EVIL THINGS has a really good, really creepy implied explanation for why it’s edited together so well.
There are other films where music shows up to heighten tension even though we’re supposed to be watching raw, undoctored footage. Why? WHY?!? You shoulda just made a normal horror movie if you want to add normal horror movie stuff!
3. THOU SHALT REIN IN THE PERFORMANCES OF YOUR ACTOR FOLK
The majority of dialog in these kinds of movies involves lots and lots of screaming. So much screaming. The bad ones tend to escalate to this screaming very quickly, going from zero to shrill in mere seconds. An example of this in an otherwise great movie is the scene in BLAIR WITCH where our three intrepid film students first start arguing about that effing map. You and I would have had a reasonable, maybe slightly heated discussion. This trio goes bonkers on each other, out of the blue.
I think this is because of the improvised nature of much of the acting in these things. Everybody wants to jump in and ACT whenever possible. This leads to horrid films like AREA 407 or THE TAPES, which mostly involve yelling. And some kind of threat, I think. I mostly just remember the yelling.
A sub commandment worth mentioning: THOU SHALT KNOW THAT REAL PEOPLE DO NOT SWEAR EVERY OTHER EFFING WORD, EVEN THOUGH AMATEUR IMPROVISERS WOULD HAVE US BELIEVE THIS. Indeed, just about every *!%#ing found footage movie falls into this category. Please stop allowing this to happen, filmmakers. Thanks!
4. THOU SHALT KEEP IN MIND THAT RUNNING AROUND IN THE DARK WAS SCARY ONCE, LONG AGO, BUT NOW THE GENRE DEMANDS MORE OF YOU
Dear Spanish found footage film ATROCIOUS. You had a pretty great idea on your hands, as well as deciding ahead of time what kind of found footage movie you wanted to be. Your characters were interesting and believable, and the finale led to some, well, atrociously scary stuff. Bravo, I say. But, why did you decide to take up more than half of your 73 minute run-time by giving one of your actresses the camera and having her run around in the dark? Wouldn’t maybe ten minutes of that be enough?
Seriously, try to remember that you are still telling a STORY with your film, even though it’s presented as someone’s “real” footage. It’s become a major cliche of the genre to spend the first 40% of the film on banal, improvised non-scary stuff, followed by 20% build up of dread (and screaming/swearing), and then the remaining 40% with running around in the dark, with more screaming.
Come on, ya knuckleheads. We know you can do better than that!
5. THOU SHALT ANSWER THE QUESTION ‘WHY THE HELL ARE THEY STILL FILMING?’ AND ANSWER IT WELL
Perhaps I am alone in this, but I know in my heart of hearts that were I and my friends ever to be chased by ghosts or demons or cannibalistic undead West Virginians, I would drop whatever frikkin camera I may have been holding, and get the hell out of there. If one of my friends was still trying to film the approach of the blood-covered mutant moths, I would literally slap that camera from their hands and push ’em toward the exit. Dig?
Frankly, it is mostly unbelievable that anyone would keep shooting in these movies. Some handle this more artfully. [REC] once again comes to mind. Even CLOVERFIELD ends up mostly working, by building up good will toward the whole movie by being mostly awesome. But, good gravy, how many times will we be presented with characters who “film everything that happens to them” as a way of life, or that are aspiring photographers, socially inept, etc. Which leads us to…
6. THOU SHALT TRY TO LIMIT “SHAKY CAM” AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE
Do I really need to explain this? Just remember that a little of this effect goes a looooong way. It is meant as a way of heightening realism, not as a challenge to those in the audience who suffer from motion sickness.
There you have it for today’s horror helping. More tomorrow!