The Low Tech Origins of Found Footage Films

By David Konow

The appeal of found footage movies for filmmakers, and whether or not it's a lazy medium.

Found footage movies are in the zeitgeist again, even though many thought it was a one trick idea with The Blair Witch Project. But the enormous cost to profit margins of the Paranormal Activity movies launched the trend again, and it crossed over to other genres as well, like the comedy Project X, and the superhero movie Chronicle.

Whether it’s a horror story or a comedy, the idea is simple. An event happens, it’s been documented on video, and once the footage is found and watched, it tells the story of the event. The idea of a found footage movies seems so simple, you’d think anyone could do it. In fact, that’s been the appeal for many filmmakers: it’s a simpler, and much cheaper, way to make a movie.

Some feel that Blair Witch had a punk, DIY sensibility that proved to young directors they didn’t need a lot of fancy, schmantzy equipment to make a movie. As Josh Leonard, who starred in the film, told the L.A. Times, “It was like when you and your buddies were 14 and you heard a Germs album and you’re like, ‘I could do that.’”

Paramount has a number of found footage projects in development, and as the President of the studio, Adam Goodman, told Deadline, “I believe it’s something that’s here to say. It’s a terrific medium for filmmakers. They don’t see the medium as a barrier to entry. They don’t care about shaky cameras. For whatever reason, it just makes for a much more visceral experience for the audience.”

At least one horror director complained to me that doing a found footage movie makes directors lazy, but in several found footage horror films it took a lot of work to make it look like no work went into it at all. Since the late sixties, documentary techniques and cinema verite became a big part of making horror films effective.

Night of the Living Dead may have been the first in this regard with its frantic camerawork, and fake newsreel footage that helped make the event seem more plausible. And as Dan O’Bannon, the late screenwriter of Alien, said of horror films that were shot on a budget, the lack of professional polish makes them feel far more removed from Hollywood. Like demented home movies, you have the feeling the people behind the camera aren’t bound by any restraints and could show you anything.

Blair Witch was shot on Hi-8, which is essentially a step above VHS, and it definitely gave it that demented home movie feel, but it was actually a European horror flick shot on 16mm that first started the found footage concept, namely 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust.

In Holocaust, a group of documentarians film a group of cannibals on an island, and they are all eventually slaughtered. The documentary footage is later found, and it tells the story of their demise. The gore and violence in the was so convincing, some thought it was a snuff film, and the director Ruggero Deodato, was thrown in jail for murder. Much like Blair Witch, the actors agreed not to do any press for the film to fool people into thinking they really disappeared. At the trial, the stars actually had to show up to prove they were still alive so Deodato could get out of jail.

And while 28 Days Later wasn’t a found footage horror story, it has some elements of one, especially using the relatively cheap Canon XL1 cameras, which made the production much easier to shoot faster and more mobile. Certain shots, like the opening in an empty London, could were filmed under tight time constraints, so the crew used many cheap cameras to shoot from multiple angles all at once instead using many takes. Director Danny Boyle had said that with shooting on digital “the general idea was to try and shoot as though we were survivors too.” Funny enough, 28 Days was one of the movies that made the world safe for digital, and it looked very impressive even though it wasn’t shot with top of the line hi-def technology.

Hollywood will always look for cheaper ways to make movies, and with a found footage story you can definitely work with far less money than working on Hi-Def, or 35mm while we still have it. But Eduardo Sanchez, who created Blair Witch with Daniel Myrick, has always felt that found footage could be applied to many other genres like horror, much like we’re seeing today.

“This Is Spinal Tap was kind of found footage,” he says. And indeed, Christopher Guest makes his comedies in a similar fashion, where he’ll film himself improvising into the camera, and the rest of the film is invented as they go. “It was acceptable in comedy before it was accepted in horror with Blair Witch and Cloverfield,” Sanchez continues. “But I think it can be done in every genre really, and I’m glad to see that it’s expanding and being done in other kinds of films.”