Found Footage Festival

My creative energies have been at a low ebb lately, so I’m killing my weekends with mind-numbing diversions hoping it’ll jar something loose.

This morning’s viewing, Grave Encounters 2, got me thinking about the “found footage” method of moviemaking. I have something of a love-hate relationship with found footage movies; it feels too often like a lazy, cheap approach to making a movie rather than a thought-out storytelling choice, which is why, perhaps, so many of them are terrible (to wit: Grave Encounters 2). Yet when such films are good, they tend to be very good (in my opinion).

Some thoughts on why found footage films are either great or awful:

WHY FOUND FOOTAGE MOVIES WORK

They put the audience in the middle of the action. When you watch a movie, you tend to do so as an objective viewer; you are a spectator, not a participant. The found footage approach turns the adventure into a subjective one; the action is happening to the viewer, and that leads to a more immersive and visceral experience — which is why horror movies use this method far more than any other genre (I don’t think a found footage rom-com would work so well).

They feel more natural. The Blair Witch Project — not the first found footage movie, but the one that put the style on the map — was marketed, very effectively, as the result of a real documentary film project gone wrong, but it was not just the documentary-style storytelling that sold that conceit. The cast did not have a script, they instead worked from an outline and often vague instructions fed to them by the directors during the shoot. That meant they improvised their dialog and reacted more naturally to what the filmmakers threw at them, so their performances felt less like, well, performances.

They open up the field for smaller productions. As said above, found footage movies allow people to make movies on shoestring budgets because they don’t have to worry about slick professional lighting and sound, hiring large crews — all the things that inflate the cost of a movie. Paranormal Activity was made for $15,000, which is pocket change in Hollywood terms (and its domestic gross was $107.9 million, making it one of the most profitable movies ever made in terms of R.O.I.).

Night vision. Night vision shots are friggin’ creepy (when done well). The use of night vision in the original [rec] worked brilliantly for some of its jump-scare moments, as did the tunnel scene in Cloverfield.

WHY FOUND FOOTAGE MOVIES FAIL

Sometimes, it’s just hard to accept that people ALWAYS have a camera on. This applies to good and bad found footage movies alike, because they both have scenes in which, if you stopped to think about it, it makes no sense whatsoever for a character to have their camera on and, conveniently, pointing toward the action. It’s one of the conceits audiences have to accept going in, but even in the best of such films, I tend to think at least once, “Yeah, that dude’s really going to sprint his ass off with the camera still up on his shoulder.” Just once I’d like to see a running-with-the-camera shot to end with the character plowing face-first into a wall or tripping down some stairs.

Some actors simply cannot improvise well. In the aforementioned Grave Encounters 2, the characters spend a lot of time in the opening act cursing like Marines. In a scripted movie, excessive cursing in the dialog is a sign of a lazy writer trying to make things edgy. In an improvised movie, casual F-bombs are a verbal manifestation of a mental hesitation, in the same way people use “um” or “like” or “you know?” in real life. Unfortunately, in  a movie, characters spouting “Fuckety-fuck fuck” makes for excruciatingly dull dialog.

The story does not always hold together. The semi-improvised nature of found footage movies, at least in the hands of a filmmaker that doesn’t know what he or she is doing, means there is no firm roadmap to help dictate things like pacing. The original Grave Encounters, an under-appreciated little gem of a horror flick, had a great slow-burn build, so that when things went crazy, it felt like a proper climax to the long-building tension. Its sequel, however, spent the first half on set-up and launched headfirst into the wild stuff without taking any time to transition and build tension.

They open up the field for smaller productions. To paraphrase something I’ve said in other posts in regard to self-publishing, the great thing about modern technology is that it allows anyone to make a movie; the bad thing is, it allows anyone to make a movie. The found footage style, combined with the fact video cameras are now standard features in any given cell phone, means anyone can get a bunch of people together and shoot a movie in a weekend — without worrying about pesky things like whether anyone can act or whether their story is worth telling.

Keeping Pace

Let me get this out of the way first: screw the Super Bowl. Couldn’t care less.

Instead of non-stop football bullshit, I’m puttering around the house today, doing some light cleaning while my usual background noise of bad horror movies drones on. My current viewing is Deadfall Trail, a tale of three men who go on your standard trip into the woods that goes awry, and it took maybe 15 minutes to make a common but crucial mistake of jumping the gun on the pacing of the story.

(Warning: spoilers ahead!)

Particularly with horror films and thrillers, the strongest stories build over time, starting off slow and quiet and ratcheting up the conflict and tension in increments. It would be easy to cite The Exorcist as a great example of this, but as I’m in a low-budget frame of mind, I’ll instead mention Grave Encounters, a “found footage” deal in which a team of ghost hunters enter an abandoned mental hospital and, well, bad stuff happens…but not for a good long while, and the worst of it doesn’t happen within the first act.

In Deadfall Trail, however, the characters are resorting to drinking their own urine to stave off death by thirst halfway through act one, declaring with teeth-gritting determination that they’re doing what they need to to survive. Drinking your own piss, fresh from the tap, is third-act desperation. Nothing feels quite as drastic after that. In harrowing tales of survival, the drama derives from watching the characters struggle on in the face of ever-worsening conditions, hitting a breakdown point, and then rebuilding themselves and fighting for their lives with renewed ferocity. When the characters break down after the first 15 minutes, you’d better have some industrial-strength shitstorm on the horizon or you’re just wasting the rest of the movie.

(Just ask the producers of 24, who in season six set off a nuke in the fourth episode and had nowhere to go for the next 20.)

Hillside Cannibals, The Asylum‘s knock-off of The Hills Have Eyes remake, makes the same mistake. A half-dozen victim characters head into the desert and are attacked by a clan of inbred cannibals — and 15 minutes after the opening credits four of them are dead, one is captured, and the other is on the run. The rest of the movie is pure tedium as the two survivors are tortured and pursued, and occasionally a random group of new victims wanders in to be unceremoniously slaughtered minutes after they show up.

In news writing, the standard model is the “inverted pyramid,” where you start with the most important stuff first and work your way down to the trivial details. I’d say that in fiction storytelling the pyramid should* be inverted to its normal pyramidal** position so you start small and work your way up to the good stuff, building conflict and tension — therefore, the readers’/viewers’ anticipation — over time. The payoff is the reward for making it to the end, not the reward for starting the story in the first place.

* There are always exceptions to any rule, but if you don’t fully understand the rule, you shouldn’t be breaking it.

** The spellchecker isn’t registering “pyramidal” as a non-word. And here I am, thinking I’m making a contribution to the English vocabulary.