Found Footage Films: Beyond The Horror
December 13, 2013
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Found footage is most often considered a horror film gimmick. The truth is, however, that the style itself is a subgenre and a powerful device that can be used to tell stories of all kinds.
Defined primarily as a story told through the discovery of hand-held video recordings, the found footage technique has been used heavily in such popular horror films as the Paranormal Activity franchise. The low-tech production value and relative cheapness to produce make it an excellent vehicle for these films, which are typically made on a low budget. As the subgenre has become more popular, it has also grown to include crime dramas, fantasies and even comedies.
While it may seem like an easy style to work with, found footage can actually present some storytelling difficulties. For instance, creating a fake documentary forces the story into a first person P.O.V. of the character holding the camera, making it impossible to utilize the omniscient third person that drives the narrative of most films. You will also face the problem of having to explain why your characters are filming themselves in a manner that doesn't feel forced.
Of course, these same limitations can also be effective storytelling tools. Here are a few examples of nonhorror genres that have successfully utilized the found footage style:
Nothing could seem further from a horror film than a comedy, but the fake docustyle makes an excellent vehicle for comedies looking to add a new spin to a well-worn plot. Raunchy teenage comedies, like Project X (2012) and The Virginity Hit (2010), particularly benefit from the use of hand-held filmmaking.
Project X was a box office smash, and it breathed new life into the typical coming-of-age story that involves throwing a raging party while parents are conveniently away. The Virginity Hit used found footage to put a new spin on the desperate-to-lose-their-virginity teenage trope. With a generation of YouTube and Vine users eager to share every private detail of their lives, it's not much of a stretch to believe that the young protagonists of these movies would film their illicit life choices.
Sci Fi/ Fantasy
Whether your characters are running from amphibious monsters or discovering new superpowers, the documentary nature of the found footage subgenre can lend a sense of realism, making the suspension of disbelief easier for audiences to swallow. In 2012's Chronicle, the home video style grounds the story, making the superhero element feel less fantastical and more likely to actually happen in the real world.
The method can also be an effective tool in revealing plot and eliciting mood. Thanks to the shaky, hand-held camera style in Cloverfield (2008), the audience was only treated to glimpses of the massive creature terrorizing Manhattan, building suspense in a manner that wouldn't work similarly in a more traditional camera style.
A behind-the-scenes look is a storytelling technique that gives audiences a glimpse into a world they may not otherwise experience. With the oversaturation of crime dramas on television, most audiences have already spent plenty of time behind the veil of police life. However, the film End of Watch (2012) adds a new element to the genre by utilizing the first person P.O.V. of the hand-held style. The film becomes more than a simple cop buddy story or procedural—it becomes a deep character study.
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