Found Footage is Stagnating in the Smartphone Age

The found footage subgenre – the unholy offspring of documentaries and horror flicks – has a short if storied history in the film world. The original Blair Witch Project introduced a new generation of moviegoers to the limited but effective concept of lost footage rediscovered and presented as documentation of the final moments of three doomed souls. Its success kicked off an early feeding frenzy in Hollywood, and dredged the otherwise obscure style out of the footnotes film history.

Since the first Blair Witch movie, the once-innovative technique has been overrun by a spate of carbon copies, diluting the impact of its 'viral' marketing and diluting the credibility of the subgenre (and audiences' patience for it). At the same time, even some of the rip-offs and homages also forced their auteurs to incorporate surprising new techniques and technologies which tweaked, hybridized, and amalgamated the tropes which made found footage so fascinating in the first place.

Adam Wingard’s Blair Witch, a loose remake/sequel, confronted its audience with that now cliché exercise, but managed to include a little fresh technology. With people now able to capture instantaneous video and pictures in mere seconds and save it on their phones, as well as innovation in high-tech personal recording devices and transmission capacities, could this be the perfect time and place for a found footage renaissance?

Early Limitations on Tech and Credibility

Blair Witch: Can Found Footage Thrive in the Age of Smartphones?

Classic found footage flicks played off the idea of the filmmakers uncovering lost moments in time – hence the ‘discovered footage’ nickname. While the concept was novel at first, the subgenre only had limited real-world applicability. Most people didn’t own movie cameras, certainly not the kind that recorded studio-quality film, meaning that it would stretch the bounds of realism to uncover lost stock from anyone but a handful of people. Nevertheless, trailblazers like realist disciple Ruggero Deodato tried to endow their features with as much grainy authenticity as possible.

Deodato's nastiest piece of work, Cannibal Holocaust (1980), kicked off the entire oeuvre. It followed the catastrophic lives of a film crew heading into the heart of the Amazon to document cannibal tribes. Supposedly shot by ‘documentarians,’ the actors still filmed using clunky equipment, as well as methods most amateur auteurs weren’t privy to. The fright flick also headed to a locale most viewers weren't likely to ever visit, increasing the curiosity factor.

Later, when VHS video tapes and camcorders became widespread in the early to mid-80s, they were still too expensive for the average consumer. Despite rumors of real life snuff videos like the fake 'mondo' movie Faces of Death, low-budget video features were still rare. Even after video recording gear came down in price, the quality still paled in comparison to film stock. Naturally, this didn’t stop scores of amateur and low budget filmmakers from trying their hand at making a movie, but surprisingly few found footage flicks leaked out during this time.

Blair Witch Opens and Closes the Door

Heather in The Blair Witch Project

Before the Blair Witch Project, there were fewer than ten films classified in the found footage category. Between BWP and Paranormal Activity, roughly 20 films emerged after the style. Since 2007, the genre has exploded along with the proliferation of inexpensive digital filmmaking tools. The low cost to potentially massive profit margins didn’t hurt either. While the first Blair Witch and its predecessors normalized discovered footage as a horror/sci-fi trope, they were only the first wave.

Two films, The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2008) and Oren Peli’s low-budget scare fest Paranormal Activity (2007), truly popularized found footage movies. The latter, made for roughly $15,000 using stationary cameras, grossed nearly $200 million worldwide and kicked off the next wave in earnest. Since then, over a hundred found footage movies, or those embracing the style, have arrived on the big screen or headed straight to video. Some of these pictures were true innovators, blending found footage with other genres and elevating the technique. Many others were just awful.

Even though the subgenre was rapidly flagged as a one-trick pony, it became a horror staple. A number of films still managed to modify or tweak the style to good effect. Although now considered passe, films like Barry Levinson’s The Bay (2012) popularized the mockumentary/confessional tactic alongside classic discovered snippets. The latest wave includes new twists on the theme like Unfriended (2015), which used Facebook, live chats, and social media (similar to 1998 film The Last Broadcast and its use of IRC chat) to build tension and set itself apart from the crowd.

Recording Everything Becomes the Norm

Don't Breathe YouTube

Until recently, found footage was locked into a battle of credibility. Even in the often logically inconsistent horror genre, suspension of disbelief is still vital to any movie. Any slightly savvy audience member understood that cameras have a relatively short battery life, as do cellphones, tablets, and other recording devices. Also, many viewers found it difficult to believe a protagonist would film every single second of their life, much less the crucial fight-or-flight moments when they were being attacked.

In the past, making a movie with a consumer camcorder required a great deal of creativity, thanks to their recording quality and limited stabilizing capabilities. The first smartphone cameras were also too low-fi to create anything aside from a garbled, DIY ode to seasickness. As a result, trying to pass off a watchable, full-length HD video 'made' from phone footage was a laughable endeavor (some did try, though).

Over the last decade, miniaturization made inexpensive, gyroscopically mounted cameras (looking at you, GoPro) and high-quality cell cameras feasible and available to the general populace. Moreover, the practice of recording the minutiae of life and slapping it up on YouTube, Instagram, Periscope, or Snap-Chat, has become commonplace. As a result, found footage films have adapted the head-on webcam view (such as in Paranormal Activity 4 (2012)) to some degree. Smaller cameras and higher memory card capacity also allow for in-camera applications and apps, some of which could make for an intriguing low budget production.

New techniques also make creating a viable found footage film interesting and challenging. Back in 2005, Albert Pyun’s extraterrestrial creeper Invasion (2005) used a police dash-cam for almost the entire movie and succeeded (to a certain extent) in crafting a compelling narrative. Lighter and smaller HD lenses allowed the Paranormal Activity series to create some innovative moments of its own, such as the characters mounting a camera on an oscillating fan, which co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman used to creep out audiences. Blair Witch Project co-director Eduardo Sánchez used a GoPro for their segment in V/H/S 2 to follow an assailed biker to brutal effect. In addition, the superhero film Chronicle employed a citywide blanket of security cameras, as well as other more traditional found footage methods to tell its tale.

Blair Witch & a Found Footage Renaissance?

Blair Witch Still

When it came to making the third Blair Witch, Adam Wingard and co. had nearly 40 years of style to reflect upon – the good, the bad, and the downright laughable. The evolution of the genre allowed them to combine the latest marketing tactics with the most recent technological innovations – including a drone-mounted camera. However, the latest entry doesn’t deliver as many new angles on the existing filmography. It even eschewed its high powered gear and years of invention in favor of scurrying around the forest with a camera like its predecessor.

Understandably, part of the movie’s luddite credo is that even the best prepared individuals are hopeless against the primordial forces of darkness. But without the nifty gadgets, the move is forced to move away from atypical avenues of filming which could have added a new twist or layer to it: no live feeds to YouTube, no Facebook check-ins for ‘the deep dark woods,’ no drone jump scares, no audience member possession, etc. What was the point of all the high powered gadgetry if the filmmakers were just going to render it useless? Blair Witch and many other modern found footage features seem to revel in that logic: that horror movie victims shouldn’t be too proud of the technological terrors we’ve created.

Of course, the truly ironic thing about the category is that there is one piece of tech accessible to most people which has only been used to limited degree: phone footage. Despite critically acclaimed films like Tangerine (2015) and And Uneasy Lies the Mind (2014) shot almost entirely on phones, discovered footage directors seem to shy away from the possibilities. True, battery lives on smartphones are notoriously short. But audiences don’t seem to think anything of everlasting tape feeds and power-sucking HD cameras running on and on until – hiss, fade to black. Similar to the action-movie bullet count, if you successfully pull an audience into a film, they'll leave their disbelief behind instead of fact-checking whether the heroine fired five shots or six, or a hundred and six (without reloading).

However, directors could even use technological limitations to good effect. For example, following a hunted person’s last days as their battery slips away could be an effective tool (at least once or twice). Chronicling a low-key walk home via GoPro could lead to a terrifying glimpse of something behind the bubbly narrator. A drone operator could catch glimpse of something disturbing right in front of her. There are dozens of ways to utilize the tech of today to filmmakers’ advantages.

And Fade to Black...

Blair Witch (2016) - Corbin Reid

It's a little surprising that, with all of its bells and whistles and drone cameras and ear-mounted cameras (not to mention a much bigger budget), Blair Witch should have fallen so far short of the box office goals set by its 1999 predecessor. Perhaps the movie's failure to use that technology in an interesting and innovative way is, in part, to blame. Even after almost two decades, we've yet to see anything that quite matches the way Artisan Entertainment used the fledgling World Wide Web to promote The Blair Witch Project - which remains the highest-grossing found footage movie of all time.

Hopefully, more filmmakers will be encouraged to continue along the path of ‘discovery,’ taking cues from films like Blair Witch and the forthcoming Unfriended sequel as to which aspects work and which don’t. The technique has already flourished in an age of miniaturization and mobile technology. As smartphones are endowed with better cameras and stronger battery lives, and mobile audiovisual devices grow more adaptable and sophisticated, a new generation of moviegoers’ fears, hopes, and dreams (let's not limit found footage to horror) can be stylized using the wizardry of today's advanced equipment.

The age we live in is endowed with all sorts of audiovisual wonders, and the directors of today and tomorrow already have a unique advantage over their predecessors. With the right know-how, concept, and attitude, the modern found footage film can flourish and adapt. Of course, future auteurs will always run the danger of a return to cliche land. But with new advancements arriving all the time, there should be plenty of opportunities to flip convention on its head.

Blair Witch is in theaters now.

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