10 Non-Found-Footage Films Influenced by the Found Footage Genre
Found footage films are captivating because they promote the illusion that we are spying on private moments and memories: crude and amateur keepsakes never meant for public consumption as entertainment or even narrative documents. The illusion, when done well, titillates our curiosity while lending authenticity to the performances, which are meant to be received as raw documents of human behavior, not the product of dramatic art or craft.
Telling a story within these parameters is a strange ontological challenge for filmmakers. The fact that cinema arrived at this point as the 21st century turned was a testament to the layers upon layers of irony and meta-cinematic evolution that had happened to the medium since its inception and which had only accelerated during the explosions of technology and culture during the 1990s.
Also on the rise during this period was the mockumentary format, in existence (in a recognizable form) at least since Take the Money and Run in 1969, but which found new flower in an era of cheap and pervasive documentarianism, as well as a cultural attitude that embraced deadpan, cynical ridicule as an accepted lifestyle.
In the cases of both found footage and mockumentary, these… well, they’re not really “genres” are they? In theory, you can tell crime, comedy, erotica, or horror stories in either of them. They’re more like “form factors,” visual storytelling conceits with rigorous constraints on style.
But in both these forms, we the audience are meant to internalize the fact that the camera through which we are looking is a “real” physical object in the room with the characters, of which the characters are aware. We are encouraged to consider, occasionally, how the presence of the lens and the person holding it has an impact on the events that transpire and on the characters’ actions.
And because of this narrative construct, the cinematography can afford to be, and sometimes needs to be, palpably “uncinematic” in as many ways as possible (while still obeying certain fundamental rules about movie storytelling). Edits are graceful, or maybe nonexistent. Film grain is large and pixelated. The lens is unsteady and frequently canted, in constant handheld motion, usually within touching distance of what we the audience are supposed to be looking at.
The crudeness of the filmmaking, like the poor musicianship of punk rock, lends the work honesty and authenticity. It makes the claim that the veils of the usual artifice have been stripped away, revealing for us some deeper “truth” that shines better in indirect, accidental light.
To state the obvious, neither mockumentary nor found footage was created out of whole cloth. Both are natural progressions of the trends seen in Dogme 95, Italian neorealism, and of course documentary, the oldest cinemagraphic form which was the original use case for the moving image.
But something different was happening when those hipsters got lost in Burkittsville in 1999. Even though us film snobs know that the first widely release found footage film was Incident in Lake County in 1998, it was The Blair Witch Project that really made the splash in our culture. In addition to the host of imitators, part of what this splash consisted of was the gradual adoption of some of the techniques of found footage without the use of the diegetic device itself.
Let’s take a look at ten films that followed in the wake of The Blair Witch Project which applied storytelling and cinematographical lessons from found footage to tell other kinds of stories. We do not attempt to discern whether these were conscious, intentional applications of technique; rather our goal is to show that this aesthetic was an emergent property of a unique period in film history.
All new trends and fads have something to contribute to the language of cinema, and it’s time to recognize and appreciate how gritty, punk-rock camera work and performance influenced how stories are told and heard.
10. Last Days
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Sometimes the most powerful thing the lens can do is to simply be there. Simply do the one thing it can do which is look at things. Gus Van Sant is a master at not interfering with the camera’s profound power to just look at things, and I submit that his transition from his more conventional Drugstore Cowboy-, Good Will Hunting-style into a period of raw, handheld pseudo-documentarianism was sparked by the same cultural and artistic forces that surrounded the advent of found footage.
Last Days is an observational drama that documents the hidden bleakness of fame and artistic genius, not through the application of cinematography but through the lack of it. The camera is allowed to simply follow the characters, and the rough edges of the frame mirror the roughness of the souls we observe, not rock “stars” by any means, simply rock players at the top of their field, whose music reflected their lives and their lives reflected it back.
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Coherence is a disorienting, claustrophobic movie delivered via disorienting, claustrophobic cinematography. What’s amazing is that, despite the cosmological stakes inherent in the opening up of parallel realities, very little seems to “happen” in Coherence; almost the entire movie is spent in the same few rooms with the same eight characters where everyone is trying to figure out what’s happening.
What drives the tension engine at the heart of the film is the camera, tilting up from odd corners, letting characters walk in and out of focus as it frantically tries to track the conversation, and desperately following characters into rooms it didn’t expect them to walk into. By filming the dinner party in this manner, almost as improvised as the dialog, the characters are given life and breath in a way that has much more in common with found footage films like Cloverfield (especially the party scene) than any more traditional mindbender movie. (Even Primer, the closest possible conceptual comparison, also deep in the arthouse-realism style, mostly sticks with conventional framing and dialog patterns.)
This film soaked up the lessons of found footage sci-fi and applied them beautifully, producing a picture that has all of the raw thrills and unease of found footage without the baggage of having to talk to the cameraman.
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Okay, we’re cheating a bit by giving director Gus Van Sant two slots in this list, for two films from the same stylistic period (which also included Gerry and Paranoid Park, also easy shoo-ins in this theme). But Elephant represents the raw neo-art-house style applied to very different ends than Last Days or any of his other films.
In Last Days (as in most Van Sant candidates from this era) raw camera work is used to highlight raw personalities, characters who are presented to us with only the barest veneer of social or cultural layers. But in Elephant, the handheld cameras and non-professional actors have the cumulative effect of ratcheting up frustration and tension. So little on the screen happens in accordance with the accepted grammar of modern movies that we are unsettled, fearing unexpected dangers around every turn as we follow characters around, looking over their shoulder at their world.
In other words, Elephant uses found footage-like techniques for the same effect that they are used in the first wave of actual found footage films, to unnerve us and to deliver thrills via new, unexpected wavelengths. Van Sant probably wasn’t intentionally trying to mimic Blair Witch, but at the very least we have a case of parallel evolution. Both films are products of, or are reacting to, the same cultural vibrations that told them that this was the right time for movies to have this look and feel.
7. In the Loop
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Since it’s a comedy, when considering the style of In the Loop, the British film spin-off of the BBC series The Thick of It, one is automatically predisposed to think of mockumentary rather than found footage. By why is that? What is it about mockumentary that lends itself to comedy while found footage tends to be used for action thrillers, and not vice versa? Does it really come down to This is Spinal Tap and The Blair Witch Project setting the tone for their respective subgenres forever? It’s an interesting question, one that we can’t find an answer to just by considering the techniques themselves.
But I wanted to include this film in this list because it takes mockumentary gimmicks like walk-and-talks and conversations filmed across a crowded party to a new unpolished level, where they start to hint at the rawness of found footage. The many sequences of Peter Capaldi talking on mobile phones while walking are filmed, frankly, kind of poorly, and that’s what makes them great, as if the radioactive power of his rhetorical rage was battering the edges of the frame beyond the ability of even a mockumentarian to control.
In the context of these other films, In the Loop is a worthy contrast, if only to ponder the questions of tone and genre.
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There is no way to “describe” war. I mean, we’ve tried to do it in movies since almost the beginning, but part of the post-9/11 zeitgeist is an agreement throughout the culture that the John Wayne-Green Berets approach to military storytelling is no longer acceptable, whether it be for purposes of criticism or propaganda. Every war film produced since Gladiator (released a year after Blair Witch Project) has made a genuine effort to depict war, in its plethora of forms, modern and ancient, as a profane state of being, so profane as to be almost unrecognizable to civilians, and at the very least emotionally alien.
(Many will point to 1998’s Saving Private Ryan as the start of this trend, and that may be true from a philosophical point of view, but not a stylistic one. The disorientation of the D-Day landing scene is driven not by intentionally “terrible” filmmaking but by “excellent” filmmaking. I.e. “hot” vs “sweet”. This is a topic for a different day.)
So how then to establish a common frame of reference between a civilian audience and military characters? The problem must be worked from both directions: The on-screen characters must be shown to obsess over average, almost banal, human problems of family, self-care, and career, etc. And the audience must be given an approximation of the emotional trauma of combat.
The techniques of found footage provide this. Shaky handheld cameras, uncinematic angles, editing that reduces coherence instead of improving it, disorienting sound design, these all have a cumulative effect on a peace-loving populace trapped in a dark room watching the movie. For the purposes of movie storytelling, it doesn’t matter how “accurate” the effect is, only that the audience is put (or feel that they have been put) into a suitably upset state of mind.
5. The Raid
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The Raid‘s presence in this list continues from the above about war, where the emotional impact that the film desires to have requires a certain minimal level of trauma on the audience. This time it’s police instead of military, and the goal is not so much to cultivate sympathy for the heroes as it is to dazzle the audience and produce new categories of thrills (which are the real currency of the “martial arts” action subgenre). But the application of found footage techniques is still there.
This time the camera work is steadicam’ed but still claustrophobic, as the lens struggles to situate itself in the best positions to capture the nature of the violence and the seeming impossibility of the obstacles our heroes must overcome. This film represents an evolution of found footage techniques into one that is less “raw” but with all the closeness and immediacy that they can bring to bear.
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So far the films on this list have exemplified the roughness, agitation, and chaos of found footage. But Birdman, and its spiritual sister films like Russian Ark and Bushwick, demonstrate another important aspect of found footage, which is their relentless attachment to their subjects and the inexorable flow of time. Films like Cloverfield are testaments to how compelling it can be for a film to reject the sanctuary of the “take”, the now-invisible rhythm of cuts and edits that modern audiences expect, in favor of presenting (or seeming to present) extraordinarily long uninterrupted blocks of time.
Obviously, long takes, even simulated ones, are not a modern invention; they are echoes of the theatrical tradition championed most notably by Welles and Hitchcock. But the filmic mechanism of found footage offered a dramatic backlash against the cut-heavy, MTV-influenced mainstream aesthetic. Films like Birdman show how this new aesthetic can be gracefully wielded in service of a wide range of stories.
3. District 9
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This entry is also a bit of a cheat, since a significant amount of the story plays out as news camera or closed circuit security footage, and as such would fall into the categories of “actual” found footage, or non-comedic mockumentary. But what I wanted to highlight was how those “formal” elements of in-frame camera presence are gradually elided as the film progresses, until we’re given a climax that continues to be seen through the same raw, shaky, handheld lens but which is no longer acknowledged as being within the frame.
In other words, this film starts as “actual” found footage and gradually evolves (or devolves?) into “pseudo” found footage, so gradually that we neither need nor are given an explanation of the change. As such, this film might be the best comparison study for the nuance I’m trying to articulate.
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28 Days Later was the first film that we thought of in connection with this topic because it’s a horror film released just three years after The Blair Witch Project and it goes out of its way to recreate the same grainy, panicky, disorienting experience without bothering to explain who’s holding the camera. The use of handheld digital cameras was still a novelty at the time and we were not used to seeing quasi-mainstream genre pictures look this, well, bad.
But despite this, and, I would argue, because of this, this film taught us just how effective (read: terrifying, panic-inducing) this collection of techniques can be, especially in service of legitimate acting talent (too rare in horror) and a bold, unique directorial vision of what would otherwise be a well-worn premise.
1. City of God
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City of God is a different kind of war movie. Like The Hurt Locker and The Raid, this film uses handheld digital footage to try to simulate, in some small way, the upsetting chaos of human violence. But one step further is taken towards realism, the use of real favelados in the cast, children who grow up surrounded by the kind of tragedy and grime that are merely simulated for us on the screen. As a result, the artifice that found footage techniques attempt to peel away is scraped even thinner, down to the skin.
This time the purpose is not to thrill (or not just to thrill), but to attempt to make the reality of this sort of life undeniable, un-shrug-off-able. No “it’s just a movie” seems possible, for although it is clearly a story being told in the form of fiction cinema, there is somehow more “reality” on the screen, more verisimilitudinous underpinnings, which serve to drive home the point that the world is (among other things) incredibly huge and complex, and corners of it exist that you never think about but in which the grandest dramas imaginable have been playing out for hundreds of years.
If we’re being honest, the relationship between found footage and films like City of God is not so much that of influence but rather as co-symptoms of a zeitgeisty artistic imperative to tell stories that make a big point about intentionally throwing off the traditional devices of the medium and instead embracing that of the new accidental art form of unprofessional video recording. As a culture we had achieved a certain self-awareness about our need (for good or bad) to experience our own lives through a viewfinder. The experience of seeing the world that way opens up new possibilities of how to tell stories.