February 17, 2012

What Can Aspiring Filmmakers Learn from the 'Found Footage' Trend?

With Chronicle recently topping its opening weekend, the debut of The River on ABC, and various found footage concepts in development, it's no surprise many folks are asking - what's behind the popularity of found footage?  So I was particularly interested to read what screenwriter John Swetnam, who sold two found footage (FF) spec scripts in 2011, had to say on the question - while pondering the larger lessons that could be drawn from it.

First, if you're not already familiar with the film, here's the Chronicle trailer for reference:

Swetnam admits part of the reason the genre's popular in Hollywood is because the financials make sense:

JS:  I think studios and financiers would be stupid not to want a part of the FF business. It’s about risk/reward and with FF right now, there’s just a lot of upside. If I was using my own money, would I make one $10 million indie-dramedy or ten $1 million dollar FF horror films? I like money. I want more of it. So I go with option number two, and that’s the way studios think… and to be honest, can you blame them?"

Of course, the reward part of that equation comes from audiences actually going out to see the movies and liking them.  Swetnam attributes their appeal, in part, to the immersiveness of the genre:

JS:  You get to experience those scares in a more visceral and direct way. I used to love those choose your own adventure books, and FF has that sort of feeling at its core. It’s like 3D in that it’s another way to get the audience closer to your story; to immerse them in the world you’ve created.

Ultimately though, as with all movies -

JS: It always comes back to the story/concept and characters. I mean, any kid in the country can make a FF movie and that’s a good thing. But just because the technology allows anyone to make a movie doesn’t mean that the percentage of good movies will go up. Cause at the end of the day, whether or not it’s FF, if it sucks, it sucks. A handheld camera can’t hide suck.

Well put.

Now, these qualities - low budget, story immersiveness, strong concept/story - aren't exclusive to the found footage genre, but because of the genre's mechanics they work well in tandem within FF stories.  Can these qualities be translated to non-FF stories?  I think so, but with certain caveats.  Let's use the hypothetical indie-dramedy mentioned by Swetnam as an example, and assume we were trying to shoot a non-FF version of it (although I'd certainly find it interesting to watch a FF indie-dramedy).

Low Budget

The audience will often excuse the "rough" image and modest production value of a FF movie if it's an inherent part of the story, lending the footage an "authenticity" that allows the viewer to suspend disbelief.  This might be tough to pull off in a non-FF indie dramedy, but there are other ways a lot of FF movies keep their budgets down.  For example:

  • Keep your cast small - just look at Blair Witch's cast, it's a grand total of 10, including the minor characters.  Paranormal Activity shaved that number down to 8.  Small casts are not only cheaper, but they tend to make logistics easier over the long run - you're more likely to get two lead actors to commit to months worth of weekend shoots than six.
  • Minimal locations - ideally one.  It might be as small as an apartment, or as big as a forest, it's about the access you have to the location and how easy it is for you set up shop and shoot.
  • Own the grunge - Who knows, perhaps the low budget grunge could be used to your advantage.  Make it an inherent stylistic choice for the story being told, make it part of the film's overall aesthetic/theme/story just as it is for FF films - for example, think of how Dogme 95 turned what are common budgetary constraints into artistic statements.

Story Immersion

The immersive quality of FF movies is built into the concept - the cameraperson/P.O.V isn't trying to be invisible, but instead is a character within the story, often interacting and reacting to what's going on.  With our non-FF indie dramedy, I'd take a page from transmedia projects and start emphasizing all the different narrative strings that lead in and out of the movie.  Maybe it's original poetry written by the film's characters, or music by the character's band -- start building up every compelling aspect of the story world so that when audiences step into your movie, or step out of it, they can feel they are a part of a larger experience.

High Concept

Finally, most FF movies that have seen success (Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield) have been high concept - you only need to see a few seconds of the trailer to immediately understand the concept and its appeal (which also keeps the budget down since the concept helps sell the movie, sidestepping the need for expensive name actors).  In terms of our indie dramedy, I think this one is the toughest, and it's where "genre" films get a big leg up.

One approach may be to think of how found footage concepts play on that "would you watch this on YouTube?" question - they have an irresistible "click on me, you know you're curious" quality.  You can just see the YouTube titles for these movies: "Real life witch?" "Is there a demon in my house?" "Does this kid have telekinetic powers?".  Can you think of a YouTube video title that would make you want to click on a dramedy moment?  To me the first thing that comes to mind is that sub-genre of YouTube videos where some earnest would-be groom makes the big marriage proposal at a large public venue (sports arena, stadium, mall food court) and proposes to some girl - only to get shot down.  It's simultaneously touching, horrible, and hilarious, and I click on them every time.  Can you think of others?

These qualities aren't a surefire recipe for success or popularity, but taking them into account will surely help improve any story idea you're knocking around.

What other lessons/thoughts come to mind for you?  Let us know in the comments!

Link Screenrant Interview with John Swetnam

[via Go Into the Story]

Your Comment

22 Comments

I'm personally very fond of the genre - like you say, it's incredibly immersive and works brilliantly on almost any scale - from films like Cloverfield right down to very low budget horrors like Grave Encounters. One of the more impressive and recent ones was Apollo 18, which was utterly brilliant. I'm very interested to see what happens with the genre and see where it ends up - I'd love to see a found footage music video for example.

February 17, 2012 at 12:44PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Theres lots of REAL found footage music videos, Timber by hexstatic is great, uses the sounds found in the footage to create the song too (and there's a chain saw solo) Ratatat's "Drugs" is also a great more recent example. But a Fake found footage music video would be something to see for sure.

February 17, 2012 at 1:40PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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MRH

Cheers for the heads up! And yeah, it was a scripted found footage video I was getting at - could be pretty interesting I think.

February 17, 2012 at 3:36PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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With the ridiculous of the the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY franchise, I think a lot has to do with voyeurism. You are watching and being able to take part with the characters. When a character looks around a corner, you see from the perspective. It's very jarring and intimate. Something that's very difficult for a film maker to pull off with wide angles. The found footage approach is so personal that when something is scary, it's terrifying and when something is funny it has the possibility of being hilarious.

Problem is, right now the technique is being overdone with moronic scripts. The Last Exorcism? Project X?(have not seen it, only judging from the trailers), Paranormal activity 3? These movies need help. I laughed throughout the end of Paranormal activity 3.
Personally, I would make something fast with that technique while people are still willing to watch them. Hollywood is going to wear people out soon.
It can be easy to make your audience laugh at your dramatic work though, due to being in the characters shoes. If your character thinks in an unrealistic way, the audience can be taken out.
Give your audience a surreal environment but with realistic characters!

February 17, 2012 at 1:19PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Julian

my take is that the "found footage" genre is overdone, and quite frankly never interested me, being that it is marketed towards the younger crowd. case in point, when "blair witch project" first came on to the scene, i went to check it out out of curiosity. the 16-21 crowd was in full force that day. the movie itself was clever to some degree but yet a bit not appealing to me.

February 17, 2012 at 2:25PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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PsTak

While I think it's time Hollywood moved on from this genre, I agree that if done well it could be a great catch for indie folks. Whether it's found footage, comedy, sketch, drama, or action, it always starts with compelling characters. And sadly, that's what I find is lacking from most projects I see online.

On a similar note, if you haven't seen Matt Stone and Trey Parker discuss writing for two minutes, do yourself a favor: http://ccinsider.comedycentral.com/2011/09/08/matt-stone-and-trey-parker...

February 17, 2012 at 2:57PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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What bothers me the most in Chronicle is exactly the camera POV concept. I thought it was very well planed and done, it makes a very appealing trailer and that's it. I was actually hoping only the first few minutes of the movie were going to use this technique, but painfully that was not the truth. I don't know why that is, but perhaps our brains expects to see a crappy image when it comes to Found Footage, not a beautifully deteriorated footage using the fanciest plugins in post. And although the argument for the camera to be there was nice, it was more of a brain exercise, it didn't feel right for me. I don't know, I liked the flick, but I still think it would be a much better experience if I didn't need to be reminded all the time that there was a camera there. The success of Chronicle is more about it's theme (the underdog boy who get's Tetsuo's powers... I've seen that theme before in some japanese animation but I can't remember the name) and some nice action sequences other than any FF BS. LOL

February 17, 2012 at 3:08PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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mauborba

Akira, and yea trailer looks good i wish it wasnt FF though

February 17, 2012 at 3:31PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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carlos

truth be told. I'm fine with FF filmes. as long as it seems like FF. When the FF is shot on an Alexa my brain is taken out of the FF theme and it just feels like a crappy cameraman.

February 17, 2012 at 3:57PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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seth.iamfilms

YEAH LETS BASE OUR ENTIRE ARTISTIC IDENTITIES OFF OF CURRENT PSEUDO-EDGY HOLLYWOOD TRENDS

February 17, 2012 at 5:28PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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John Jeffreys

Oh, shut up.

February 17, 2012 at 7:59PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Mandrake

Carlos, I was being sarcastic about Akira. LOL

February 17, 2012 at 11:13PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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mauborba

I'd rather sit through a great story filmed in Hi8 than a hollow 100 mil blockbuster filmed in 5K (Don't get me wrong, 5K is indeed splendid for many reasons) so I'd argue that FF is not the question but rather 'is this an interesting story'? Story, story, story.

When chasing Hollywood though, dollars are a major focus i:e : show + business. Reality of the game.

Do agree with the comment Seth mentioned about regarding FF vs cameras, always had a thing for VHS and the birthday video look to drive a story in the FF genre. Besides, would it be the same if McFly filmed Twin Pines Mall in RAW?

February 17, 2012 at 8:24PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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the movie was poor american's version of Akira. it was done before, back in the 80;s. the only novelty is the FF, which itself is not even novel by todays standards, i guess the integration of Akira's story and FF is somewhat novel, still, not gonna pay to watch this :)

February 18, 2012 at 12:32AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Harry

These things are marketing stunts and have little to do with movies. Cloverfield is the pinnacle of this trash and it does not hold up to a second viewing. There is no getting around that this is a very cheap way to get money from dopes who see this trash. To me, it is kind of setting the bar low.

February 18, 2012 at 1:53PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Jake Jabbs

Cloverfield held up for me. Really enjoyed it second time.

February 18, 2012 at 3:14PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Will Gilbey

The best example of a "found footage" style YouTube series has to be lonlygirl15. It started out like normal video blog and spiraled into an actual narritive. The big appeal with that one was that no one knew if the show was real or not. I think it lost funding and stopped being produced but it was a good example of an early YouTube channel that generated income thru followship. Though teen girl in audience it could provide a great model for this type of project.

February 19, 2012 at 12:09PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Darrell

make that lonelygirl15, god bless my typing skills.

February 19, 2012 at 12:10PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Darrell

It's kinda funny there aren't more people making creepy stalker flicks with the FF style

February 19, 2012 at 6:03PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Grant

I've always thought the FF device was garishly flawed. Here is the question that tears all of these movies down: Why is this person taping everything? Are they psychotic? If so, how can I empathize with this person? Normal people don't behave that way. This is the problem writers have to deal with and often they have to force a hokey "deep need" to tape everything as part of their character. Too much time is spent "making excuses" for this abnormal behavior. It comes off as a cheap workaround, and I'm constantly reminded that I'm watching a movie. Story immersion? Really? I have to argue for the opposite.
I saw Chronicle and thought the story was great, but the FF device got in the way most of the time. There's a ridiculous scene where the main character visits the "love interest" character. She just happens to have her camera setup on a tripod taping her front door with a mirror positioned perfectly so we can see her reflection in it. Gimme a break, man. lol
The only movie I've seen that actually pulled it off was REC. The person taping is a professional Videographer. It's his job to document the event even when things get crazy. It just works. Bravo, makers of REC.

February 19, 2012 at 10:03PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Mike

Good article, too bad it just barely scratches the surface of FF movies (mocumentaries). FF offers a ton of upside and very little downside, especially with Internet downloads so common these days and the availability of You Tube to market it. The keys are, a FF movie has to believable to some degree (which Appolo 18 wasn't), and they have to have just enough professionalism (writing, cast, crew, etc...) to make it watchable (which Appolo 18 didn't) but not too much so it looks staged. This concept places more emphasis on crew than on cast, which is a good thing. I studied this concept in-depth for about 9 months before writing a script and putting together a crew and cast for a FF horror movie to be shot this spring. The FF concept keeps the budget small (mine is $25,000 for production and post production) for a 90-minute feature. Remember though, in the end, post production and marketing for FF movies will probably cost more than production. My biggest concern is that everyone is doing it now (including me) so the entire genre is being watered down. One thing though, I'd like to see FF movies other than horror genre movies. Perhaps that'll be my next project.

February 21, 2012 at 3:47PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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W

I'd say the best answer to the FF trend is to avoid the FF trend.

Very difficult to not repeat all the other FF movies out there. There's just something about the medium that is so a-typical that they've become quite "typical" if not downright cheesy that you really got to be brilliant to avoid it. It's the nature of the trend I guess.

February 21, 2012 at 7:47PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Dan