What is found footage?

A quick guide to found footage: what it is, where it came from, and which movies to see (and which to avoid)

One primary takeaway from The Blair Witch Project, the found-footage horror film that started it all, was the revelation that under the right circumstances, something as simple and resolutely mundane as a pile of rocks—or a bunch of twigs knotted together—could terrify an audience. And without costing a penny. The conceit has since become to the ’00s and ’10s what slasher movies were to the ’80s.

Scott Tobias, reviewing V/H/S for The AV Club, 4 October 2012

Long, long ago, in the dark, pre-Internet days of 1993, when phones were things that were wired into the wall of your house and you needed an actual, honest-to-God video camera if you wanted to capture a moment for posterity, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez were two film students with a crazy dream. Horror movie aficionados who’d begun to realise that the purest scares were now found in documentaries, they wanted to try something a little bit different. A new approach to filmmaking. 

And, of course, they had basically zero money. That rarely hurts when you’re in the process of creating a revolution in cinema. (See also: film noir, the Nouvelle Vague, Italian Neo-Realism, and so on.)

The 35-page script they came up with was virtually dialogue-free. The casting call sought actors with strong skills in improvisation. $35,000 and six uncomfortable weeks in the Maryland woods later, film history was made. But nobody knew that yet.

A new kind of truth

I think filmmakers have come to the point where you can’t just show the shark or the alien because people have seen them already.

Eduardo Sanchez, speaking to The AV Club, 7 July 1999

Found footage is “a cinematic technique in which all or a substantial part of the work is presented as if it were discovered film or video recordings” – effectively a form of narrative film that co-opts the conventions of home filmmaking and cinema verite to reinforce the “truth claims”* on which the foundations of narrative cinema spectatorship rest. 

It didn’t used to mean that. David Bordwell is not happy about the appropriation of the term, either – he’d like us to call it “discovered footage” instead. Back before The Blair Witch Project exploded onto cinema screens and turned its modest budget into (by 2013) $249,000,000 at the box office, “found footage” referred to documentary-type movies assembled entirely from pre-existing film clips – like, for example, The Atomic Cafe, which we’ve covered in our podcast.

Whether or not you agree with Bordwell’s protestations (and, to be honest, he has a point), the term “found footage” today means a Blair Witch-esque effort to (usually) scare the pants off viewers by evoking the conventions of “this actually happened” during the cinematic experience. It didn’t start with The Blair Witch Project, though. To trace its origins, we have to go much further back than that.

The birth of a genre

Back, in fact, to the 15th century, with the publication of the first epistolary novel, Prison of Love, by the Castillian writer Diego de San Pedro. An epistolary novel uses textual artefacts – usually letters, but also diary entries and newspaper clippings – to develop its narrative, with the implication being – like found footage – that these are “real” documents that have been collated into book format in the service of cataloguing a series of events. Dracula is a famous example. World War Z (the novel, not the film – although wouldn’t that have been quite something?) is another.

In the epistolary novel, as in found footage, the storytelling device implies that events have not been “filtered” by the hand of any omniscient author. No narrative spin has been introduced, it insists: this is the “truth” as related by the hands of those involved in shaping the proceedings, not sanitised or narrativised for popular consumption. Of course, it’s none of those things. Found footage isn’t either. And the audience’s level of enjoyment will depend on how willing they are to enter into the conceit.

The first found footage film, in the sense that the term has come to mean (sorry, David Bordwell), is widely agreed to be Italian director Ruggero Deodato’s 1980 gorefest Cannibal Holocaust, a film so graphically sexual and violent that it earned Deodato a conviction for obscenity and ended up banned in several countries. It (broadly) concerns the retrieved footage of an American film crew who’ve disappeared in the Amazon rainforest while shooting a documentary on local tribes, and explores questions of the exploitation of indiginous culture for shock value – while, arguably, exploiting indiginous culture for shock value. Shot for a modest $100,000, the movie grossed $2 million before it was unceremoniously yanked from distribution by the Italian government. 

This will, of course, be ringing a few bells with anyone who knows anything about The Blair Witch Project. Minus the obscenity conviction and widespread censorship, of course.

Whether deliberately or not**, Cannibal Holocaust evokes, for its “truth claims” the conventions of the snuff film, thereby coopting the deep, visceral horror that genre connotes. That Deodato had actually had his cast offed on camera was further propounded by the fact that he’d had them all sign contracts prohibiting them from making any kind of public appearance connected to the movie for a year after its release. Their conspicuous absence from promotional junkets didn’t exactly dispel rumours of their demise, obliging Deodato to evidence, in court, that all of the actors were still alive when the cameras had finished rolling.

However, since they were all very much not murdered – and, given the film’s enormous financial success (Deodato has since claimed in interviews that global box office exceeds $200 million) – that contractual stipulation begins to look… well, visionary. Gore was not exactly hard to find in 1970s and 1980s cinema. It was, if not cheap, at least not difficult to come by. What set this gore apart was the movie’s insistence, through camera technique, assimilation of genre convention (documentary, cinema verite, snuff film, etc), and promotional strategy, that one accept this narrative fiction as potential narrative fact. 

We’re used to seeing someone get their leg chopped off in horror, action or other SFX-heavy films, and the fact that we’ve learned how to compartmentalise what we’re seeing into safely “not-real” while watching turns it into non-threatening spectacle. On the other hand, our cinematic education has also invested us with the understanding that documentary is the “real” counterpart to that fictional spectacle: we’re conditioned to read film that co-opts the convention of documentary as “fact.”

So seeing someone get their leg chopped off in a film that’s using everything in its power to advance its position as documentary is a whole other kettle of fish. And Deodato’s commitment to upholding that positioning, up to and including the removal of his supposedly dead cast from promotional activity that would cause the positioning to break down in the audience’s mind, would set the scene for a new way of performing horror.

It would take 20 years to get there, but widespread national prohibitions on the cinematic release of the first of its kind will do that to a genre.

Found footage or mockumentary?

The practice of blurring the lines between documentary and fiction wasn’t silent during the hiatus between Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch, of course. Any Spinal Tap fan could tell you that. But mockumentary is not found fiction (neither is it docufiction, for that matter, but that’s another story). 

While it’s certainly true that some mockumentary films employ elements of found footage in their storytelling format (Europa Report is one such glorious example, blending footage “recovered” from the Europa One mission with framing documentary-style exposition delivered to camera by other cast members), the mockumentary – or pseudo-documentary – is a slightly different beast. 

Both genres deploy extravagant truth claims in their appropriation of genre conventions associated with cinematic “truth” (yes, absolutely, don’t get us started on all the ways that documentaries play fast and loose with objective reality in the pursuit of an overarching narrative message, but bear with us here for the moment as we vastly oversimplify for the purposes of argument). But mockumentary allows for the shaping of the narrative arc by an authorial hand: the camera is deliberate and overtly acknowledged as a participant in the storytelling process. Here, says the mockumentary, is a story that is true (okay, “true”) that the director has lovingly sculpted for you out of eye-witness accounts, scraps of footage recorded contemporaneously, and other bits and pieces of documentary “evidence” that you’ve been primed, by over a century of evolving film literacy, to accept as an objective representation of things that actually happened. This is a curated and narrativised account of factual things. (Wink wink, etc.)

Found footage, by contrast, represents itself as something much more akin to old S-VHS video footage of kids playing in the back garden on a sunny summer’s day or newsreel footage of events as they unfold. A collection of moving images, essentially, that represents an unedited, unscripted, unadulterated visual record of events as they unfold. There’s no movement along a narrative arc, no omniscient author, no post-hoc re-sorting of events for clarity – there’s only the story as it happens, and the people it’s happening to. This is uncurated. It’s real life. (Yes, okay, “real life.”) There’s no wink wink here. The artifice, the construction, is almost entirely buried in the film form.
It’s also super cheap to make, if you need it to be. That, of course, is the primary reason behind its sudden resurgence in 1999. Cannibal Holocaust got its director indicted. The Blair Witch project accidentally turned a profit of 7,000 times its initial investment. It kind of doesn’t matter what Myrick and Sanchez had in mind when they set out to revitalise a genre they loved – what matters is what came next after their efforts turned out to be astonishingly profitable.

We do not speak of Apollo 18

Although the Blair Witch sequel was a success financially, it failed to recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle quality that helped propel the first film to such unbelievable fiscal returns, putting an end to the Blair Witch franchise (as of June 2012) and seriously stifled the mainstream movie goer’s faith in the longevity of the found footage genre.

Rory Walsh, Visual Trends: A History of the Found Footage Genre, for www.videomaker.com, 26 June 2012

Ah, hindsight. Ten years on from Rory Walsh’s comprehensive historiography of an already-tired genre, not only is the Blair Witch franchise still going strong (Lionsgate announced in April of this year that another instalment is in the works), but found footage itself continues to defy repeated claims that it has drained the well.

The move out from indie to mainstream has, predictably, had mixed results. Film studios like nothing better than a cash cow, after all, and Hollywood has long held that the more money you throw at something, the more people are going to want to see it (see also: early to mid-1960s toga epics. But, no, really do see them. They’re great. They almost bankrupted their studios – actually did bankrupt a producer, in the case of The Fall of the Roman Empire – but they’re a fantastic example of how chucking a bunch of money at the screen leads to pretty pictures but can’t necessarily reverse a trend towards diminishing returns at the box office when after the audience has moved on). By 2008’s (phenomenal – fight us) Cloverfield, a “modest budget” for found footage had come to mean $25 million, and the special effects were rather more sophisticated than a couple of guys running around the woods at night wearing hoodies.

Since then, the trend has expanded ever outwards to span genres and language barriers. [.REC] (2007) is a Spanish-language found-footage/horror movie that made an estimated $32 million box office return on a $2 million budget. That it spawned a franchise-worth of sequels was, to be honest, completely predictable after that. Trollhunter (2010) took the genre to Norway to go looking for fairytale monsters in the frozen north. Project X (2012) is very firmly of the Anglophone Hollywood mainstream, but instead of playing its verite credentials for scares, it’s aiming for laughs as three American teens strike hard for popularity with a house party that rapidly spirals out of control.

Not all of these efforts have been successful. In fact, quite predictably, many have fallen foul of the big studios’ rampant enthusiasm for The Next Big Thing, particularly when that Big Thing is going to cost them buttons and make them great big piles of money in return.

On the other hand, the genre, despite the repeated sounding of its death knell in critical circles, continues to produce filmic gems. The Devil’s Doorway (2018) goes back to the roots of found footage, shooting over a lean 16 days on a shoestring budget, and takes seriously the need to narratively motivate the camera’s presence***. Two priests are called to investigate a bleeding statue at one of Ireland’s infamous Magdalene Laundries; one of them, believing he’s about to witness a miracle, decides to document the inquiry with his 16mm home video camera. Shenanigans ensue.

Producers never want to hear that you intend to shoot on film, but I was able to talk them into it. It allowed us to make something more like a Maysles Brothers documentary than Paranormal Activity or Grave Encounters. Those documentaries were an important reference for me. Also, because I wanted to make a proper Gothic horror film, full of dark corners, hidden secrets, and phantasmagorical turns, found footage was a sort of way to replicate the 19th Century epistolary sensational novels, like “Maria Monk: The Hidden Secrets of a Nun’s Life.”

Aislinn Clarke talking to Michele “Izzy” Galgana about The Devil’s Doorway for www.screenanarchy.com, 10 July 2018

Compare and contrast with (whisper it…) Apollo 18, which had a $5 million budget – hardly princely, but not exactly guerilla filmmaking either – and a massive viral campaign behind it which included the nudge-nudge-wink-wink proclamation from Dimension Films’ Bob Weinstein that “We didn’t shoot anything; we found it. Found, baby!” This prompted a rant from Meredith Woerner that runs, in part, as follows:

We’re not saying “found footage” marketing that plays with the “Is it real?” question is all bad. In 1999, we all saw the heights that fakery could take a film to, with The Blair Witch. It may not have been the first, but it was certainly the most successful —Blair Witch totaled about $248 million worldwide. And it was fun. I remember quite clearly overhearing audience members vigilantly defend Blair Witch’s authenticity at a first screening. Sure they were being duped, but at least the lie was plausible. I could easily be convinced that a crazy person murdered three kids on a camping trip. But you will never convince me that the tapes from a lost lunar mission were discovered by Dimension Films. Never.

Meredith Woerner, “Are Audiences Sick of Being Lied To?” for www.gizmodo.com, 4 March 2011

Rumours of my death, etc

So, where does the line lie? At what point does a movie (or franchise) cross from “justifiable use of a now-hackneyed technique” into “cynical cash-grab”? The key difference between Apollo 18 and other more successful found footage movies, we would argue, is – not to get too metaphysical – one of intent. 

At the risk of making sweeping pronouncements that we can’t possibly defend, the genre seems to work best when there’s no – ahem – screaming desperation behind it, and it flows naturally out of the story it’s trying to tell. Paranormal Activity (2007) succeeds because there’s a narrative reason for the presence of the ever-recording camera beyond “we need one there otherwise we can’t do found footage.” By Paranormal Activity 4 (2012), the rationale was much more along the lines of “we need another Paranormal Activity movie because the last ones made us a bunch of cash.” (Rest assured that Paranormal Activity 4 still made a bunch of cash. It’s just that the premise had been exhausted by this point in the franchise and the narrative was showing the strain.)

Following the success of The Blair Witch Project, there was no realistic chance that audiences were going to seriously believe that found footage films are “real” in the sense that they’re not every bit as constructed as a standard narrative movie. That ship has sailed (though it was a bloody good marketing campaign). Now, the pleasure in watching lies, arguably, in the very essence of being tricked: of the audience being able to switch their viewer-brain from “horror movie” to “might be real – look at the camera wobble” and enjoy found footage on its own terms. Like the late 19th-century Parisian audience running screaming from L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (and yes, we know that didn’t actually happen, thanks – it’s a metaphor; bear with us), our modern, sophisticated film literacy skills now preclude that earlier reception, but as long as we don’t peek behind the curtain, we don’t have to know know that the Wizard of Oz is just a little guy with a big lever.

Bob Weinstein made us peek behind the curtain, is what we’re saying. Also, Apollo 18 is really bad.

But in this uncertain world of hits and misses, marketing stunts and sleights of hand, one thing’s for certain: found footage has its foot well under the table now, and we reckon it’s here to stay.

* Defined as “protestations of veracity amid free invention” in “Truth Claims in Fiction Film: Introduction” by Ruth J Owen and Tilman Altenberg (2011) New Readings 11: i–iv. In other words, it’s the effort that narrative cinema puts into making you forget that what you’re seeing is fiction, to deepen the immersive experience of engaging with the film test.

** Arguably not, since Deodato found himself facing a charge of murder when a French magazine alleged that he had made an actual snuff film, in which actors had genuinely been murdered for purposes of filmic entertainment. Part of his defence in court relied upon his evidenced protestations that all actors were alive and well at the conclusion of filming. On the other hand, bearing in mind the near legendary status that the controversy has bestowed upon the film, one could argue that connotative linkage hasn’t done Cannibal Holocaust any harm…

*** Clarke talks to CinePunked’s Robert and Ben about her motivations and experience of making The Devil’s Doorway in a segment for The Found Footage Phenomenon (2021)

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