One of my favorite “genres” of filmmaking, Found Footage Films are proving very successful at the box office. Unfortunately I’m finding that with this success, producers are starting to stray from what made this narrative style popular in the first place. With Paranormal Activity 4 in theaters this weekend, I wanted to take apart this convention to see why it is I’ve come to enjoy it so much.
At its core, a FFF is about immediacy and relationship. As with first person perspective video games, there is no way to get closer to a protagonist then to be inside that character’s head. With FFFs, being inside the camera they use is the next closest proximity. Thanks to this proximity FFFs have one distinct narrative advantage over traditional cinema storytelling, namely, the audience never receives more information than the protagonist. In the worlds of horror and thriller film, disseminating information to the audience is a delicate affair. Provide too much, and the audience will get bored or annoyed waiting for the on screen characters to catch up. Provide too little and revelations will seem artificial or overly convenient. It’s a very thin line producers walk to insure as many audience members as possible are engaged with the product. FFFs avoid this potential obstacle simply by removing it. The story progresses at the speed of the protagonist’s ability to navigate the story. The audience and the protagonist are essentially one as far as the narrative is concerned.
That narrative advantage comes with a serious drawback however, exposition is fantastically difficult to deliver. All manner of tricks have been attempted, perhaps most creative was Cloverfield’s use of digital video “flashbacks” to help explain character relationships. Ultimately, our most successful FFFs tend to rely on very slow openings to properly introduce all of the characters to the audience. It’s become a staple of this genre that the beginning of a FFF has to be boring as hell to lull the audience in. It’s in maintaining this singular perspective that a FFF can later deliver on a visceral climax to the story.
The production concerns which surround this style can be formidable. We have access to none of the traditional cinema “tricks” to get us out of jams. Cutaways must be strategic. It’s supremely difficult to edit around and within takes. We often can’t get a sense of what the character behind the camera is experiencing outside of his or her movement of the camera. We lose a lot of the character information audiences rely on to help inform the narrative. As such, the bubble of suspending disbelief for FFFs is much finer than traditional narrative. It takes a lot less to distract an audience in a FFF than in a more traditional narrative film.
Constant tension must be applied once the action starts to rise. It’s the primary (and in my opinion, the only) tool at the filmmaker’s disposal to distract the audience from the fact that they are watching a piece of fiction, a piece of fiction which is working far harder than traditional narrative to convince its audience of “authenticity”. Throughout the entire endeavor the audience is constantly questioning what’s on the screen. Why is the character showing us this? Why are they still using the camera? What are we documenting, and why is it important?
My issues surrounding more modern FFFs tend to be in how savvier editing and camera techniques have followed larger budgets. This trend, this desire to “raise the stakes” is working against the charm and authenticity of the style. Multiple camera angles need to carefully explained. The general conceit of headset cameras or stationary security cameras is a fine explanation, but it doesn’t provide much to the story which couldn’t be accomplished through a single camera setup. In fact adding cameras all too often serves to distract from the goal of creating and building tension. It allows or an “escape” a way to look away from the scary thing. Why would we EVER cut away from the freaky occurrences happening? This “blow off valve” approach to tension is counter-intuitive. It helps pad the movie out, delivering more narrative, but it hasn’t helped make any of the later reveals any more intense. If anything it serves to inform the audience “We filmmakers only have a couple really good set pieces to scare you with”. That these moments are so precious, the audience has to properly primed for them. Unfortunately, the audience has had too many opportunities to let the pressure off, so you’ve lost the spectator frenzy which comes with the most successful of FFFs.
This often has little to do with total running time, but with internal pacing. We’ve come to expect that a good FFF should be short, slow to start, but quickly accelerating to a brutal climax with almost zero epilogue or denouement. This formula works. Once action is rising, taking extended time for character development or exposition can be destructive to the goal of ratcheting the stress our characters are under.
Other elements start to distract with the addition of budget. Characters start performing more like actors and less like people. Watching extended dialogue sequences, characters making eye contact with the camera are distracting. We’ve started to ignore that the camera is a tool of the protagonist. These tools cause normal people to behave differently than they would were they not being “observed” by an electronic eye. Try it the next time you’re out with friends. Start a conversation about personal private things, then hold up your cell phone. See if that conversation continues.
We’re now augmenting the world of FFFs with things like web video chat. It comes with the benefit of giving us access to our protagonists’ faces, but comes with the added baggage of disrupting realism. How is the audience watching this web chat? Who records ALL of their Skype chats for posterity? How many in the audience even know HOW to record a video call?
Lastly, a balance must be struck between the delivery of “amateur” video and well produced cinematic camera work. Films like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield had the onus of making some in the theater seasick, but this helps add to a satisfying experience when we’re asked to accept this footage as “real”. Watching a well composed tracking shot takes me out of the experience momentarily while I question how a suburban housewife accomplished such a nuanced camera move with a $300 RadioShack handheld video camera.
So what am I saying about FFFs? That we shouldn’t be trying to improve or expand them? Absolutely not. Though I would caution that any “improvement” to the genre must be weighed against the narrative we as filmmakers are trying to accomplish. That while we expand the toolset available for found footage, that expansion MUST be balanced against our assertions of realism. Maybe that’s the trick right there. Maybe it’s time for FFFs to move beyond ghost stories. In retelling the Paranormal Activity schtick four times, it would be impossible to not want to raise the stakes through technology, editing, and budget. How else do you convince the audience they’re about to witness something they’ve never seen before? You’ll have to show them something they’ve never seen before, especially if the story is something of a retread.
I think it’s time for the FFF technique to move into other genres. We’ve had a good monster movie, a great zombie film, a witch, and some good ghost stories. As much as I loathe them, what about torture porn? SAW from the perspective of the nemesis, or a serial killer like John Doe from Seven? Alien invasions from the perspective of a person on the ground? Dr. Frankenstein detailing his progress in escaping mortality?
What if we left horror entirely? We live in a world of youtube vlogging, why can’t we produce a Romeo and Juliet style tragedy constructed from the cellphone footage of our star crossed lovers? Road trip film? Natural Disasters? Kidnapping drama? Time travel?
We’ve barely scratched the surface of what this “Cinema Authenticus” has to offer our story tellers. That said, I’ll probably still be enjoying a large tub of popcorn while watching PA4. Even if it isn’t as “real” as I hoped it could be...