What is Found Footage Cinema?

Found footage cinema is a filmmaking technique that mimics a documentary-style approach, or cinéma vérité. True to its name, the content is presented as if the footage were a recording of something that happened in the past and found by someone else. Usually, in this category of film, the characters operate or appear to operate the camera(s) themselves. 

The movie ultimately comes together to give off the feel of a home video, news coverage, or some other very believable real-life format. Found footage movies have viewers so immersed in the storytelling because they don’t feel like fiction. Rather like a very real past event.

Common elements of found footage cinema

  • Unknown actors
  • Shaky footage
  • Rules of cinematography (i.e. 180 degree) often broken
  • Horror genre

To add to the realism when making found footage movies, the directors often go for unknown actors who wouldn’t be instantly identifiable hence shattering the illusion of the film. Found footage movies are made to look like home videos. 

Hence the cinematography often appears shaky and unbalanced, as we would expect of an amateur tape. The camerawork may be in the form of surveillance footage or take a first-person perspective. Characters rarely observe cinematography rules. 

The 180 degree and the rule of thirds are regularly broken. Real-time, off-camera commentary also features a lot. What’s more, these types of films are famous for their long takes and disjoint jump cuts. They don’t follow the typical plot map of filmmaking and the endings can feel abrupt.

Found footage cinema is popularly associated with the horror genre, which understandably benefits hugely from the authentic realism that magnifies the fear. 

However, they aren’t exclusive to the category. We’ve rounded up a couple of excellent found footage movies across three genres for a deeper look at what they’re all about.

Some of these films have become cult horror classics.

The Blair Witch Project

The Blair Witch Project did such a good job of entwining reality with fiction that a fraction of audiences at the time believe it to be a true story. In fact, some fans event sent condolences to the actors’ families. 

Sorry to burst bubbles, but the horror film is actually a fictional found footage movie. But how did they manage to pull off such a personal angle and pull one over on the entire world?

How Blair Witch made found footage work

We’ll have to start at the beginning before even the movie came out. Some of the actors were listed as deceased or missing during the film’s promotion. The documentary-style exposition in the introduction sets the stage for the movie. 

It describes how three student filmmakers disappeared while shooting a documentary in Burkittsville, Maryland hence creating the false springboard of truth that propels the eerie plot. The campaigners also added fuel to the fire of the lore of the Blair Witch by creating it. 

Directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick established the legend in the pitch video, mixing actual history with a touch of supernatural paranoia. The film’s website, full of fake missing person posters and newspaper, also fanned the myth and set precedence for the movie.

The handheld cinematography gives The Blair Witch Project the feeling of a true-tory documentary. Dialogue feels authentically improvised and natural as opposed to being scripted for a movie. What’s more, the three protagonists maintained their actual names hence enchancing the illusion. 

Project X

This 2012 teen comedy goes to show the power of found footage beyond the horror genre. Project X was actually a placeholder title, but it stuck after massive campaign efforts made popular its initial naming. The movie’s theme encompasses three teens as they purposely throw the biggest party anyone has ever seen. 

Fresh faces were sort for the movie’s roles, drawn from a nationwide casting call. The film offers a first-person account from a party attendee who takes the audience through the happenings of the night with a handheld camera.

Reality TV made into a movie

Project X sets the premise for the reality show-like plot at the beginning as Warner Bros “apologizes” to North Pasadena police and residents for the disturbances. Also, we get a glimpse of the camera guy in the mirror as he shoots on his phone when he and a friend surprise a third character in the shower. 

And we regularly see the people behind the lens throughout hence explaining the unbalanced videography and constant violation of basic cinematography rules. That is done strategically to capture the chaos and insane fun of the out-of-control party.

As a found footage success, Project X’s best quality is its air of unpredictability. It’s unclear what will happen next, as what the audience sees hinges upon the personality of each camera-bearing character. Project X was actually inspired by a party thrown by 16-year-old Corey Delaney in 2008 when his parents were away on holiday. It went viral globally as more than 500 people attended after the host had posted the address online. 

District 9

District 9 is a 2009 science fiction that offers a unique take on Alien movies. Often the antagonists in the genre, the aliens in the film are surprisingly the subjects of oppression in the film. The malnourished creatures are bullied by humanity and forced to leave in pathetic conditions on earth. 

The home video-like videography and shaky camerawork for a great deal of the scenes give the found footage movie its realistic edge. Some of the plot is served up from the view of surveillance cameras and news footage that could easily pass off as authentic.

Found footage works for sci fi

Shot in South Africa, there are parallels between the movie’s central theme and the country’s dark apartheid history. Aliens are discriminated against by a race that deems itself superior, and the story sounds all too familiar. The movie is an emotional metaphor that uses the found footage angle to tell a powerful story with audiences put in the shoes of the oppressors and victims from time to time. This approach to filmmaking amplifies the suffering of the aliens, adding to District 9’s immersive lure as an obviously fictional, but very believable, world.

District 9 doesn’t feel like your everyday sci-fi rather like a brutal social commentary flick that illustrates what’s wrong with our society. There are no Marvel-like battles decimating skyscrapers or Micheal Bay-inspired explosions. 

That is done purposefully to maintain the illusion of reality, already stretched by the strange-looking extraterrestrials. The movie is interlaced with fictional interviews to further cement its documentary aura.

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