Warner Bros. Pictures
Pioneered as a device to enhance the stakes of horror movies, found footage filmmaking has become a genre all its own. Far more prevalent in the past decade than ever before, the specific brand of cinematography is often mined for heightened realism and utilized as a means to bring the idea of documenting into the story in question. As Steven Quale, the latest director to take on found footage for his new tornado disaster picture Into the Storm, told Hollywood.com on a visit to his set, "The found footage genre, I think, is a new genre. A lot of people are getting into it now, and there’s different types of subgenres of found footage. [It] might even be ... first person narrative now instead of found footage." Told through the eyes and digital lenses of a family of three (father Richard Armitage and sons Nathan Kress and Max Deacon), a team of meteorologists (Matt Walsh and Sarah Wayne Callies), and a pair of storm-chasing adrenaline junkies (Kyle Davis and Jon Reep), the film banks on the unique opportunities of found footage cinema to deliver its high-intensity story.
Often, it can be difficult to "rationalize" the characters' use of cameras in found footage films.
Producer Todd Garner: "The problem with YouTube — and I don’t blame these people, but it generally is a lot of this: 'Oh my gosh, there’s a tornado! Here it comes! Oh s**t, run!' And [they] usually drop the camera, and you’re like, 'Aw, I almost saw it!' It’s ... close but not right there. So we have one guy whose obsession is to get into the eye ... And then everybody else, just because it’s a movie, is able to stay in it and see what is usually happening when people are running away."
Steven Quale: "There’s lots of cameras because things have changed a lot since the introduction of, say, The Blair Witch Project and found footage. Everybody has a camera! I mean, look at half the devices. Every phone has a camera on it, every camcorder, and there are security/surveillance cameras. The world is full of cameras. So what we have here is a high school graduation. Every parent has camcorders, so now suddenly you have hundreds if not thousands of viewpoints and points of view to actually film this graduation ceremony. Plus you have the professional crew, well it’s actually students doing it that are actually supposed to capture the graduation so now you suddenly have a legitimate, rational reason for all these cameras and because of the technology and the recent events you’re able to do more of that."
Nathan Kress: "The movie is set up, at least from our perspective, as we’re doing a time capsule for the town. So in a way I’m kind of taking it upon myself to document this event that’s going to undoubtedly change the entire course of everybody’s lives in Silverton. One of the other reasons is that the storm chasers kind of recruit me to be a supplemental camera guy and he offers to pay me, which is great for young Trey. So ... for a lot of the action they were able to justify me trying to document everything that was going on."
The role of the camera in found footage filmmaking is complex, as is the actor's relationship with her or her camera.
Richard Armitage: "Each camera becomes a character. There [are] times where my son isn’t in the scene, but his camera is, and I have to talk to him as if he’s there. But it’s a camera operator. So each camera becomes a character. Some of them are surveillance cameras, so you have to know very specifically that you don’t start talk to a surveillance camera like it’s a person. So it’s very unusual. I’ve never filmed like this before. There are no formal set ups, and the lighting is obviously [made] to look like it’s not lit. There’s no such thing as a close up unless Trey or Donnie is doing a punch zoom. But I don’t know what size the shots have been. I always know what lens we’re on whether it’s mid or tight. I’ve not asked that question because I think I actually don’t want to know in this instance because I want it to kind of be captured and found rather than having any control over how the performance is. Which is why it feels like there is no performance. That’s a good thing. It’s a different kind of work; it’s sort of über-naturalism. Although, at the same time, you build your relationship with your camera operator that you can create the illusion [and find the] moment, which does involve that kind of choreography with the camera. Otherwise they’re always on the back of your head as you run away."
Warner Bros. Pictures
Due to the different perspectives and cameras at play in Into the Storm, the look and style of the film varies throughout.
Steven Quale: "What’s interesting about [Into the Storm] is we definitely want to let the audience know that these are different cameras, different people, different styles of cameras ... Our story is very unique in the sense that it’s not just one person and one camera and that’s the whole story. Our film has three different things happening simultaneously. A group of high school kids ... have their own cameras, and one happens to be the head of the audio video club. So he’s really good with the camera so that makes his stuff better than, say, the average person. Then we have just a couple of local people who aren’t quite as good with the camera and that will be a little more sort of messy type of stuff. And then we have these professional storm chasers who are making a large format theatrical movie about tornados, so they are professional filmmakers with state of the art, high-resolution cameras. So their goal is to try to film the eye of the tornado, the shot that nobody has ever seen in this amazing cinematic manner. So because we have a group of a half dozen or so professional storm chasers who are professional camera people, we have a great opportunity to make it more cinematic and engaging. So my cinematic style will be reflected in those storm chasers because that’s kind of how I’d do that portion of it if I was and I’ve had years of documentary experience having co-directed Aliens of the Deep, the IMAX 3D documentary, I know exactly what those guys make that type of film. So I applied that experience thinking how these guys would act and relate to shooting in a tornado situation."
Todd Garner: "We’re using basically every kind of camera I’ve ever seen on a movie set, from flip phones to GoPros, to these cool Nikon cameras, to REDs, to every format. So I would imagine it’s going to look different. And the way he’s shooting each piece of it ... because the storm trackers have a different way of shooting than the two dips**ts with GoPros. It’s not like Cloverfield with one camera filming the whole thing; it’s many, many, many different cameras. So all of the different characters in the movie have a different shooting style."
Nathan Kress: "I’ve been doing a show on Nickelodeon for five and a half years [iCarly] where I was the camera guy, so I was able to use quite a bit of experience to actually help me out. Some of it’s been a little bit different because there’s been times where with muscle memory... I had been doing that show, and [they] would always tell me hold the camera lower because we don’t want to block your face when you’re on camera. With this, they realized that doesn’t look real, so I’ve had to relearn. Rather than holding it in places so that my face is above or below the camera, it has to be right there if I was actually shooting it. So it has helped and in some ways, [and] it has actually hindered because I’d been doing it for so long and was so in the groove of doing it a certain way."
Of course, there are dangers to the found footage genre...
Steven Quale: "What I was afraid of doing is... some found footage movies tend to ... make the camera so zoomy, so jerky, that it makes you sick, basically. There’s a different sensibility aesthetically for filming something that’s on TV with a small screen versus the large screen of cinema. And when you do the same things, it might look fine on your little monitor, but when you blow it up on the big cinematic screen... I have years and years of experience with large format. It makes you sick. It’s too much. So you have to find a fine balance between that to make it feel real and visceral but at the same time not get the audience sick. So we’ve done a lot of tests and I go up to the monitor and put my face right up to it to simulate what it’s like. I insist on seeing all the dailies projected on a big screen so we can fine tune that balance and make it work."
Todd Garner: "I know that the knock on found footage movies has been the shaky cam, but I’ve worked with directors who’ve shot worse shaky cam that’s not found footage. It doesn’t bother me if it’s done right. But I know that’s the knock on it. It’s too disorienting. [Quale has] been very specific about giving you the feeling and experience of being first person but [using] real cameramen who can actually get a good shot. He’s really being careful about making sure it’s a good shot but also not making it feel like it’s just big cranes."
Naturally, the Into the Storm crew did look back on a few found footage classics in conceiving the film.
Todd Garner: "What triggered [Into the Storm] was I’m fascinated by the found footage idea, or the first person camera footage idea, because I think it puts you in the driver’s seat of the movie like I hadn’t seen before. Originally I wanted to do a found footage alien movie, and then Battle: Los Angeles came out. So I was thinking about it and I think the first found footage I ever saw was either [tornadoes] or Bigfoot. And I’m not really ready to do my Bigfoot movie yet ... Cloverfield and Chronicle both, I think, did a good job of moving [the genre] outside. And I would even say Battle: LA, in a certain way, had that vibe of being a found footage movie ... I think it worked so well in the horror genre because it’s emotionally rooted in things that you see every day and can happen to you. And I think that’s why specifically Cloverfield and Battle: Los Angeles and this are in the same genre, because it’s an extraordinary thing happening in a personal space. It’s not like a found footage movie going to the moon... [but] there was one of those. This is happening in your hometown. Cloverfield, Battle: LA, and now this. So, for me, it’s more of an experiential thing than a genre thing."
Into the Storm hits theaters on August 8.