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Found Footage of 2012: Filmmakers Discuss the Genre's Highs and Lows

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Dec 21, 2012 | 6:37am EST

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Chronicle

As we bid adieu to 2012, and shirk off the fears we harbored about the Mayan apocalypse even if we wouldn’t admit it, it’s time to cinematically evaluate the expiring year. Countless film trends rose and fell over the course of these 12 months, but none experienced such severe growing pains as found footage. A popular visual gimmick steadily gaining popularity over the last few years, the subgenre reached a critical mass in 2012 that not only shook our conceptions of this style of filmmaking, but also placed it into a precarious adapt or die situation.

It all started with The Devil Inside... fitting that the genesis was a deeply embedded malicious being. Despite the potential possessed by The Devil Inside's premise, the movie was not only a weak entry into this particular canon of films, but indeed a weak excuse for a film altogether. It so lazily pandered to the popularity of the gimmick to get people into the theaters that it didn’t see the need to bother with trivialities like, say, a third act. Sure, it banked a monumental sum in its opening weekend, based solely on the nature of what type of movie it was, but its subsequent weekend drop-offs were staggering. Clearly, people were tired of being duped.

The Devil Inside, a first-person possession film, being the kickoff of this year’s slate of found footage titles is decidedly apropos. It illustrates the fact that horror is the most common host to which found footage tends to attach itself. There has always seemed to be this natural symbiotic relationship between the two. Horror filmmaker Simon Barrett, writer of You’re Next and A Horrible Way to Die, offered this reasoning for the happy marriage of the motifs: "In found footage horror, the audience is often literally sharing the victim's perspective, and there's an immediate, visceral response.”

“Additionally, found footage needs to look realistic,” added screenwriter C. Robert Cargill (Sinister), “which can mean no lighting crews, makeup, or camera crews, cutting a substantial portion of a budget from a genre that exists primarily with limited budgets.”

The problem here is that by now, we’ve seen dozens of found footage horror films. We’ve been inundated with Paranormal Activity clones, because that is what has proven to be financially lucrative. While initially providing the most suitable coupling for both optimal sensory experience and budgetary constraints, the combo of found footage and horror is increasingly in danger of becoming nothing but white noise. This was the hurdle suddenly facing found footage, and this is where the subgenre most impressively evolved in 2012.

Relatively unknown filmmaker Josh Trank partnered with screenwriter Max Landis, son of the great John Landis, to bring us Chronicle. The film centered on a group of teen boys who are suddenly endowed with super powers. Chronicle then charted the varying moral directions in which those gifts pulled them. It was a fascinating, enthralling movie…told almost entirely through one character’s video camera. Trank and Landis had created the first found footage superhero film, one strong enough to land Trank the gig directing the Fantastic Four reboot. But why did this experiment work so well?

“You care a lot about the villain because you’re seeing his perspective and the terrible things that he’s dealing with,” noted actor A.J. Bowen (The Signal, House of the Devil), it gives you an ability to take on, on a more personal level, the things that are happening in the movie.”

Bowen is an actor most recognized in the horror community, and indeed much of his work has been within that genre, but even he agrees that found footage desperately needed to break out of horror and adapt itself to other genres. "I think the most important thing for us as cinephiles, and as filmmakers, is to be open to change. Maybe found footage isn’t bad, maybe how we use it is bad. Is it a dogma? Is it a set of rules? Art should never have rules, because you’re instantly limiting the potential,” he mused.

This genre flexibility continued in films like Project X and End of Watch. While a certain amount of personal tolerance for salacious content must be weighed when discussing the merits of Project X, the fact is that it was taking a heretofore horror-centric aesthetic and applying it to a raunchy teen comedy. End of Watch, from director David Ayer, further expanded the first-person fictional narrative and adopted it to weave a moving police drama. Given the prevalence and policy of dash-mounted cameras in cop cars, as well as the ubiquitous nature of YouTube, neither of these avenues felt like a stretch. “With the rise of internet culture,” Barrett points out, “it's not like people are videotaping themselves any less these days.”

Paranormal Activity 4These films have opened the door for found footage’s continued adaptation. “I think within the next few years we’ll see found footage variants in nearly every acceptable genre,” Cargill said. The good news is, at the very least Chronicle and End of Watch have demonstrated that the crossover need not be simply a desperate ploy for dollars. “Before it seemed like people were doing the best that they could with what they had to fit within,” observed Bowen, “and I never think that art should be confining. I know that it’s not all about art; it’s also about commerce. But there’s a way to do both and I think that now there’s a way to use found footage to enhance the story instead of being reductive with it.”

Even within its progenitor genre, found footage saw evolution and experimentation in 2012. Magnolia Pictures recently distributed a film called V/H/S that had previously garnered a great deal of festival buzz. It is an anthology horror movie, something of a rarity anymore in its own right, in which each vignette is a found footage story. While it may seem that V/H/S is shooting merely for novelty, this merging of two separate horror subgenres may actually help alleviate some of the issues audiences tend to have with found footage in general.

“All of the problems that viewers have with found footage films - the slow first acts, the stylistic tedium, the ‘Why the hell are they still filming this?’ factor - evaporate when the story you're telling is only 15 minutes long,” acknowledged Barrett, who wrote one of the capsule stories for V/H/S and will be writing and directing segments for the upcoming sequel S-VHS. “You have the freedom to jump right into the story and do something really crazy stylistically, because it only has to be even remotely plausible for a few minutes.”

The Devil Inside was the first found footage movie of the year, but 2012 was capped in this regard by Paranormal Activity 4, the most recent installment of the franchise that rejuvenated the trend in the first place. These two films could not be more appropriate bookends for found footage in 2012. The Devil Inside may have been standalone trite, but Paranormal 4 was so lazy and self-derivative as to signal a franchise circling the drain. One of the most striking shared shortcomings of these two films is their obnoxious reliance on a long outdated secondary gimmick in which the filmmakers actually try to convince the audience that the events on the screen are components of a true story.

The Devil Inside actually went so far as to abruptly end the film and advise audience members to log onto a fabricated website for “the rest of the story.” This sort of half-witted deception has been permanently undermined by The Blair Witch Project; once that was debunked, we were immune to the cinema verite charade. “We’re too savvy to it, and we get bored with it really quickly,” Bowen argued. In a year marked by growth and expansion in found footage, The Devil Inside and Paranormal 4 seemed the most outdated relics because they refused to abandon this façade.

Perhaps the conundrum we’re facing with found footage at the moment is how we are defining in the first place. In the past, the term has referred to any film, usually horror, in which the plot progresses via a camera in the hands of one of the characters within the story. How then do we explain the fact that Chronicle’s climax has multiple angles or that, as A.J. Bowen notes, “there’s a montage in [Project X]…how can it be considered found footage?”

In October, Sinister hit theaters. Though shot as a traditional third-person narrative, Sinister may be the most literal example of a found footage movie to date. It is literally about a guy who finds 8mm footage in his attic, and then watches it. In fact, as co-writer C. Robert Cargill admits, “when I registered the idea with the WGA, I did so under the simple name Found Footage. Everyone on the production side loved it.”

This may seem a silly aside, but given that the film was produced by Paranormal Activity maestro Jason Blum, and in light of the extremely transitional phase in which the subgenre finds itself, perhaps Sinister is just the film to get the ball rolling on the subject of total reclassification. If this evolution continues, by this time next year, we made need a more refined term. Though, as Barrett shrewdly professes, “I like ‘found footage’ better than ‘mumblegore.’”

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