Thursday, September 24, 2015

Found Footage- It Doesn’t Have to be Bad

So, M. Night Shyamalan has returned to theaters with a new film, The Visit, and, doubling the fun for the many who like to take the mickey out of him and his works these days, the new film falls under the much despised and ridiculed Found Footage genre. Well, I’m not going to defend M. Night or the film here; especially as I’ve yet to see the new film. However, the release of the film, outside of just starting up the usual M. Night hate on the net, has gotten some people talking about, and hating on, found footage films again.

So, while having no desire to get into M. Night talk here, I do want to talk about found footage films. See, there’s a segment of film fans, especially horror film fans, who automatically hate on anything found footage whether they’ve seen them or not. Just the fact that it’s found footage is enough for some to deem it automatically bad. But the thing is, found footage films are here to stay, and they’re not necessarily bad when the people behind the lens use a little common sense so as to not insult the viewer’s intelligence.
This is my little inventory of the worst things that found footage does. Hopefully someone out there who is planning their own found footage film might one day read this and think about it a little more than some of the people behind the wave of found footage films we’ve seen, studio and guerilla indie alike, over the last few years.

One of the first things that will get a found footage film slagged on by fans, and deservedly so with this example, is giving a character a camera that he or she seemingly  never shuts off or puts down at even the most ridiculous moments in order to keep filming. Just having the character acting as a film nerd and repeatedly stating irritatingly stupid lines about how it doesn’t exist if it’s not capture on film does not give an automatic free pass to the filmmaker to try to get away with impossibly stupid moments of “found footage.”

One example- If you were running in absolute fear for your life in real life, you would not be slowing yourself down by fumbling with a handheld camera to either (A) get whatever is chasing you clearly on film or (B) trying to keep the camera’s shot steady on the backs of the people running for their lives just ever so slightly faster than you. If anything, your footage will come out looking like a blur full of undefined objects as you would be swinging the camera around in random directions as you pumped your arms like a terrified madman (or madwoman.)

The solution to that before was simple enough. We really don’t need to have screen time wasted on the chase. Have the screen go crazy as the camera is getting swung around wildly, and then cut to a few minutes later. If you want us to get a glimpse of your ghost/monster/madman, there are realistic ways to do it. A lot of the scare moments in these films take place in the dark. If your characters are stopping in the dark because they’re exhausted and need to see if they’re still being chased or how far away their pursuer is, it would make sense to turn on a camera with light enhancing abilities and panning it across the dark areas behind your characters. In daylight, you could excuse this by using the zoom to get a better look at something more clearly than the naked eye can from a hiding spot. At this point, you can still go for the jump scare or simply give the viewers a quick glimpse of your big bad as it moves in on its victims.

A modern solution for that is to go with a concept like GoPro. When your creature finds its little group of victims, it’s just as easy to make them adrenaline junkies with cameras attached to their helmets or vests as it is to make them hapless campers with that one camper in their group who never puts his damned camera down.

You know, like the guy who won’t stop filming even when people are getting hurt. That’s the other big one that throws me out of a found footage film and gets (rightfully) made fun of. When your buddies are injured and lying on the ground begging for help, especially in the typical horror movie scenario, you’re not going to keep filming them or struggle with picking them up to help them run while juggling your camera and trying to keep it in an optimal filming position. Worse still with regards to found footage film offenses, you’re not going to set a camera down and waste time making sure that it continues filming and is sitting at the right angle to film your fallen buddy as they’re bleeding out to the sounds of your other buddy begging you to put the damned camera down and help them to get the bleeding stopped.

There’s a reason that many found footage films get slagged on over dumb character moments and many people cite as a big reason for not liking them the actions of the main characters. If your main voice in the film or one of your main voices in a film is a jackass more concerned with getting a great shot of his or her buddy dying than of actually helping to maybe keep their buddy from dying, we’re not going to like that character all that much. When that’s the character we’re getting the most film contact with, it’s going to have an impact on how we the viewer react to your film. If we don’t like the characters, or actively dislike the characters, then part of our investment in the film is out the window and we may be less forgiving of some film faults.

Again, as with a GoPro styled system, there are modern ways around that. Your character comes off much less of a jerk if the reason the camera is not off or put down is that it’s attached to them and cannot be put down.

Or, you know, get away from the idea of having your entire film designed to look like footage from a handheld camera. One of the things that worked for me with the earlier Paranormal Activity films is the fact that shots that would have come across as stupid if presented as a shot from a handheld while weird things were breaking loose were in fact not from a handheld camera in the film’s narrative. They were from one of the many security system’s cameras. Create a story where you have a reason to have cameras in and around a dwelling and have your “found footage” be a mix of footage from the static cameras and the handheld cameras.

Or go even bigger.

There’s a nice little horror film called The Bay floating around out there on DVD. Not the greatest horror film out there, and maybe not even the best found footage film in the genre, but it did a nice job of pushing the found footage concept outside of the box most found footage creators seem to want to keep it in. Without getting into spoiler territory, something rather nasty happens in a small town on the Chesapeake Bay. The event is storyline-wise covered up after the fact, but the film is presented as the found footage truth behind the events as collected by a reporter who was there.

The thing with The Bay is that it stretched its found footage concept out beyond a small group with a camera in a disaster. The found footage in The Bay consists of the reporter’s own original footage, security footage from buildings, collected video found on the web, dash cam footage from police cars, and whatever else they could cram in there. The result is a found footage film with a much larger scale, and you don’t get stuck through the entire film with just one or two characters you quickly grow tired of or grow to dislike. You also get a wider variety of shots and angles, so some of the visual monotony is broken. 

While people looking to do an indie film on the cheap might find this to be going back towards the extra time and money they didn’t want to spend, it’s something that can likely still be done on the cheap with limited use in the film. Trust me; many found footage viewers will thank you for the little bit of extra visual effort.

But if the reason you want to do a found footage film is because the limited POV of a single handheld camera means money saved on makeup and FX? You may still be good on budget even as you expand the found footage scope a bit. Here’s an old horror lesson that a lot of new horror films are forgetting- You don’t need to show us everything.

Two effective moments in The Bay and in Bobcat Goldthwait’s found footage Bigfoot film Willow Creek involved us as viewers not seeing anything. In Willow Creek there’s a scene where the couple in the film awaken in their tent to the sounds of something outside. They get their camera recording and the source of tension created in the scene is from us, like them, not being able to see what’s out there. With The Bay, a scene which may have been a gross-out shock scare with us seeing the FX work and CGI critters gets much creepier because we can’t see anything. Police officers respond in the late evening hours to a home and come face to face with the film’s threat. Thing is, all we can see is the dash cam footage from the patrol car parked outside. All we can see is a dark house being oddly lit by the flashing strobes of the patrol car. But we can hear everything happening in the house since the officer’s mic is still transmitting audio to the dash cam. Sound is a very effective, and very cheap, special effect. Your mind in a scene like that can likely create a far more terrifying and effective scare than anything you might put in front of a shaky handheld camera.

Less can be more, even in found footage.

Also, as touched on several times above, don’t give us intentionally annoying characters, brick stupid characters, or moments where the typically not brick stupid characters act brick stupid just because you’ve moved yourself into a narrative corner. While I could cite entire character arcs from some found footage films to cover the annoying characters bit, I won’t. However, one of the Paranormal Activity films, either #3 or #4, is a perfect example of the brick stupid thing.

You have a male character that is filming everything he can and pouring over the security camera footage. He routinely sits the female character of the film down to show her things the footage captured. She’ll usually watch it with little argument, and he’ll seemingly push like mad to get her to watch footage of dust blowing across the floor and a door shutting. Then the filmmakers give us a huge bit of absolute paranormal activity caught on camera to get the audience to gasp and jump. The male character reviews the film footage and sees the same thing that just made the audience gasp and jump. He tells her she has to see this big deal footage, but she throws a hissy and refuses to look. At this point he simply drops it without any real attempt to get her to look and never really brings it up again.

At this point you just sort of blink at the screen and wonder whether the characters or the writers were the dumber people. Don’t write yourself into a corner just to scare the audience and then use the laziest Stupid Character Card you can. Either realize you’ve written yourself into a corner with no great way out and thus you need to rewrite your scene or go and find someone who doesn’t enjoy the Stupid Character Card to ask them for advice. Seriously, you have an entity that through various films has through sheer force of paranormal will moved heavy physical objects around the house, sent people flying across rooms, and set a Ouija board on fire. Flaming the hard drive at a critical moment shouldn’t be that far beyond its abilities; especially given how often the damned things flame out on us without any paranormal assistance.

* Don’t give us annoying characters we want to punch in the face by around a quarter of the way into your film’s runtime.

* Don’t give us characters we don’t care about or actually even end up wanting to see get killed.

* Think outside of the box a bit. Found footage doesn’t have to be just handheld or even just a mix of handheld and security camera footage. You can even go bigger scale and still stay relatively budget cheap.

* Don’t get locked into the idea of having to show us everything in order to have the viewer see what the characters are seeing. Sometimes, when you can, you might want to maybe show the viewer even less so long as you can still give us some nice scare payoffs down the road.

* Don’t tick off your audience by treating them like they’re stupid or by playing the Stupid Character Card (pretty much the same thing really) when you’ve written yourself into a small narrative corner. Think about it some more, because theaters full of ticket buyers or armies of Netflix viewers will be doing the same thing, and sometimes their bad word of mouth will kill your film.  

The Found Footage genre, despite the popularity among the horror fan set to run these films down as loudly as possible and as often as possible, isn’t a bad thing. It’s like any other type of film really. You’re going to have good, bad, amazingly great, and horrifically awful films made under that banner. If there’s any great downfall of the genre, it will come from the same thing that makes zombie films so prevalent on the indie and guerilla filmmaking circuits- anyone can make one and do it on the cheap. But, even more so than with the zombie genre, people seem to want to jam the worst of the found footage films down the genre’s throat and present those the representation of the genre.

And that’s a shame since it can be a fun little genre when done well, packing a nice load of genuine scares into a movie going evening. As with any other film, low or high budget, give us a found footage film with characters we can actually like, a plot and story with some level of thought behind it that doesn’t insult the viewer’s intelligence, characters that don’t randomly act stupid just for the sake of moving the narrative where you want it to go, and some carefully crafted scares and we’ll happily kill a large tub of popcorn or a pizza in front or your cinematic efforts. If you can’t make at least some token effort to do those things, well, you probably shouldn’t be making any film of any kind in any genre.

Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek. When not doing geek things here or at conventions, he can be found here or here on the World Wide Web.

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