The Found Footage Phenomenon Film Studies Essay

The Blair Witch Project is a story of an attempt of three documentary film students to investigate the legends of the Blair Witch. Apparently skeptical, Heather, Joshua, and Michael enter the woods around Burkittsville, Maryland, with two cameras. Heather was determined to document everything in «as straightforward way as possible». As the documentarians go deeper, the friends become unsure of their whereabouts. Soon, they realize that they have lost their way. At night, the filmmakers hear bizarre noises, and in the morning, find three fresh rock mounds built outside their tent. The mood is charged with fear, frustration, and anger as the trio is trying to find their way out of the woods but seem to be entrapped and walk in circles. Their sense of doom is enhanced as one night, Joshua vanishes without a trace. Following his screams, Heather and Michael come to a deserted house in the woods. They go inside and search everywhere until Michael runs to the basement claiming that he has heard Joshua there. The footage ends with Heather screaming and dropping the camera on the floor, the last image being of Michael with his face to a wall in the semi-dark basement.

Being a mockumentary, The Blair Witch Project primarily draws on all the elements of the documentary genre to achieve its effects. While the movie was being created, the directors launched a marketing campaign by creating a website with fake reports of the three filmmakers missing and documents of the Blair Witch. Thus, as Emily Shaw points out, “billed as a factual piece, the phenomenon quickly gained a cult following” (386). It should be remembered that the impression produced by a documentary film is that of greater authenticity than made by a fictional film. According to Joseph H. Boggs and Dennis W. Petrie, even the first documentary productions “emanated from what we could call the documentary urge of their creators, who wished, quite simply, to document life» (460). However, the implication of the genre from which “found footage” takes its roots is more complex as “documentary” pictures do not merely record objective reality. Like nonfiction literature, a nonfiction film inevitably presents the subjective vision of its maker as well” (461). Therefore, it is the blend of grainy-film objectivity and the subjective first-person narration of the camera-holder that seems to make the “found footage” genre so appealing. The director of photography of The Blair Witch Project Neal Fredericks recalls that most of the video footage was shot by Donahue, which was designed to provide a more immediate, you-are-there feeling for their day-to-day behind-the-scenes experiences on this fictional class project. “I’ve had some experience transferring video to film, so I knew that when we eventually transferred all of the footage to a 35mm print, the aesthetic qualities of the 35mm film would take some of the edge off the video, making it a bit softer and more pleasing to the eye” (Pizzello, 100).

Film experts have applauded Myrick and Sanchez for the enticing rawness of their approach. For example, Melinda Corey and George Ochoa noted that the movie “shot on 16mm black and white and color digital video, was commended for its documentary style, blurring the lines between reality and fiction” (131). Another expert, Kevin Harley, called The Blair Witch Project a “guerilla-indie hit that, while drawing on mockumentary self-consciousness, channeled raw edge-of-sight fear. Blair’s ambiguities amplify its resonances” (110).

The effect of their ‘first-person narration’ technique of The Blair Witch Project was fascinating at the time; however, Myrick and Sanchez’ successors have since considerably ameliorated their method. The use of mirrors, for example, in Chronicle (director: Josh Trank, screenplay: Max Landis, cinematographer: Matthew Jensen), a story of three high-school students who acquire telekinetic powers, or Paranormal Activity (written, directed and filmed by Oren Peli) was innovative for the genre. In Chronicle, the mirrors not only advance its protagonist’s Andrew’s characterization as a narcissistic teenager but also help to make the movie more visually sophisticated than the early specimens of the genre. In Paranormal Activity, mirrors hint at its protagonists Katie’s and Micah’s double selves as well as their relationship’s gradual disintegration.

Another improvement in the “found footage” genre has been its expansion from the domain of horror (i.e. witches, spirits and daemons) to the science fiction film as illustrated, for example, by Cloverfield (2008) and Chronicle. The critic of culture Bruce Kawin has made a distinction between the effects that horror and science fiction films produce on the viewer. According to him, “one goes to the horror film in order to have a nightmare…, a dream whose undercurrent of anxiety both presents and masks the desire to fulfill and be punished for certain unconventionally unacceptable impulses”. Moreover, Kawin claims that “science fiction appeals to consciousness, horror to the unconscious” (qtd. in Boggs, Petrie, 422). Another cultural critic J.P. Telotte commenting on sci-fi filmmaking points out that the genre “has obviously staked out as its special territory the latest possibilities of artifice… through the very latest of technological development in cinema”. Tellote goes on to compliment the creators of science fiction films for finally making this artifice “seem to be less its end than its method… simply a most effective way… for gauging the human” (qtd. in Boggs, Petrie, 422). It is true that “found footage” films have progressively focused on exploring the human condition. One of the pervasive themes that unite The Blair Witch Project, Chronicle, and Paranormal Activity is their respective characters’ inability to cope with reality and isolation; besides, their handheld cameras play a vital role in this. One of the directors of The Blair Witch Project Eduardo Sanchez claims that he drew his inspiration for the movie from such movies as The Shining and The Exorcist. And just like in The Shining (produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick), a 1980 film about a janitor going insane in a snowbound hotel and taking it out on his wife and child, the pervasive theme of Myrick and Sanchez’s mockumentary is psychological and physical isolation, which, according to Sanchez, is “the key to horror films” (Fletcher, 29). While the three young filmmakers searching for the evidence of the Blair Witch find themselves cut off from the outside world, their leader Heather, perhaps, has always been so, for as Joshua half-jokingly remarks to her at one point in the movie: “We see why you like this video camera so much. It’s not quite reality. It’s totally … filtered reality. It’s like you can pretend everything’s not quite the way it is”. Heather has no comment on this, but Joshua’s banter is echoed in Chronicle, where Steven questions Andrew about always putting up a camera between himself and the world as a barrier, whereas in Paranormal Activity, Katie repeatedly blames Micah for preferring the camera to human communication. However, while no reasons are given for Heather’s self-isolation behind her camera’s eye, the subject is much better elaborated in more recent “found-footage”. In Chronicle, it is obviously Andrew’s abusive and alcoholic father and the terminal illness of his mother that drive him to “conquer reality” through the camera lens. In Paranormal Activity, Micah’s camera plays a role of its own, initially used by him to identify the supernatural activity in the couple’s house but actually stimulates its outbursts and brings about his demise. It is noteworthy that modern ‘home-video’-look directors have “detached” the camera from the actor, thus defying the very notion of ‘handheld’ – and not without success. For instance, the telekinetic high-schoolers in Chronicle can make the camera float in the air, just like they do, or, like Micah in Paranormal Activity, leave it working on a tripod and review the footage later, thus creating a juxtaposition of the past and present-time planes in the narration – something unimaginable in the early “found-footage” days. Moreover, unlike the late 20th-century hand-held cam fiction, the modern “found-footage” makers have increasingly been using conventional themes and narration techniques. Chronicle, for instance, is nothing but an account of a duel between good and evil, a subject common to dozens of Hollywood productions that even transcends the limitation of one plot line: the initially ambiguous but eventually fixed relationship of Matt and Casey is opposed to the chronicle of Andrew’s downfall. Furthermore, Chronicle appeals to its target audience by addressing the adolescent obsession with sex as well as the nerd-turned-Superhero theme, whereas the violent outbreaks of Paranormal Activity could be seen quite conventionally as an artistic metaphor for the love-hate relationship between Katie and Micah.

The success of this hybrid approach has made even the forefathers of the “found-footage” genre redefine their priorities. According to one of the men behind The Blair Witch Project, Eduardo Sanchez, he has recently been “frustrated by the idea of always having to have the camera on”. This year, Sanchez has released Lovely Molly, a horror film shot partly with the help of handheld and partly with conventional camera. The director says, “Whether it’s found footage or conventional filmmaking, a good idea will transcend” (29+).

Works Cited

Leonard, Michael Williams. Artisan Entertainment, 1999

Boggs, Joseph H., Petrie, Dennis W. The Art of Watching Films. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield

Publishing Company, 2000

Buzz Section. “The Movie Book of Records.” Total Film. Dec. 2007: 44-45

Corey, Melinda, and George Ochoa, Eds-in-Chief. The American Film Institute Desk

Reference. New York: Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc. , 2002

Harley, Kevin, «History of Horror. The 90s.» Total Film. Nov. 2007: 110+

Pizzello, Stephen. Rev of The Blair Witch Project by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez.

American Cinematographer. Apr. 1999: 97-100.

Sanchez, Eduardo. “Director Interview: Lost and Found.” Total Film. Issue 195 (2012): 29+

Shaw, Emily. “Daniel Myrick.” Contemporary North American Film Directors. A Wallflower

Critical Guide. London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2002

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