October 20, 2017 Andrew Walker

The Witch Didn’t Start It – Where Found Footage Came From

You know all about Found Footage films by now. Everyone does. Films that appear to be cut together from shaky camcorder shots, filmed by participants who are (by the time you watch the film) either missing or dead. It’s a brilliant set-up to build the audience anticipation before the the film begins. From the moment you see the trailer you know the protagonists are in jeopardy of some sort. And jeopardy is, without question, one of the key elements for building dramatic tension and hooking an audience.

You might be less familiar with found footage comedies, but they exist. It’s a formula that’s also crossed over from the cinema into TV series and TV movies too. But where did it all start? The answer most people (except for film buffs and filmmaking students) think of is The Blair Witch Project (1999). But the roots of found footage go way deeper than that.

Here’s five milestones that created the found footage genre…

#1. Cárcel de amor, c.1485 Obviously, this wasn’t a film. It was a book by Diego de San Pietro, a Spanish writer we don’t really know much about except for the theory he was a major literary figure in the court of Queen Isabella of Spain. But this book (translated as ‘Prison of Love’) really nailed the concept in book form. It’s the first recorded ‘epistolary novel’, a style of fiction where the story is comprised primarily of letters written by the characters in the book. And letters were the closest thing to found footage in medieval times. It’s a style more famously known in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) which took the genre further by moving beyond letters, and adding diary entries, newspaper clippings, telegrams, doctor’s notes, ship’s logs, and such. If the main draw of found footage is balancing believability with dramatic tension, the epistolary novel set the template.

#2. Moi, un Noir, 1958. If you’re going to be really nit picking about it, found footage began in actual documentaries, because the whole point of found footage is to present fictional filmmaking as documentary. So we had to mention the 1958 film Moi, un Noir, by Jean Rouch, a documentary that introduced elements of fiction into its factual content. It hinted at the found footage genre of later years in sequences where the subjects of the documentary – a group of Nigerian immigrants – imagined fantasy lives which the filmmaker portrayed in dream like, poetic sequences. It also recorded dialogue in some sequences after the film was shot, rather than capturing every word live. So it’s a documentary with scripted, constructed elements rather than true found footage films which are wholly scripted, constructed elements with a documentary style. But it set the ball rolling.

#3. Cannibal Holocaust, 1980. When it comes to the real fictional deal, this is where it all began on the big screen. Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust revolved around found footage, but wasn’t entirely comprised of it. The story follows a rescue mission that discovers cans of cine film, shot by the people they went to rescue (who have disappeared). As the rescuers review the cans of film, the found footage is shown. In this film, the found footage replaces the role of the more traditional flashback sequence. Cannibal Holocaust was arguably one of the most controversial films of the 20th century. It depicts shocking animal cruelty (animals were harmed in the making of the film) and Deodato himself was tried for murder because the authorities suspected the film to be a snuff movie. Deodato was found not guilty, but the film still divides opinion to this day.

#4. Man bites Dog, 1993. When it comes to critically acclaimed found footage, perhaps this one really set the template for the genre most cinema lovers would recognise. It’s a witty, humorous ‘mockumentary’, which presents itself as being shot by a professional film crew following a hit man. The thread of tension running through it is intense, the dark side of the story placed in stark relief by a single scene where the filmmakers participate in a brutal rape and murder. This counterpoint to the belly laughs you were enjoying moments before really slams home the potential of found footage. The film builds to a climax that also established one of the key elements of true found footage… the camera crew disappears. Without a dead or missing camera crew, the footage can’t become found footage, so this was a really critical development in creating the genre.

#5. The Blair Witch Project, 1999. 6 years after Man Bites Dog, the much parodied Blair Witch was a the breakthrough that took found footage into the mainstream. It’s got credibility too, it was genuinely indie and shot on a very low budget, yet grossed $248 million worldwide. It also shifted the nature of found footage storytelling. The handful of films that cropped up with found footage between Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch used convoluted plot devices to explain why the footage was being taken. The Blair Witch Project was the first film that presents itself as real footage and lets the audience decide whether it is fact or fiction. Its global success has influenced many films since, all of which have adopted the same ‘is it or isn’t it’ approach.

The Blair Witch Project can claim to have finally got the found footage formula right, but it didn’t invent it. Rather, it completed the formula for found footage, in much the same way Dracula rounded off the epistolary novel format. Found footage as a genre describes a huge body of work comprised of over 100 films since 1980, and it can rightly be described as a movement in filmmaking that uses an intriguing fusion of documentary filmmaking techniques and storytelling.

And it’s far from over. To date, it’s a genre dominated by mostly horror or thrillers, but we’ve seen a few comedies in there (Finding Silver – 1995, Trollhunter – 2010, Babysitting – 2014), and mainstream commercial science fiction (Cloverfield – 2008, Chronicle – 2012). But no rom-com or tear jerker flicks… yet.