Monday, December 10, 2012

Grand Indifference: The Rules of Found Footage Films

This is the first part of what may end up a much longer piece on found footage films. As you may know two weeks ago I tossed out a request for input on the rules for the rapidly growing genre. The plan was to just discuss the rules for the genre but my obsessive compulsive nature also had me looking to fill in the holes in my viewing. I went out and saw End of Watch, Paranormal Activity 4, Sinister (which has found footage as a key plot point) and a bunch of low budget horror films on demand and DVD. What was supposed to be a simply discussion of one thing became something more, it became an unwieldy discussion of the genre that started to change with each film I viewed. I started to see things in them that I never noticed (for example the low budget horror films frequently look a hell of a lot better being shot this way)  With all this input I started to revise and expand and throw out and start over what became a  second section that moved away from the so called rules and discussed the films and the genre pro and con.

Looking over the mess of a piece last night I rapidly realized that couldn’t continue because things were getting wildly out of hand. The piece was devouring what little writing time I had.  I  was working on a piece I never intended to write, and got trapped in it because I couldn't get past a certain point.. What made working on it worse  was since I never intended to write anything detailed on the films I never took adequate notes, so I ended up  driving myself crazy trying to remember bits of bad films I probably never would have watched in the first place. (On the other hand I did discover a weird rule or pattern that the films all seem to follow as you’ll see below)

To save my sanity and allow me to wade into some other films (particularly the year end 2012 releases) I’m going to give you the section on the rules. I’ve ported the scribbles on the genre in general over to a folder on my computer and at some point when I don’t feel pressured to do so I’ll take a look at it and try hammer it into something worth reading. Until that happens I give you what I found out about people's attitudes toward found footage and the rules for the genre:

It’s been a couple of weeks since I asked for input regarding the Found Footage genre. I was hoping to spark a grand discussion that mirrored the heated in person discussions I’ve had. Instead I found that there is  a grand indifference to the genre with most of the responses pondering why I would want to bother or that people either hadn’t thought about it or didn’t care. A few people did care and I’ve had several enlightening conversations via email and twitter which I’m going to try and cut and paste together into some form of grand discussion (I’m not sure that’s possible, but I’m going to try to do it after Christmas)

In digesting everything down the one overriding thing I found is that unless it’s really well done no one particularly likes it. Most people seem to feel is that most of the films being produced are using the genre for a reason other than the story be it just being lazy, to save a couple of bucks or just be part of the current trend.

I have yet to meet anyone who ultimately hasn't told me that like in every other genre rules don't matter so long as the film works. Rules are to be broken. However not long after saying that little provisos pop up. There aren't many but there seem to be a few "rules" that everyone mentions in one way or another:, actually there are two things:

There has to be some explanation of who is filming, or where the footage is coming from. Why are the characters shooting this? In the case of The Bay it’s because footage is from a news crew, Internet and iPhone camera conversations, hospital recording and security video. In other films its a character in the film, in still others its security footage.

The second rule is that they have to stay true to their central conceit, if Bob is filming everything , it has to stay from Bob's POV, you can't start dropping other angles in - Grave Encounters 2  fudged this all over the place. Much of the film is shot by the main character or his friends but there are other shots, in cars, in the hospital, in buildings or the infamous elevator to hell where it's not clear where the shot is coming from. Its so bad that after a while you are not sure what you're watching.  While the Vicious Brothers told me they did it to mix things up and make you wonder who is filming, I found it caused the film to collapse because it was done several times too often.

Related to both of these is my own  addendum that: if there are multiple view points we must have some idea of how or by who the footage came together,  The recent End of Watch annoyed the hell out of me because it has so many POVs the film stops making sense- if only in that we don't know how or why it was put together (which is a huge flaw in many films)

And it can't be stated enough that the rules will of course always be broken by anyone who can do so and make them work.

The trouble has been that most filmmakers can't make the genre work on the most basic level which is  is why I am  contemplating the idea of sorting out rules, since I find I only notice any rules when the films don't work.

While I did have several conversations relating to found footage, only two people gave me actual rules.

Unseen's own Peter Gutierrez suggests:

1) No framing story that tells you who survives main story a la The Bay
2) Should feel present-tense, not simply like old footage

I can quibble with Peter;'s first point since in my mind it really would depend on the story being told. If it's not horror film or an action film it may not matter. But I think that its a valid point, too often at the start we are told way too much.

Peter's second point I think is vital and I would add it in to what I have gleaned as being the consensus rules. We really do have to feel that the events happened and are happening before us. This is supposed to be really happening so it must play out as if it was happening when filmed.

There is one addendum that I would  add namely that the way you create the feeling of being in the moment is not to show every moment of everything that happens. As Bernardo Villela discussed with me sometimes people confuse endless footage of nothing with building genuine suspense or sense reality. Being awoken from a deep boredom induced coma is not the same thing as jumping because you've been brought to the edge of your seat by terror. He likened it to surprises in pieces of music repeated much too often.

Alec Kubas-Meyer of Flixist and Indewire said that he could only think of two rules

1) Everything must be diagetic. I actually tend to refer to found footage films as "diagetically shot" because it sounds better and is more all-encompassing. Diagetic referring to everything being in-world. The sound must be diagetic, the video must be diagetic, and the camera must be diagetic. Considering more and more of the films aren't really "found" in the way that The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield purported to be, I think the language needs to be changed.

2) Whoever holds the camera must be stupid/insane. If someone is actually keeping a camera while things worth making movies about are still going on, that person must be an idiot and/or crazy. The only exception to that rule would be in Chronicle, because the guy doesn't actually need to carry the film because superpowers. He is, however, crazy.

I do think Alec's idea that the genre is moving away from being truly found footage is correct. Of course that does raise issues such as in End of Watch as to who is putting it all together. Forgive me for being a stickler for that but for me because the film is being packaged as something that we are seeing is from various sources and not just the story teller there has to be a source. (For some reason thinking about this is making think about the Anderson Tapes and how everything we see is really from the surveillance of the apartment building. I'm not sure how it completely relates but it does seem to mean something to my demented mind.)

Alec's second point pinpoints a huge flaw in the genre and is, in most cases, right on target. Why are these people filming anyway?...and not so much filming some of the events but all of them? The endless walking footage in Cloverfield , hell most of the footage in Cloverfield shouldn't exist  (and I'm not talking technical issues like battery life aside) who would film as much as the camera man does?  I also find that characters such as the film students in Grave Encounters 2 or the lead in King Kelly are insane, especially if narcissism is a disease.

Surprisingly after watching way too many of these type of films over the last few weeks and months there is, apparently. a hidden self selecting rule that can only be discovered by looking at the running time of all these films- namely almost all of the films clock in at under 85 minutes.I'm not sure if it's a rule or just a form of cliche but most of the films, especially the horror films, all run about 80 to 85 minutes, less if you chop out the end credits.

I want to point out that the same approximate running is hurting the genre, at least as far as horror films are concerned since having watched too many of them I find that the narrative arc is all exactly the same.

If you look at the typical film of this sort the plot usually has a family group of friends gets together  or go somewhere and then after long boring scenes of real life that introduce the characters something happens and then more boring things happen before some brief scary stuff happens, and then an increasing number of deaths and scary things happen (or try to) before you get a final on screen gotcha as the person filming is dragged away- in almost every horror movie something terrible happens to the camera man. The whole genre is so monotonously cliche that I could time out when what was going to happen. And it' it doesn't help that the vast majority of the films run around 85 minute. or 80 or 82 minutes sans end credits...

At this point I'm going to break off.  I have more to say but I have to work out how to say it.  The pieces that would follow this will, assuming I can pull it together, go into a deeper discussion of what films seem to work and what don't. As well as pros and cons for the genre. I'm not sure that I'll actually do the rest of the writing, but if I do that's where it seems to be headed.

Actually the real trouble with my writing what would now be a follow up is simply the indifference that people seem to have. While I'm intrigued  by the possibilities of what can be done, even I have to admit that the fast majority of what is coming out as found footage is crap and makes looking at the genre as it stands now suspect The great films are worth discussing but the rest really isn't.

What I do find puzzling is that more films are being shot this way even though based on my ridiculously small sample, people don't like it...and after seeing some of the crap I've seen I suspect it will soon retreat back into the void of only occasional use.

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