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Found Footage

Entry updated 23 June 2021. Tagged: Film, Theme.

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A term infelicitously but irreversibly appropriated since 1999 to denote fictional feature films, particularly in Horror genres, which emulate venerable epistolary and documentary modes of textuality by using elements of non-fiction film form and simulated amateur-video footage. (Previously the term had marked a class of documentary film distinguished by the incorporation of archive and amateur footage into an assembled feature with or without commentary, a usage which persists in film studies; see further reading.) These techniques had a long history in other media – notable genre examples are the Mercury Theater on the Air's War of the Worlds (1938) and Theodore Sturgeon's novel Some of Your Blood (1961) – but a late arrival in narrative film. Though anticipated by the 1980 exploitation film Cannibal Holocaust, the generification of faux-verité cinema begins with the artfully made and marketed supernatural horror feature The Blair Witch Project (1999), a ghost story filmed hand-held and unscripted by the actors in a narrative environment constructed on location by the directors, with the opening title-card text "In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary. A year later their footage was found." The film became one of the most profitable (in budget-to-takings ratio) in history, and revolutionized horror cinema with its sweet-spot synergy of tiny budgets, minimal effects, a sophisticated rhetoric of verisimilitude, a narrative of the uncanny driven by peripheral-vision suggestion rather than frontal mimetic illusion, an intensely close identification of handheld camera angles with subjective character viewpoints, high-voltage delivery of narrative jolts, and a compact with the viewer that activates ways of watching associated with non-professional footage captured on smartphones, home video, and security cameras, and disseminated through social media and television compilation shows. The rush to emulation spawned lucrative franchises, particularly the Paranormal Activity and [REC] series (both 2007-current).

Sf Cinema has been an incidental beneficiary, with a small but significant canon of films drawing on the tropes of found-footage horror to evoke an encounter with the alien other that camouflages its authored and constructed artifice for an effect of vivid experiential immersivity and a cognitive arc of progressively but incompletely penetrated mystery. Most found-footage sf films to date have been dialects of Monster Movie: Kaiju (see also Godzilla) in Cloverfield (2008), cryptozoological in The Dinosaur Project (2012) (see Dinosaurs), interplanetary Xenobiology in Apollo 18 (2011) and Europa Report (2013), pollution-made Mutant sealife in The Bay (2012), and radiation-made Zombies in Chernobyl Diaries (2012); Alien abduction by UFOs in The Fourth Kind (2009) and Dark Skies (2013); and a palimpsest of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial in Earth to Echo (2014). An exception is Chronicle (2012), where the alien presence is discarded early to follow instead the trio of teenagers who acquire Superhero powers from exposure. Though the form is constantly at risk of overexposure, audience fatigue, tropological exhaustion, and a tumbling exchange rate between the actual dramatic payload and the investment of technical ingenuity required for any level of narrative complexity, at its best (as in the comparatively generously-budgeted Cloverfield and Chronicle) it can not only refresh stale genres but push the boundaries of film storytelling in ways that engage with the technological democratization of filmmaking craft and culture. [NL]

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