Found footage and The Blair Witch Project have earlier, gothic horror roots, but new technology is shaking up the shaky camera genre once again. With the Blair Witch sequel out this weekend, it’s worth looking at where found footage is headed.
2015’s Sundance hit Tangerine was filmed entirely on an iPhone 5, countless shorts have been shot on iPhones, and there was even an episode of Modern Family filmed with nothing but iPads, iPhones, and MacBooks. Filming ain’t what it used to be, and particularly for found footage, that’s a really exciting development.
“With found footage, it’s perfect because how many times does somebody take out an iPhone every single day to film something?” says James Cullen Bressack, writer and director of found footage horror film To Jennifer. “We’re used to watching that visual medium because we’ve looked at our phones so many times and seen these videos that we’ve taken ourselves. It lends a more personal vibe in the film.”
Where found footage once required some set-up in establishing why the subjects of the film had a camera and were documenting things, for many, our iPhones are a constant fixture. In 2016, we’re more likely to have it (and by extension, a pretty damn decent recording camera) with us than to not have it. Our constant documentation is plausible, too — we’re so frequently taking photos, tweeting, Snapchatting, and Instagramming that not documenting something strange or momentous that ends up being found footage scene-worthy is much stranger than us recording it.
Perhaps the biggest determining factor for the success of a found footage film is the believability of the footage in question. In order to work, the supposedly found scenes need to feel real; like somebody behind the camera is bringing the audience into this moment, because they felt the need to document it.
In concert with that concept is the idea most found footage feels like something we shouldn’t be seeing, like something personal that we (or the police or a friend/family member) just happened upon.
“I think the quality of the iPhone and all that stuff lends itself to the idea of ‘I found something I shouldn’t have actually found,’ says Bressack.
In a narrative sense, iPhones are a natural fit for found footage. But, they also give found-footage filmmakers some unique opportunities when it comes to the actual filming process.
“I think it’s way more organic,” says Bressack.
Because iPhones present a much simpler filming process in a logistical sense — with little to no equipment rentals to coordinate — and no massive set-ups to move, filming on an iPhone allows for more collaboration and the organic development of ideas.
“It actually gave a lot more freedom,” says Hunter Johnson, who directed the To Jennifer sequel, 2 Jennifer. Unbound by production schedules that required detailed planning for locations, permits, and expensive equipment rentals, Johnson found he was able try new things while filming without derailing the entire production.
Filming on iPhones also gives filmmakers opportunities to capture locations that might otherwise be unavailable. Bressack recalls while filming To Jennifer, he and the crew were able to film in places that would never allow traditional set-ups — places like airplanes and hospitals. This allowed Bressack to get realistic sets (because they were real) without having to actually build the sets or hold up production getting permits and permissions.
“We were able to pretty much film anywhere,” says Bressack. “I mean, it was guerrilla filmmaking at its finest.”
It’s not just the details of filming that are changing with iPhones, though. It’s the talent pool.
As it is with many creative endeavors in the digital age, iPhones have ushered in a new kind of democratization in filmmaking. Just as GarageBand has enabled musicians to record and produce music more easily than ever before, iPhones allow filmmakers to create work with a seriously high-powered and relatively ubiquitous toolset.
“There’s no excuse anymore to not make a movie if you really want to make a movie,” says Johnson.
While part of the film industry is in tireless pursuit of better picture quality, immersive experiences, and better special effects, iPhones are changing things dramatically on the other end of the spectrum. The cameras we have in our pockets are catching up to and surpassing the cameras used to shoot some of the world’s most iconic films — like Star Wars, E.T., and Jurassic Park. That’s an exciting development, and one that’s pushing the filmmakers, storytellers, and even genres in entirely new directions.