This will begin my series of post and interviews on the subject of what is know as found footage films.
I realize that found footage has gotten a bad rap because far too many film makers look at it as a easy way to produce their first feature or to make a quick dollar. These movies are churned out at the same rate that they use to churn out Ninja movies in the 1990's.
The Found Footage genre has produced so quality films and will continue to do so. With these post I hope to explore the pros and cons of the genre and to encourage better film making.
The film maker that I am going to be interviewing is named Kyle Van Dongen. Kyle is the film maker behind the found footage film Camera 87. If you wish to know more about Kyle and his work you can visit here.
Q) I suppose the first and most obvious question is what is your film, Camera 87, about?
A) Camera 87 is about a young man who witnesses a mysterious object landing, or perhaps crashing, near his house. Determined to be the first person to get it on video, he drags his girlfriend into the forest to help him investigate. Before long, they find evidence of an alien intelligence, but as the night goes on, they realize it isn't here for a visit.
Q) During the last few years the found footage film has become a genre of film making all its owns. The cost of producing them as compared to shooting all other types of films have made them a go to for the beginning film maker. Why did you choice found footage?
A) I've always enjoyed found footage. I think titles like Cannibal Holocaust and the Blair Witch Project are among the greatest horror films of all time. The only problem with the genre is that very few entries seem to come up with a satisfactory explanation for why the protagonist doesn't just put down the camera. The format works, for a time, but when the shit hits the fan and our heroes are being chased by zombies or giant monsters, the movies tend to lose a bit of credibility. Oddly enough, this is what made me want to do found footage. I came up with (what I believe to be) a compelling reason for the characters to keep the camera and figured I'd put it out there. Whether or not that's what people remember about Camera 87, it's the idea that got the ball rolling.
Q) It seems that no one has figured out the best way to write one of these films. How did you script the film?
A) I wouldn't say nobody has figured it out. I think the Blair Witch Project and the first Paranormal Activity told great stories. The trick, I'd say, is to make it feel natural. The allure of the genre is that, when it's done right, it feels real. It's a tricky line to walk because on one hand a real person might break up a sentence with a lot of "uhs" and "ahs" or they might tell a joke that falls flat, but if you do that too much, it becomes unwatchable. The same can be said for story structure - you want the action to ramp up, and you want to hit the important beats, but then maybe it feels too scripted. For Camera 87 I decided to put my trust in the actors. I wrote the script line by line as I would for any other movie, but I encouraged improvisation and last minute rewrites as long as the flow of dialogue remained in tact. As for the overall story, I tried to leave the extraterrestrial's actions vague and open to interpretation. I think that element of mystery makes it scarier and also, hopefully, more convincing.
Q) There is a debate on the best type of camera to use for a found footage shoot. The Dslr has become popular for all types of indie shoots, but I have always believed that the best tool for this job is the camcorder due to length of recording, the ability to record quality sound and basic battery life. What did you record Camera 87 with and why?
A) I used my good old Canon XH A1. The main reason for this was that I let my actors shoot the movie. Since neither of them were experienced camera operators, I put the camcorder on automatic and told them to focus on framing and forget about the more technical aspects of cinematography. This would never fly in a traditional film, but the idea here was to make it look like some average Joe was shooting, and what better way to replicate that effect than to simply give someone a camera set to auto focus? Also, as you mentioned, the battery life was a definite plus! The only real issue I had to contend with was a severe lack of lighting. Most of the shoot was done in the middle of the forest, at night, so I mounted a small, but powerful, flashlight into the camera's microphone holder and kicked up the gain. The result is grainy and sometimes way overblown, but I think it's appropriate for the genre.
Q) If you did another found footage film would you record with a different device?
A) I can't say for sure, but probably not. The XH A1 was perfect for the job. There might be other camcorders that might work better, but I certainly wouldn't use a DSLR.
Q) Most film makers run into problems with sound on a standard shoot. Were there any problems on this shoot and what did you use to record sound with?
A) Sound was definitely an issue and it's the one aspect of the film I'm a little disappointed with. Camera 87 is mostly comprised of long shots that run anywhere from a minute to four. During these scenes the actors are walking and looking around, which is visually dynamic, but makes it nearly impossible to keep a sound guy out of frame. I decided to rely on the XH A1's onboard mic and while it performed admirably, it wasn't always in an optimal position or even facing the actors at all. I leveled the audio the best I could in post, but refused to do any ADR since I wasn't confident in my ability to mix it in without being noticeable.
Q) Actors have more power on a found footage shoot because they have to carry so much of the story. How did you approach working with your actors? Did you rehearse them longer that you would on a normal film shoot or go straight to the filming?
A) I sort of answered this earlier, but not exactly. As I said, I allowed for a lot more improvisation and was very open with changes. I can't count the number of times somebody said "who would say this?" or "why would I do that?" but in the end, most of their objections were valid and I think the film is stronger as a result. As for the second part, we skipped rehearsals and went straight to filming. The reason being that there were only four of us and we were all committed. We'd get together on weekends, at everyone's convenience, and get done whatever we could. Nobody really minded if we spent a whole night trying to finish a scene as long as we got it right. I'm really fortunate to have had such cooperation and I believe the shoot was a lot more relaxing and entertaining as a result.
Q) Your film would fall into the sci fi area of found footage films. Most of these films fall into the area of sci fi or horror. I believe that the genre is going to have to expand into comedy, drama and action. A movie like End of Watch which did a great blending found footage with standard may be a blue print for the way this genre will find growth. I guess the question is can this style of film making be taken into new areas?
A) This depends on the criteria for "found footage". There are a lot of great movies and television shows (in a wide variety of genres) presented in a "documentary style" and in many ways, that's not very different. Some of the more recent found footage horror movies are even starting to lean more in this direction: George Romero's Diary of the Dead, although it was terrible, was edited from multiple cameras with voiceovers and music. I think it still belongs in the found footage genre, but stylistically, is it really any different than say, the Office? In a way, the only real differentiation to make is that in most found footage movies claim that the video was lost and then recovered. That sort of thing wouldn't work with a comedy so we get a mockumentary. I think the style has already branched out, it just goes by a lot of different names.
Q) What got you into the indie film making world? Also who are the film makers that you follow?
A) I got into independent film making because I love movies. It's a simple answer, but that's the truth. I've been shooting little shorts since I was in grade school, but I didn't get really serious until high school when I started meeting experienced artists from the local film community. I'm fortunate to live in a very arts-oriented city - it's a good environment and seeing other people's work really helps motivate you to get out there and create. As for the second part: I obviously admire the greats like Kubrick and Spielberg, but I tend to gravitate more toward directors who had less money to work with. Names that come to mind are Roger Corman and Ed Wood. I think there's a lot to learn from people who can make something from nothing. I also really admire James Rolfe who is popular on the internet for doing the Angry Video Game Nerd videos. He seems really passionate about film and by looking through his body of work you can actually see him grow from a high school kid shooting on VHS in his backyard to making a million dollar comedy epic. It's pretty inspiring.
Q) What is your next project going to be?
A) I've just finished up a short horror film called "Sweet Scarlett". It's a modern retelling of the story of Little Red Riding Hood done in the style of a slasher film. I'm thinking of trying my luck at a festival or two, but it'll make its way online eventually. I haven't begun to think of what I'll do next - my problem isn't that I don't have any ideas, but rather, too many of them!
Thank you again Kyle for taking the time to do this interview. I look forward to seeing and posting about your future work.
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