A few years ago, Brad Miska, the founder of all-purpose horror hub Bloody Disgusting had an idea. He wanted to create a Twilight Zone-style anthology series about kids who come upon a stack of old videotapes, with the contents of each comprising that week’s episode. Instead of a TV show, though, he ended up collaborating with rising horror maestros Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard on a movie called V/H/S–establishing a thriving talent pool that has produced the most innovative found footage horror in years.
“It was a little bit of a fuck-you to found footage, in a sense,” says Miska. “It was a response to bad found footage. We were trying to do the opposite of everything we hated about it. So anything that we thought was negative and done wrong we wanted to do differently.”
Miska wrote down a giant list of directors he liked and whose work was respected in the film community, and approached them to work on what he envisioned as a horror movie with a mixtape ethos. (If viewers weren’t feeling one segment, the next would come along in just a few moments.) Beyond Barrett and Wingard, the first film also featured entries from Joe Swanberg and Ti West, who have both since begun working on projects with major stars attached. Other directors in the series include The Raid: Redemption helmer Gareth Huy Evans and Open Windows’ Nacho Vigalondo.
As the third and possibly final entry, V/H/S: Viral, opens theatrically—it’s also available on VOD—directors from all three films offer tips on how to scare the living daylights out of people and make it look like an accident.
Back when they were Chad Matt and Rob, the filmmakers no known as Radio Silence made a short video called Mountain Devil Prank Fails Horribly. The group sent the wickedly funny found footage short to Miska, hoping to be featured on Bloody Disgusting, and ended up starting a conversation that lead to the group replacing a director who dropped out of the original V/H/S at the last minute. Radio Silence shot their segment in four days, and turned it around weeks later. The results were so impressive the group earned the opportunity to make its feature film debut, Devil’s Due, earlier this year, for 20th Century Fox. (It earned back five times its budget.)
Work Backwards From The Location
The most important thing about real estate may also be the most important thing in a found footage horror movie too.
“We’re huge on proper structure and we always have been. We don’t care if we’re making a two-minute video for the internet, we wanted to structure it properly and make sure the principles of storytelling are there,” says Villella. “Since we have always worked on micro budgets, though, we have always been location based first when we film. We’ll have a concept for our piece, we’ll go scout locations and then when we find the spot, we go back through the script, tailor it to fit that location and then we do it that way out. So when we found this house just outside Pasadena for the V/H/S shoot, we spent like a day there walking room to room, writing each scene out, knowing what we had to work with, and how we’d be able to use the space to its fullest. We ran all over every corner of that house. We wanted to make sure that we were able to use everything–the fixtures, the mirrors, the carpets, the bedding–to help set that mood. “
Keep Improvising Until You Find The Right Beats
The great thing about shooting digitally is that you can just let the camera roll and run forever, or at least until you find exactly what you need.
“We love doing really, really long takes multiple times,” Villella says. “It just helps the performance and the visceral feel for the whole piece. You get actors you really trust and are great at improv—because, unfortunately, if they have one line of dialogue that feels forced, it could screw up the entire project. And by the time we actually find the take we use, we know where the scene is going, we know when the moments are happening, we know when the scares will be. It’s an actor-out environment that we really try to embrace, and it helps us find those different moments. What we like to do is think of the typical cliché for a horror thing and then have keep playing it out until it feels like real life.”
Visual Effects Need To Look Authentically Dirty
Designing special effects is hard when you’re on a budget, but with found footage, it’s very, very hard. Especially if you want it to look like whatever you’re creating is actually some anomaly you happened to catch on camera.
“In the V/H/S short, our process was we shot everything in high definition originally, and then we would layer in the effects,” Villella says. “After that, we had this crazy exporting process where we actually ran from digital, we created a DVD, we ran the DVD back through a high eight camera, and then captured the image off the high eight camera back into digital. So we had that rough, like, organic, if not for a better word, crappy look that we wanted. I mean we did a very similar process when we did Devil’s Due too. We’re like cool, let’s not have this crystal clean, everything looks great picture, let’s make this a lot more earthy, a lot more visceral. I think it gives it a lot more natural organic feel to the effects when they’re dirtier.”
When Eduardo Sánchez and his collaborators made The Blair Witch Project in the late-1990s, they never dreamt that it would be seen in theaters, let alone by millions and millions of people. It was just an experiment. Of course, the movie did end up in theaters worldwide, breaking small budget box office records and kicking off the found footage explosion. Sánchez isn’t just considered a godfather of the genre, though, he still works within it occasionally, on projects including the Sasquatch frightfest, Exists, which is now available on demand. Recently, he also contributed a segment to V/H/S 2 after having a summit with Miska at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013. He worked on it with his Blair Witch producer, Gregg Hale, and Jamie Nash, a writer he’s also been working with for years.
Keep It Real-ish (Real, But Not Too Real)
As important as it is to make you movie as realistic as possible and not leave any distraction from the cinema world in the movie, Sánchez learned the hard way that there’s such a thing as too realistic.
“I think if somebody would have told us, ‘Hey man, this thing is gonna be in theaters everywhere,’ we would have done something about the shakiness,” the director says. “We would have addressed that stuff. But to us it was about being real. If Heather is a bad camera person, and they’re just stumbling their way through this documentary, it’s more real that the footage looks kinda crappy, that they’re not experienced filmmakers. But things have changed since then. You’re not trying to fool anybody, so on Exists, we just let the DP do what he wanted to do to a certain extent and keeping it real but also acknowledging that we’re not trying to fool anybody.
There Are Certain Moments Nobody Would Ever Film
Audiences have very astute bullshit detectors, and even in a movie where monsters exist, they still want to see human behavior that seems believable.
“Found footage movies are constantly about skirting the truth, skirting the idea that these people are gonna keep shooting while a monster chases them or while their friend is attacked by demons or whatever it is you’re trying to film,” Sánchez says. “It gets ridiculous at a certain point. You’re watching and thinking, ‘I’d throw the camera at that damn creature.’ But then you wouldn’t have a movie. You have to come up with a reason to at least give an idea of why they’re shooting. That’s why with our V/H/S story, this guy is doing what a lot of people do, and putting Go Pros on his bikes and going crazy.
You’ve definitely gotta think that through. You have to be really aware of like how far you wanna take it as far as the unbelievability quotient. Because there’s a lot of times where you’re like I really want this scene but I cannot justify them turning their cameras on. Like, why would they be filming themselves killing somebody or why would they be filming themselves having this argument? And you kinda have to think it through and know when to say ‘I can’t do that, it’ll lose the audience.'”
There are some subtle things in found footage that you can get away with that you just couldn’t sell in a normal movie. That’s why it’s better to err on the side of small.
“I think that most of the time with these movies, less is more,” Sánchez says. “Tension just seems to be a lot quieter. It doesn’t have to be as big. We did everything we could with sound design, twigs, and tiny handprints on Blair Witch. As soon as you start getting too big, it starts losing its believability. At the same time, you have to keep it interesting. Sometimes found footage movies fall into people talking, and most people don’t sit around taping each other talking. It can be boring to see that. So you have to really fight yourself from either super unrealistic cinema moments or being boring. Exists has a few cinematic elements I just couldn’t resist, but the general rule with found footage is keep those to a minimum.”
Marcel Sarmiento is the young director behind horror movies like Deadgirl and the short film Dogfight from that other anthology horror series, The ABCs of Death. When Sarmiento first met with Miska about working on the latest installment of V/H/S, he pitched the idea of taking the premise on the road–literally, with a runaway ice cream truck that inspires viral videos–making it quicker and more action-oriented. The wraparound story he ultimately created takes V/H/S in a new direction, even if the series’ future is uncertain. It was his first time making a found footage horror movie.
The Thanksgiving Dinner School of Non-Acting
There is a specific style of acting that works in found footage, and it looks a lot more like general camera awareness than it does like theatrical acting.
“You want your actors to perform for the camera in a way that we all know that they’ve become accustomed to performing when you realize you’re on camera,” Sarmiento says. “We all do that whether it’s around the table at Thanksgiving or whatever. We all know when we’re on camera. But at the same time you want your actors to not be so aware of the camera that they bring your attention to the camera, because you want them to get lost in the situation they are in as though you just happen to be filming it. And it’s sort of a tricky balance because we as an audience won’t get lost in it either if the actor is too aware that they’re shooting.”
Invent a Reason To Use Multiple Cameras
In one of the grossest moments in the entire V/H/S series, an unfortunate young man becomes attached to a moving vehicle and dragged down the highway as his friends look on. Things do not end well for him. But at least his predicament shows how scenes can become more dynamic when there’s a reason to have multiple cameras filming.
“In that scene, all these kids are out on their bikes trying to film something. We tried really had to make sure there’s never anything that wasn’t either on a kid’s helmet from his bike or from the kid being dragged,” Sarmiento says. “The idea was to keep them moving and to keep the bicyclist interweaving between the police cars. We sort of tricked the same motion you’d probably see in an action scene from a traditional movie, where they’d have a camera mounted on a car that would swerve all around. We tried to do the same thing but it just had to be justified. The difference here also is that because it’s found footage we were really actually using Go Pros and this camera system called the Novo and this other camera system called the SI-2K.You don’t have to work too hard to degrade the image because, with that kind of stunt, you’re challenged enough with just what you’re doing.”