Features and Columns · Movies

Found Footage Films Are Sans Score and Soundtrack, But Do You Miss Them?

By  · Published on March 8th, 2012

Who wouldn’t love to have their own personal soundtrack playing wherever they went? An epic theme song that announced your arrival when you walked into a room or a electric guitar riff whenever you might need an extra rush of adrenaline – these touches would make every move you made seem movie worthy. And sure, you can throw in your iPod ear buds as you walk around town or crank up your car stereo as you hit the gas to get a similar effect, but without having someone follow you around with a boom box, having a personal soundtrack is not very likely because (unfortunately) that is not how things work in real life.

In normal, everyday life music isn’t always playing, underscoring our more emotional moments and highlighting the intense ones. With the emergence of found footage films bringing a new style of filmmaking to the industry (with mixed results and reactions), the idea that these films are made up of footage anyone could capture if they were to pick up a camera and hit record leaves these films (as is the case in life) without much music. Real life is full of ambient noises, awkward pauses and people accidentally talking over one another so a film capturing these moments would break that unedited feeling if it had perfectly scored music fleshing out scenes because that is simply not true to reality.

Music not only helps add to the emotion of a scene, but it also acts as a nod to the feelings not always said out loud by the characters. If the camera shows a character staring out at the horizon with soaring strings you feel hopeful whereas that scene with ominous tones and rumbling bass would make you feel anxious. In real life, if you came across someone staring out at nothing, you would not have musical cues to tell you what they were feeling and found footage mimics how most people would react in these moments. But because found footage does not need to adhere to the rule of the fourth wall, the person capturing that moment can ask that person what they are feeling (as you would in real life) and this ability to talk to the camera (and have the person filming add in their own commentary) makes the need for music to fill in for unspoken emotions almost unnecessary.

In a scene in Cloverfield, Rob (Michael Stahl-David) has just found out the girl he recently hooked up with (Beth) has showed up at his going away party with another guy. Rather than having score play under the reveal of Beth’s (Odette Yustman) arrival at the party and Rob’s reaction to it, we are able to get spoken commentary (provided by the ever-hilarious TJ Miller’s Hud) as he takes in what is happening and then tracks down Rob to get the scoop, leaving the camera on the whole time. Having the guys hash the moment out without the addition of music gives the scene that raw feeling of what you would actually hear if you were to come across this conversation at a party and not a scene intentionally crafted for a film.

The only time you will usually hear music in these films is if the camera is capturing a party (as it does in Cloverfield and the recently released Project X) and even then the music is played loud and gets in the way of being able to hear the dialogue and becomes an almost combative object rather than something enhancing what is happening on screen. Found footage films rarely have soundtracks attached to them, which makes sense since no music would mean no soundtrack, but when they do compile one it is usually a playlist of the music heard during a party (like with Cloverfield’s “Rob’s Party Mix” that rounded up all the songs played during his going away party.)

This format of found footage with little music seems to work best for horror films since the lack of musical cues can end up being more frightening because you have nothing to help you anticipate the next scare. Films like Cloverfield, the Paranormal Activity trilogy and the film that kicked this genre into the mainstream, The Blair Witch Project, make handy use of the shaky camera effect you would get from an amateur videographer with ambient noises becoming a part of the scares when the sometimes blurred visuals leave you with only whatever audible cues are captured to go off of. Because the person filming is also experiencing those frightening moments (not just documenting them), dropping the camera or holding it while running bring a whole new meaning to the idea of cut away shots and the sound of people panting and screaming certainly work as a substitute for booming percussion and erie strings.

Score and specifically placed music would sound wrong within the found footage format and would end up taking viewers out of the experience rather than enhancing it. Music will always play an integral role in films, but it would be out of place here. This lack of polish is what gives these films their untouched affect and captures what life really sounds and feels like. Until we can make that dream of having our own soundtracks play wherever we go a reality, the films capturing that reality will have to do so without music to drive it along.

Do you notice the near absence of music in found footage films? Do you think adding music would hinder the found footage experience?

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