Up close, personal and right now

'Cloverfield' ushers in wave of 'point-of-view' pics

When "The Blair Witch Project" came out in 1999 with its scratchy "lost video tape" aesthetic and went on to gross $140 million, the industry braced itself for a wave of movies looking like they were made by the weirdo-wannabe-filmmaker-kid-next-door.

It never happened.

Even the sequel to "Blair Witch," 2000's "The Book of Secrets: Blair Witch 2," reverted to a more standard Hollywood format.

But with this weekend's release of "Cloverfield," which recounts a Godzilla-style attack on New York as told from the perspective of a young man with a camera, the "point of view" film wave finally is here. The Paramount pic took in an estimated $41 million.

The new wave of POV movies is part of the proliferation of cameras and the YouTubing of America. Back in the "Blair Witch" days, the justification for the cameras was that the characters were film students. But now cameras are ubiquitous throughout society -- and so is sharing what you shoot.

"This is now an aspect of people's lives," "Cloverfield" director Matt Reeves said. "When your phone is also your camera, and it's with you 24 hours a day, it's a way that people now process the world. It's a way to take it and share it. So it makes sense that there would be a sudden surge of movies from this point of view because it so connects to people's experience."

This year will see the arrival of no fewer than five POV films, up from last year's zero, including MGM's "The Poughkeepsie Tapes" in the fall, Screen Gems' "Quarantine" in October and "Paranormal Activity." Even renowned horror director George Romero got on the bandwagon with February's "Diary of the Dead," which explores a zombie outbreak from the first-person perspective.

Artier movies are getting in on the act, too.

Brian De Palma's "Redacted" used various POV techniques, including security cameras and film crews, to create a sort of faux documentary about soldiers in Iraq. Even the French-language "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" takes a modified first-person approach. Although it doesn't use a gimmick like "Cloverfield's" hand-held videography, the first section of the film, as well as subsequent installments, are photographed from the point of view of the movie's stroke victim.

John Erick Dowdle is one of the rising directors of the nascent genre. Dowdle, along with his brother Drew, has filmed "Poughkeepsie," a POV horror movie whose conceit is the police's discovery of hundreds of tapes made by a serial killer. That film has led Vertigo's Roy Lee and Doug Davison to hire him to remake a Spanish POV horror movie about a TV crew trapped in an apartment that contains a deadly strain of rabies.

Dowdle said the POV format is well suited for the horror genre because what you see is outweighed by what you don't see.

"In horror films, the scariness is so rooted in the subjectivity of a scene -- you can't see around the door, you can't see in the next room," Dowdle said. "This camera perspective really keeps the audience rooted in one point of view."

Reeves echoes Dowdle's sentiments and believes "anything that calls for a level of naturalism and voyeurism can absolutely be filmed in this style. But I also think it's a style that can also get tired very quickly," he added.

The emerging style is not without its challenges. Filming what appears to look like footage caught on the fly isn't as quick and easy as it looks.

Shooting a POV film can take different approaches. Reeves shot rehearsals as well as actual scenes, sometimes as many as 60 times, in an effort to capture authentic moments, while Dowdle rehearsed for eight hours a day before shooting for two.

The format can require almost more planning than a normal movie. "You can't hide anything with coverage because there is no coverage," Dowdle laughed. "You're shooting one continuous master. And when any piece doesn't work, like a squib that doesn't go off, the dog doesn't do what it is supposed to, someone flubs a line, then it's a reset."

That's why, according to those that have made POV films, casting is ultra-important. Actors with a theater background bring with them the experience of working onstage; instead of playing to a camera, they are more accustomed to acting in the round. There is no hiding a performance by using a reverse shot and some ADR.

"I had to get all the performance in the realm of where I wanted to get to," Reeves said. "It wasn't about tweaking one actor for his close-up. They all had to pull it of within the shot. That's why we had to do 60 takes, because it was about finding 'the scene.' "

The shoots also are grueling on camera operators. The challenge for them is to create the illusion that they are using a lightweight hand-held camera when in fact operators often are lugging around 50 pounds of equipment. "Quarantine" used the Sony F23 camera, while the more visual effects-intensive "Cloverfield" used a mix of the F23, Thomson's Grass Valley's Viper as well as hand-held cameras and an intermediate camera.

The operators were running up and down stairs, ducking out of harm's way and falling. "Cloverfield" even incorporated one cameraman's fall into the movie.

Said Reeves, "If you were in the middle of this attack and running for your life with group of people, you might fall and then get back up, and if your camera was on, that's what you would see."

Editing a POV movie also requires a different mind-set. With a POV movie, a filmmaker is trying to hide the cuts -- the final third of "Quarantine" is meant to look like one shot -- while at the same time making some cuts jagged.

"We had to come up with our own language of what unedited footage was," Reeves said.

With all the POV films on the horizon, count on more to come.

"Right now I'm wracking my brain trying to find other ways to make it feel organic to make a movie like that," Vertigo's Lee said.