Many films, especially those in the horror genre, have enjoyed great box office successes using a “found footage” style of filmmaking, whereby most of the action is captured by handheld cameras—or simulated handheld—in a way that makes it seem like they were amateur home videos shot by the subjects of the film. The “Paranormal Activity” franchise, “Cloverfield,” “The Blair Witch Project,” and the TV show “The River” are all prime examples of this style of camerawork, and how successful it can be as a cinematographic mechanism.
If you're looking to play with found footage for your next project, the good news is that it's probably less expensive and time-consuming an undertaking than your average straight shooting, as you're purposefully going for an impromptu low-fi feel. The prime focus is to capture the action rather than the nuances, and it' can be as simple as just pointing and shooting. That said, there are still some techniques you will want to use to make sure that you are telling the story in a way that the audience can follow.
Here are a few tips for basic found-footage filmmaking.
This seems like a contradiction—after all, you're going for an amateur look and feel—but holding the camera as steady as possible on your subjects or action at any given time for a length of at least 10 seconds is recommended. Any tremors or bumps to the camera are magnified greatly on film. If you're running around with the camera and jostling it with abandon, you're going to get an end result that not only doesn't capture any visible action, it will literally make your audience vomit. (When “The Blair Witch Project” and “Cloverfield” were released, many audience members complained of dizziness and even throwing up in the theater!)
At the same time, found-footage style films can also be collections of “security” or mounted camera footage, whereby shakiness is not required for authenticity. In those cases, all you need is a tripod or mount and the concern becomes making sure all the action happens within the frame, because you can't move the camera!
Plot it out.
Just because the film is supposed to look impromptu, doesn't mean it's cinema verite. Things aren't just going to happen automatically as you envision when you hit record, or that it won't take as much time as a straight film project. Make sure you go into this with an organized script or storyboard, blocking, and shooting schedule. That way you can make sure to capture exactly what you need.
Lighting a found-footage set is not often as complex a set-up as a studio production, but you want to make sure that there is enough light to capture the action. Mounting a light on your camera may be the simplest and most effective solution, and you'll want to avoid shooting your subjects in front of windows to avoid shadowy backlighting. For mounted camera scenarios however, lighting may need to be more precise.
Getting good sound is just as important in a found-footage style film as it is in any other type of production. Whether your project relies on monologue, dialogue, or bumps in the night, you will need to pay attention to the audio levels coming in, and make sure they are strong enough for them to be effectively understood by your audience.
With all of the above said, leave the camera on its automatic setting(s) and let things like focus and balance adjust as you film. That will give it the true home-video feel—more so than any shakiness or improvised action!