The darling of the film world in the summer of 1999 was the independently-produced The Blair Witch Project, a phenomenon that arose from a college class project for the principals involved. Many younger viewers and critics hailed the film in a variety of electronic and print forums as a breakthrough in the horror genre due to its hand-held camera shooting style and unseen source of menace. Such critical and popular acclaim, however, shows the lack of grounding in the history of both fictive-feature and non-fiction film, as Blair Witch borrows heavily from the thematic and visual influences of the RKO horror films of the 1940s produced by Val Lewton while also incorporating the visual style of direct cinema pioneered by the members of Robert Drew Associates in the late 1950s and early 1960s. While The Blair Witch Project merely exhibits an extension of these thematic and stylistic elements, it did break ground with its use of the Internet and cable television's Sci-Fi channel as the foundations for the film's promotional campaign.
The Blair Witch Project's look is undeniably one with roots in the non-fiction film. In the early 1960s Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, Donn Pennebaker, Terence McCartney-Filgate, and David and Albert Maysles formed Robert Drew Associates to produce non-fiction films for Time-Life which eventually found their way to the ABC network's Close-Up! series (Ellis, 191). The experiments Drew Associates entered into led to the handheld camera style of filmmaking we have become so familiar with in contemporary film and television, and which provides the fundamental visual look for The Blair Witch Project. In Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film (2d ed.) Eric Barnouw tells us the Drew teamtested endless variations of standard equipment, to increase maneuverability. In a crucial breakthrough, they developed a wireless synchronizing system, based on the use of tuning forks--later replaced by another, based on crystal-controlled motors. They acquired wireless microphones, utilizing miniature transmitters (236) .
Other advancements in film equipment such as replacing many metal camera parts with plastic, zoom lenses with reflex view-finders allowing the camera operator to look directly through the lens, faster light-sensitive film stock that permitted filming in extremely low light conditions, and development of transistors to replace vacuum tubes also contributed to freeing the camera from the tripod. As a result of these discoveries, filmmakers could now record a continuous flow of action, including synchronized sound, without having to pause due to equipment limitations.
The freedom spawned by these technological improvements led to an era of experimentation in both non-fiction and fictive production. John Cassavetes was drawn to the possibilities presented by these equipment advances, using these tools in 1960's Shadows, which he shot on protable 16mm. The mobile camera and synchronized sound allowed the cast of Shadows the freedom to improvise their performances, giving ot a rawness unseen in fictive features at the time.
On the non-fiction side where the use of the lightweight camera was particularly favored, Drew Associates established many of non-directed cinema's conventions in Primary...