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Behind the Blair Witch Project

The marketing material and Web site for The Blair Witch Project imply thatthe film consists of actual documentary footage shot by three missingstudent filmmakers in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, during theirinvestigation of a supernatural legend known as the Blair Witch.Supposedly, the three students disappeared without a trace, and theirblack-and-white, 16mm film and color Super 8 video footage was located ayear later.

In reality, The Blair Witch Project is no documentary. It is a low-budget,87-minute, independent feature film made by Haxon Films of Orlando,Florida, and distributed by Artisan Entertainment. The project’s uniquemethod of production and postproduction-meant to resemble unrehearsed,documentary footage-may seem more unusual than any supernatural phenomenon,real or imagined.

Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick co-wrote, directed, and edited the movie,which took a different course than they originally planned. “We had thispremise of shooting it like a documentary for years,” says Myrick. “As itgrew, we embellished it and came up with this legend of the Blair Witch-awhole back-story about a ghost haunting these woods. Besides the ‘found’footage, we also shot footage with experts and family members to craft itas a more conventional documentary. The footage we got in the woods,however, was so strong that it told a narrative story by itself. Therefore,we dumped our plan to put other elements into it and ended up using much ofthat extra footage on the Web site and in other materials we are creating[including a comic book series and a book]. The film uses only the footageshot by the cast.”

To achieve their creative goals, the producers employed what they call”method filmmaking.” Cast members shot and captured all the footage andaudio in 16mm or Hi-8 over the course of eight days and nights atMaryland’s Seneca Creek State Park in October 1997. Rather than following adetailed script, the actors were given conceptual outlines and brief sceneupdates and were asked to stay in character throughout their camping tripwhile the film crew threw unscripted “stimuli” at them when they leastexpected it.

“They improvised dialogue and handled things we threw at them withoutknowing what those things would be in advance,” Myrick says. “This methodallowed them to completely immerse themselves in their characters withoutinterruption.”

The actors carried a Global Positioning Satellite system to navigatethrough thick woods to an abandoned house where the film climaxes. Alongthe way, they stopped at specific checkpoints where producers leftfilmmaking supplies, and the actors dropped off footage from the previousday.

Sanchez says filmmakers took precautions to keep the three cast memberssafe, but contact between cast and crew was kept to a minimum. “We leftthem general scene instructions three to four times a day via these littlecheckpoints we set up,” says Sanchez. “We always made sure they haddirecting notes, fresh batteries, tapes, and other supplies, and we gavethem a walkie-talkie and radio for an emergency. We kept within radio rangeat all times, but there were no emergencies, luckily. The GPS system keptthem from really getting lost-although they appear to in the film-while wethrew things at them.”

What the filmmakers threw were subtle provocations designed, in essence, toscare the jeepers out of the three cast members. “We woke them up a lot,ran around their tent pounding on the tent, and one time, we shook thetent,” says Sanchez. “Our goal was to keep them off guard. We left piles ofrocks in front of their tent and built little wood icons in the trees neartheir campsite. We also yelled in the woods late at night and playedvarious sounds through boom boxes. The whole point was to mess with thempsychologically and have them film their reactions as time wore on.”

Therefore, the movie features no visual effects to indicate thesupernatural element. Myrick and Sanchez admit that one reason for this wastheir extremely low budget. “This was definitely a credit card film, aboutas much as a decent new car,” concedes Sanchez. But other reasons forforegoing effects were creative-The Blair Witch Project is a reaction moviefirst and foremost.

Similarly, the movie’s low production values play into its creativerequirements. Since Myrick and Sanchez wanted to give the impression thatthe filmmakers were shooting a documentary under harsh conditions, forinstance, it made no sense to shoot 35mm.

“It was important to make sure this film did not look like there was athird party involved,” says Myrick. “We gave the cast a 16mm film cameraand an RCA Hi-8 video camera only. All the lighting at night comes from ENGlights on the video camera. All the audio comes from the camcorder’smicrophone or the DAT recorder. That is the production value we wanted.”

Indeed, many of the film scenes are grainy and poorly lit, many of thevideo scenes shake wildly and are hard to follow, and audio quality variesfrom scene to scene. Still, such work is impressive when one considers thatit was shot by non-professionals-the three cast members themselves. “Our DPtaught them how to load the cameras, get exposure and focus, and how tocare for the cameras, while our sound guy taught one of them how to run theDAT machine,” says Sanchez. “We didn’t want it shot too slick or anything.In the film, they are supposed to be student filmmakers, and we wanted thefootage to look like student footage.”

The film’s editing and postproduction process was more conventional, but itwas still unusual for a low-budget, indie film. For one thing, Myrick andSanchez had to cull through close to 20 hours of film and video footage tocome up with the 87 minutes featured in the film. While that footage wasshot over just eight days, it took about eight months to edit everything.

After that, the partners took the unusual step of transferring the entirefilm from DigiBeta to 35mm. “That is where a huge chunk of our budgetwent,” says Sanchez. “We had the transfer done at 4MC in Burbank. It’sextremely rare to transfer an entire film from the digital world to film,and it’s costly.”

“We had trouble getting people to give us quotes on what the transferwould cost because most of them had never done anything like this before,”he says. “4MC did the transfer mainly because they were the only ones wecould find who said they knew how to do such a job.”

An intended consequence of the process was that The Blair Witch Projectended up boxed on a film screen for the square television format-sort of a”reverse-letterbox format,” according to Sanchez. This, like many otheraspects of the production, was unavoidable-the decision flowed from theoriginal creative need to shoot on 16mm and video.

“They had to mask the sides to transfer it to 35mm,” says Sanchez. “We hadno choice in that-we didn’t want to lose the top and bottom of the framebecause there was important information there, since that is the format itwas shot in. In the theater, it looks like it’s being shown on a giant TVscreen.”

The film’s audio mix was the one area where filmmakers allowed moretypical, Hollywood production values into the project. The mix was createdby Dana Meeks at the Wilshire Stages, Los Angeles. Meeks subtly cleaned andenhanced much of the audio captured by the cast’s camcorder and DAT machine.

“The mixing people cleaned up a lot of very raw audio and really took thefilm to a new level,” says Myrick. “We told them to go ahead and addthings, but it had to be in keeping with the sensibility of the film. Theyreally understood what we were going for, and so they were able to addbackground ambient noise like crickets, cracking sticks, wind, and otherthings that really help the film.”