Saturday, September 15, 2012

GoPro Philosophy (and another stern mount)

I wrote a blog post a while back about some of the mounts and accessories that I had built for my GoPro, along with a video that got surprisingly popular (the article can be found right here). I've been thinking about it, and I decided to expand a little bit, and talk more directly about my philosophy of filming with the GoPro.

Also, I built another stern mount, which I'll describe first. If you want to skip straight to the philosophy, click here.

The new stern mount is a little lower profile. The Narwhal mount from last time provides a better view of the surroundings, but it's not right for every situation. It sticks up really high, so flipping over is not advised, and swimming is very bad. Also, if you do flip over, or brush the mount against a rock wall or something, it tends to get loose and start wobbling a lot. To fix all these issues in one fell swoop, I designed the new stern mount. It's a little specific to my boat (Fluid Bazooka) but the basic idea will work anywhere. I got a piece of plastic with a flat top, then figured out a way to connect it to the grabloop. POW.
Fully assembled and mounted. Always have a safety tether. Even if your mount is secure, the clip on the GoPro can still break. GoPro equipment
Disassembled. I usually connect the U-bar thingies to the side of the mount for transport. GoPro equipment
Another view. GoPro equipment
A closeup of the grabloop attachment point. GoPro equipment
The particular piece of plastic that I found was a cut off section of the center part of the seat of the old 2009 style Fluid outfitting. I used a bolt or two to attach it to a flat piece of plastic that had a slot cut in it that closely matched the grabloop. The fluid grabloops stand up a little bit, so that they're easier to clip to, and because of that they stick into the slot and make the mount really stable, but I think the idea can work for most boats.

The idea here was that most of the time, just a couple inches of extra height up off the stern would keep the camera up out of the water during boofs. Also, this would be a much more secure mount for large waterfalls.

Here are a couple frame captures to give an idea of how it works:
The waterfall in the Black canyon. GoPro equipment
Mamquam from the lip. GoPro equipment
Mamquam halfway down. GoPro equipment
It works pretty well for waterfalls, when the boat is tipping forward enough that some of the surroundings are visible. For small to medium rapids, the low mount is terrible.
Low mount on "Ballcrusher" in the Black Canyon. Terrible. GoPro equipment
Here's the high mount on a very similarly sized rapid. Much better. GoPro equipment
Low mount on "Honey Badger". If there is stuff to see, it looks fine. GoPro equipment
So, this makes for a great transition. Why do some of those shots look good, and others look terrible? This is where the philosophy of GoPro filming comes in.

GoPro Philosophy



The first thing here is an idea that was described really well by Freddie Wong somewhere on his youtube channel (can't find the particular video I'm looking for. It was somewhere on his "behind the scenes" channel). To paraphrase, if you want to make better films, watch other films and try to learn from them. There is something to be learned from every video, especially the ones that suck. When you watch a video, monitor your reactions, and try to figure out what's causing them. Are you enjoying the video? Is it boring or confusing? Do you actually feel the suspense they are trying to build? Whether the answer is yes or no doesn't really matter. What matters is why it's working or not working. Pay attention to the things that work well or poorly, and use or avoid those strategies in your videos.

And don't get too set in your ways. If you find any rules of thumb for making good videos, continually test the rules to see if they could be refined. Watch a video and see if you like it, then check your rules of thumb to see if they matched reality. Don't watch a video and see if it matches the rules, then use that to decide if you liked it or not.

After watching several GoPro-based videos critically, I started to formulate my personal unified theory of GoPro cinematography. The short version of it is this: use the gopro to film something. More precisely, what I mean is that you should have a subject that you are getting footage of as you use the GoPro.

If you were filming with a normal video camera, you probably wouldn't have very much footage of empty rapids, or many shots with just the bow of someone's boat sticking in from the side. Just because the GoPro is small enough to wear on your head doesn't mean that you should suddenly throw that experience out the window. Many of the GoPro videos that are boring are boring because the subject they are filming is an empty rapid out in front of the paddler. As always, there are exceptions. If the rapid is intense enough, it can be interesting to watch the bow of someone's boat while they run it. And sometimes the subject that you are capturing will be the unique view that a paddler sees, like the view from the top of a tall waterfall, or what it looks like down inside some narrow gorge. Also, I'm not trying to say that there is no use for head-mounted footage of reasonable rapids. If you were filming with a normal camera, you would hopefully include a couple establishing shots of empty rapids, or of the surroundings. Variety is good. This means that a couple headcam shots mixed into a normal video can really spice it up, even if you're not running 100 foot waterfalls. But you should usually avoid entirely headcam or entirely bank shots.

One of my favorite ways to use headcam footage is to follow someone through a rapid really closely, or to wear the GoPro backwards and have someone follow me. Then, you have that immersive view, where your viewer sort of feels like they could be running the rapid, but it's still interesting to watch, because you're filming the other paddler. You have a subject out there in the rapid. That tends to give the rapid a lot more scale, gives you a better sense of speed, and just generally gives your audience something to watch. The one tip here is that for your footage to turn out, you usually have to be much too close for comfort, because of the wide angle lens. I usually try to be constantly bumping into the subject's boat. It should go without saying that this is a great recipe for physical comedy and broken friendships.
Empty rapid. This footage has its place, but is it actually exciting to look at? GoPro equipment
WHAM! Action! We may look far apart, but I could have accidentally smacked Conor with my paddle right here. GoPro equipment


Now, of course, you see why bow mount and stern mount footage is interesting. The subject is you. You can mount a really close-in bowcam to try to capture your facial expressions as you boof the shit out of a 30 footer, or you can do an over-the-shoulder stern mount to see the tuck on that 80 footer. It's not just what you see in your boat, it's footage of you seeing what you see from your boat. This gives scale and impact to the rapids. However, it can be taken too far. I once wore a helmet camera on a little arm that was pointed back at my face, for a tourism Canada shoot up on the Slave river. The footage was nauseating, and even had it not been, it was too much of me. The face-only shot isolated my facial expressions too much; there was no context. It made for a great one-second clip mixed in with other shots, but more than a quick impression would have been too much. (Here's the video. It also made me look really silly.) Similarly, but to a less extreme degree, if you mount a stern or bow camera too low, you won't see anything but the paddler. You can do that intentionally, planning to cut it in with other shots, but think about that ahead of time.

Part of planning your GoPro shots, and thinking ahead of time about what they will look like, is experience. Go out to the garage, build yourself a little bow mount, and go try it out. A lot of the shots that I used as examples in this article were taken during a pair of trips down the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The Black Canyon is a really fun run, but it's not really all that intense. A lot of the reason that I was filming those runs was to practice filming, and get used to the new stern mount. I watched all the footage from the first trip, and thought about what looked good and what didn't, and even tried to imagine, if I were to make a short video of the adventure, what shots were missing. In that case, I noticed that after the grueling portage I sort of forgot about the cameras, so I had no footage of the second half of the trip.

It'll also help frame your shots if you have the lcd bacpack for your GoPro, and sometimes the stern mount is hard to reach, which makes the wireless remote very handy. Check out the GoPro store to upgrade. While you're there, check out the video on the GoPro homepage. Almost every shot, in whichever sport it is, is a shot of a person doing that sport. Cliff jumping? Nobody wants to see a big featureless wall of water coming toward the lens. They want to see hot chicks freefalling at the same time as you. Surfing? Base jumping? Same story: hot chicks. It's very rarely just a floating POV cam. They almost always have a subject that they are filming. The one exception I can think of is a helicopter shot near the beginning, where the shot has no traces of the helicopter, it's just a floating shot that slows down radically when we see a breaking wave. Even then, we're looking at the breaking wave. That's our subject.

So that's my GoPro philosophy. Film something with your GoPro. I think it's pretty simple, and hopefully I was able to explain it relatively clearly. If you have any refinements or counterexamples, please let me know, since I'm also trying to continually improve my own filmmaking. And if you haven't read the old post or seen the old video, check them out.

Original blog post: Cool things to do with your GoPro

Original video:

Fun things to do with your GoPro from Leif Anderson on Vimeo.

6 comments:

  1. Really interesting article, and you've hit the nail on the head. Regarding the head shot on the helmet arm, I think the issue with that shot (and yes it did look weird!) was that the arm wasn't long enough.

    The MTB guys are getting great results from a helmet mounted boom mounted around 20-28" out. This is an example video that uses quite a long pole.
    https://vimeo.com/14638294

    With the wide angle of the GoPro, most of the upper body and some of the kayak would be seen. Plus you get a variety of angle as the torso/head turns when entering and exiting eddy's etc.

    I think it would look good mounted the other way too looking towards the back of the helmet.

    Of course I know what everyone will say. On a kayak it would be highly dangerous! A definite snag hazard. And they would be absolutely right! Not to mention that wearing it would make you look like a total fool!

    However, this is where discretion would come in. Wearing it only on sections you would be 100% confident of not going over on, or in areas with known very deep water. It's not about wearing such a mount all the time, but choosing when conditions and situations best allow it. I doubt you'd want to run a 50ft fall with such a boom sticking out front for example! However it might work more safely mounted at the back looking towards the rear of the helmet.

    All about making the right decision at the right time. Getting a good variety of GoPro shots while kayaking is much harder than other sports like skiing since we have to have both hands on the paddle. So it needs a bit of out of the box thinking.

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    1. I agree completely about the head mount. In fact, take a look at this: http://vimeo.com/57634244

      One of the things that I want to try out is a bow or stern mount projecting out at an angle, not straight forward. There were a couple angled shots like that in The Shapeshifter, and they looked really good (http://vimeo.com/43520139), and I also caught a glimpse of some creekboating shots like that that people had gotten on acident during the Grand Prix. While creekboating, it's especially interesting because it looks like the paddler is trying to paddle across the frame. Just like most shots, more than a second or two would be too much, but it could really add some variety.

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    2. Oh definitely, an off angled mount would be great. Such as this one http://blog.aswatersports.co.uk/2013/01/ollies-go-pro-camera-kayak-rig.html

      The only thing that stops me trying that one out is that any really hard knock could damage the boat due to the rigidity of the mount to the grab handle. But it looks like a really versatile mount.

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  2. Leif, I just put together this experiment using the Boom Pro mount. It's a little risky, and I wouldn't want to use it on a high grade run, or indeed any run that I wasn't 1000% sure I knew inside out, top to bottom, with every single rock position. But here it is for fun anyway.
    https://vimeo.com/65755244

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    1. That looks cool. I'd like to see a little more about how it was built. It looks like a pole connected to a standard stick-on mount. How long is the pole? Any trickynesses to putting it together? Also, it could be cool to have it slightly to the side for the behind shots (offset to the side but still aimed in the direction of sight of the paddler), for an over-the-shoulder look, or very high looking down.

      Also, I bet once you've used it a few times you'll start taking slightly larger risks with it. I would bet that if it's the stick-on mount that's connecting it to your helmet, it would snap off before causing any injury.

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    2. The rig was pre built by a guy on Kickstarter. It's called the Boom Pro. It's funny you should mention mounting it slightly off to the side as that is one of the angles I was going to try. Although it will mean that my helmet will become covered in GoPro curved mounts! It would be a good angle to do though.

      I'd really like to see what I could do with only a GoPro. I'm rather jealous of the videos that the likes of Abe Kistlevitz produce like this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jj2fjQHzXDM

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