Action Cameras

How Cinematographers Make Wide-Angle Action Cam Video Play Well With Cinema Footage

February 17, 2015

By Greg Scoblete


Teton Gravity Research, an action-camera early adopter, prizes them for their ability to go where cinema cameras fear to tread. Teton trains its athletes, such as Tim Durtschi and Angel Collinson, to use action cams to get point-of-view footage that can comprise up to 20 percent of a feature film.

If you were wondering why GoPro’s stock price skyrocketed after its IPO, listen to cinematographers like Shane Hurlbut or Toby Oliver as they recount with barely disguised glee what they’ve put these action cameras through. They’ve plowed them into asphalt and rock, sent cars and trucks barreling into them at high speeds and—for the coup de grâce—melted them down in firestorms while still retrieving usable memory cards from the charred husks.

That most users of GoPros and other action cameras put their gear on a path of destruction has kept production lines humming. It’s also created a whole new era of point-of-view filmmaking, in which action cams are being increasingly pressed into service as the “disposable” camera of choice for productions large and small.

At the same time, action camera footage has made a leap from small screens to silver screens.

Todd Jones, co-founder of the action sports media company Teton Gravity Research, was an early adopter of action cameras. He prizes them for the ease with which he could mount them to goggles, helmets and high-flying athletes to capture point-of-view images that the production team simply couldn’t engineer, even with a helicopter and RED Epics. Back when action cameras produced standard-definition video and the quality “was so noticeably awful,” they were used sparingly, he says. Today, in films like Jeremy Jones’ Higher, action-camera footage can comprise almost 20 percent of the movie.

For all the gains that action cameras have made in the past several years, it’s still a challenge to integrate them into productions that use other cameras. Relative to cinema cameras or DSLRs, action cameras have miniscule image sensors and very limited control over exposure settings. Their wide-angle, often fish-eye lenses provide a noticeably different field-of-view that can be all the more jarring when blended with footage from more traditional cinema focal lengths. But according to the cinematographers we spoke with, there are several ways to mitigate these deficiencies and exploit action cameras to their fullest potential.

Planning Makes Perfect

For Jones, the first step in securing usable action-camera footage is ensuring that the athletes they work with are fully trained on the cameras they’ll be wearing. Teton Gravity Research uses Sony action cams—which Jones chose for their audio quality, sleek physical profile and contoured fit when mounted to goggles or helmets—and the company’s daredevils know they have an important role to play in securing great point-of-view footage. “We encourage them to think like camera [operators],” he says. “They know if we’re not around and they see something cool unfolding in front of them, that they have a camera… and can get the shot.” The athletes, he adds, have really embraced this dual role.

In instances where there’s no human operator or chance of human intervention, such as when Oliver and Hurlbut mounted GoPros to cars fated for fiery crash scenes, redundancy is the watchword. Mounting multiple action cameras ups the odds that some useable footage can be salvaged from the wreckage. It also ensures a wider range of camera angles. In Need for Speed, Hurlbut outfitted a replica of a Koenigsegg Agera race car with multiple GoPros and one was able to capture the view from the bottom of the car as it flipped over in the air above another vehicle. All the GoPro hardware and mounts Hurlbut used in Need for Speed, he says, were purchased at a chain electronics store.

And while action cameras are treated as “disposable” in the context of Hollywood budgets, they’re remarkably hard to dispose of. “We put GoPros in situations where I thought they would have a 30 percent survival rate, but it turned out to be closer to 80 percent,” Hurlbut says.

To film a truck crash in Wolf Creek 2, Oliver outfitted the plunging truck with six GoPros while deploying five on the ground to record the impact head-on. As Oliver recalls, eight emerged from the carnage, including the aforementioned GoPro that melted in the heat while still preserving its memory card. “But we captured a truly extraordinary shot that was used in the trailer, of the truck landing on top of the camera and blowing up.”

Set and Forget

Whether the action cam is on a suicide mission or bound to an athlete attempting a death-defying stunt, there’s no chance for a do-over or mid-course corrections. Action cameras typically offer minimal control over exposure, so you have to put your faith in the camera’s Auto mode, Hurlbut says, and hope for the best.

Beyond blind faith, both Hurlbut and Oliver had some GoPro-specific approaches that helped them in their respective films. Both used the Hero3+ Black Edition camera and took advantage of GoPro’s Protune controls, which lets you adjust white balance, ISO limit, sharpness and exposure compensation before filming. The only significant adjustment they made was to Protune’s color profile, setting it to flat, which is a neutral color profile that captures more details in shadows and highlights and can be color-corrected to better blend with footage from other cameras.

Both Hurlbut and Oliver set their GoPros to record at 2.7K resolution at 24 fps to better match the main camera’s resolution. “We looked at recording at 1080p and 48 fps but at that resolution it didn’t hold up as well,” Oliver says, though they were able to use some 1080p footage at 60 fps.

Another simple tweak Oliver employed was the use of ND filters. “The way GoPro controls exposure is with shutter speed and if you’re in bright sunlight, it will respond by speeding up the shutter which can give you a staccato look.” In digital cinema, Oliver noted, you tend to set a shutter speed for the whole movie, but the GoPro’s shutter is “all over the place.”

ND filters hit the brakes on this rapid shutter movement while the crew filmed Wolf Creek 2 on the sun-drenched plains of the Australian Outback.

Post Patch Up

Critical to any smooth integration of action camera footage is effective postprocessing.

In Need for Speed, Hurlbut worked with GoPro to expand the dynamic range of the Hero3 so while he was recording in 2.7K at 24 fps, he had a RAW file with more dynamic range than the Hero3 typically produces.

To reduce the noise and blend the GoPro scenes with those shot on the other cameras used in the film, the footage was run through Cinnafilm’s Dark Energy, a $199 plug-in for Adobe After Effects. The plug-in not only reduces noise and film grain in individual clips, but also works to ensure noise and film grain consistency across multiple video sources. Need for Speed blended files from a total of four cameras in Dark Energy: The Arri Alexa, a Canon EOS C500, a Canon EOS-1D C and GoPros.

Oliver also sees the new Hero4’s faster 4K frame rates as providing another opportunity to work around the GoPro’s limitations in postproduction—the distortions at the edge of the frame due to the camera’s wide angle lens. “If you have a 4K file in post you can zoom in to find a tighter frame and lose the fish-eye feel” without sacrificing resolution, he says.

Even the best edit may not camouflage the action cam, and for some scenes, the solution is to keep the cuts short. “It’s not ideal,” Oliver admits, but it’s often a choice of that “GoPro look” or nothing at all.

Besides, Hurlbut says, people shouldn’t get too caught up with quality concerns. Using action cameras isn’t about pristine image quality but about immersing the audience in thrilling experiences. “That emotion,” Hurlbut says, “you can’t get with any other camera.”