Extreme Shooting

Originally designed for extreme sports enthusiasts, GoPro cameras have become the latest must-have creative gadget. We talk to CR readers about what makes them so useful and trace the brand’s highly effective use of content marketing techniques

When Felix Baumgartner plummeted through the stratosphere in 2012, millions tuned in to watch his descent. What most didn’t know at the time was that the stunt was filmed using five GoPro cameras attached to the skydiver’s suit. But on the night of this year’s Super Bowl, GoPro released an extended video of his terrifying free fall, poised on the edge of the earth and caught in a dangerous spin.

GoPro, which makes cameras, mounts and accessories that can be affixed to almost anything, has received a great deal of media attention of late. The Super Bowl ad has 13 million views online, as well as being broadcast on TV to millions more, and content from GoPro users has gone viral, too. A recent video of one falling from a plane and almost being eaten by a pig was picked up by news sites around the world and also had over 10 million views. For a company that produces some fairly niche equipment, it’s fast becoming a brand name to rival Canon or Nikon.

It may seem like an overnight success, but GoPro was founded more than a decade ago by 37-year-old Nicholas Woodman after his online gaming business, Funbug, went bust. Woodman reportedly had the idea for the company on a surfing trip in Indonesia, when he used a disposable camera, a surfboard leash and some rubber wristbands to capture a wave.

In the early days, Woodman ran research, marketing and development from his VW campervan. According to Forbes, the company grossed $350,000 in its first year and sales have more than doubled every year since the first camera was released in 2004. Woodman is now worth an estimated $1.3 billion.

GoPro’s success is largely due to a savvy business model and continuous product development. By regularly releasing new mounts, add-ons, upgrades and accessories, the company has ensured its product appeals to surfers, divers, climbers, skiers, skydivers and almost anyone engaged in pursuits they can’t capture on delicate smartphones or point and shoots. But its growing success and presence online is also due to its clever use of users’ footage.

Like Red Bull, GoPro spends a great deal of money on sponsoring athletes and extreme sportspeople. It also runs competitions awarding talented amateur photographers shooting with its cameras. Surfer Robbie Crawford was recently given $2500 after winning a GoPro photo competition on Facebook and regularly uploads fantastic images from inside the barrels of waves.

The company’s in-house production team travel the world looking filming interesting pursuits or locations, from surf competitions to safaris. It also selects featured content from the thousands of films uploaded by users each day and has made this into some compelling promotional videos.

Most of this content is published on GoPro’s website and its YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter feeds. But in a recent interview with the New York Times, Woodward said he thinks there is a “phenomenal opportunity … to leverage GoPro as a media brand”. In October last year, Virgin Atlantic launched a GoPro channel on its in-flight entertainment, and in January the company announced it was launching an app for Xbox that would allow users to watch live streams of GoPro footage.

Most brands are increasingly aware of the need to create campaigns that rely on audience participation or ‘collective storytelling’. But few have had as much success as GoPro, which has transformed itself from a product used by extreme sportsmen and daredevils, to one that professional filmmakers are also keen to use – particularly when looking to create content that feels ‘authentic’.

Gavin Strange, a senior designer at Aardman, told us he regularly uses GoPros to shoot videos with his friends. He also used one to film the making of a five-foot Gromit (from Wallace and Gromit).

“It’s not very cinematic but then, it’s not supposed to be. As it’s fisheye, everything is in focus and feels quite flat, but what it does very well is create a home-made aesthetic. The fisheye look is very much engrained in quick filmmaking – and the real attraction, of course, is that you can stick it on anything, on limbs, on boards, underwater or on helmets” he says.

This, of course, is what makes GoPros popular with companies filming athletes or extreme pursuits. John Newbold, creative director at 383 project, has produced several promotional films using GoPros and says it is now “one of the few cameras you’d expect most production teams to own nowadays”.

“They do stand out as being slightly poorer quality than other cameras we use, but that’s a combination of experienced eyes looking at it and a little industry snobbery…mostly, [we use them] because you can get shots with one you can’t get with anything else and you don’t mind taking a risk with the unit because they’re not expensive.”

Barrett Veldsman, creative director at Blue Crayon, agrees. His company often uses GoPros for aerial photography and has produced some impressive images for Oakley by strapping one to an Octocopter. “On a technical level, it has limitations against professional equipment … but if used for their intended purpose, to provide a unique point of view where it’s not possible to mount larger rigs, they are the best in their field.”

The camera’s point-of-view capabilities aren’t just attracting the attention of companies filming sports-related content, however, but also travel and consumer brands. Director Tomas Leach recently made a series of ads for Tesco Hudl shot from the tablet’s perspective and Daryl Irvine, creative director at Walker Agency, used them to shoot campaigns for both P&O and National Express.

The P&O campaign followed a Mediterranean cruise. “The goal was to capture the experience in an immersive, POV format and deliver short segments of video on YouTube as a non-linear, choose your own adventure style format,” says Irvine, with the aim of making users feel like they were ‘on the journey’ – for this, he used GoPros to shoot scenes with no characters in the frame.

Irvine also used GoPros for an upcoming campaign for National Express, in which eight competition winners are taken to Amsterdam and Paris for a five-day trip. It was shot on GoPros as the wide angle lenses make for “more dynamic shots” of static buildings, says Irvine, and because they create footage that feels authentic and “of the moment”.

“I’ve had negative comments from DOPs who think its sacrilege to not use £100k cameras and full crew … but in an era when authenticity and inclusion are paramount, these cameras create great online experiences,” he says.

Of course, the same results can often be achieved using standard equipment which would also mean a better quality image. But if GoPro looks good enough – or the desired aesthetic is one that has a certain homemade quality – why bother?

While it’s becoming increasingly popular in online marketing and ‘behind-the-scenes’ or ‘how it was made’ footage, however, the use of GoPros in film or upscale productions is still controversial. Makers of the Hobbit were fiercely criticised by viewers who suspected the cameras had been used to shoot certain action scenes in the movie, with one claiming. “It felt like I was being punched in the face. Total break in continuity!”

Using a consumer camera in a high budget production like the Hobbit is, of course, a questionable move. But for filmmakers with limited resources, or who want to create a lo-fi feel, they can be a useful tool, as director and actor Chris New told us.

New has recently finished filming his directorial debut, an adaptation of Chris Dunkley’s play Smallholding, shot entirely using GoPros. “I knew that I wanted the action and the story to be the most important element of the production. The technical aspects had to keep out of the way. [We used] a very basic sound kit and a camera, [and] mostly natural light – or situational light at night. Too often it feels on-set like the camera dominates the day – the pace of the work, the length of the takes and the physical shape of a scene – I had to resist that as much as possible.”

New admits the equipment he used wouldn’t be suitable for every project, but says: “The film I wanted to make required a certain immediacy…. I wanted to keep the budget low to retain freedom and most importantly, I wanted final cut,” he adds.

For students, too, GoPro has proved useful for shooting scenes that would usually be tricky, expensive or too time consuming to capture. Angela Fendley, a student at Arts University Bournemouth, used GoPro cameras to film a National Trust video for this year’s New Blood student brief, which features shots filmed on a bike, a surfboard and a horse.

“We borrowed [it] from a skate-mad student, and invested in the clamp, which at £50 is a high price to pay, but is perfect for clipping to all manner of objects. For the stiller shots, the quality is a little fuzzy, but for fast moving action we couldn’t fault it – our visual comms tutors were so impressed they have gone out and bought one for the department,” she adds.

When looking for GoPro users, we were also contacted by a member of the GB rowing team, Nathaniel Reilly O’Donnell, who uses it to document and analyse training sessions and share behind the scenes footage with websites such as The Huffington Post, increasing publicity for the team. He can’t use the equipment while competing but Reilly O’Donnell’s footage is just one example of how brands can use affordable tech like GoPro produce intimate footage of sponsored stars at very little cost.

Using customer content to create compelling footage is nothing new – Sainsbury’s did it to great effect in a 60-minute ad this Christmas – but GoPro has arguably done so better than most. It isn’t the only tool that can capture hard-to-reach shots, and it can’t compete with industry standard equipment in terms of quality, but it is being used to create some exciting POV footage.

“They get straight to the heart of storytelling and are far less intrusive, making them great for capturing real moments without a complicated production,” says Irvine.

CR would like to thank everyone who contacted us regarding this article – your comments, pictures and info were greatly appreciated. To find out more about GoPro’s products, see gopro.com, or view more user footage on GoPro’s Facebook, Instagram and YouTube feeds

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