Leave the GoPros to the Pro Athletes

There is a different camera in the market. A camera that can survive scratches, tumbles, and even water. A camera that can keep up with extreme sports fanatics, from surfers to skydivers, capturing every moment and showing it as it would be– just like if you were really there yourself. The GoPro is a durable, almost indestructible camera capable of keeping up with surfers, skateboarders, and even skydivers. The newest model of the GoPro, the HERO5 , can shoot in 4K and is  underwater without a protective case up to 33ft.

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With specs like this, the GoPro has made its way into the hands of extreme sports athletes and thrill seekers across the globe. One of the most notable stunts that has been captured on the GoPro was the highest jump ever taken by a skydiver, where Felix Baumgartner jumped from the edge of space at just over 128,000 feet in 2012. Up until 2014, this was the highest free fall ever to have taken place. In addition, Baumgartner became the first human to break the sound barrier without being in an aircraft.

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With GoPro’s popularity among extreme sports, it seems like it should make an easy transition into  narrative film. Russian filmmaker Ilya Naishuller wanted to create an immersive film that was told from the point of view from the main character so audiences would get the feeling that they were in the movie. A movie like this had never been attempted. Sure, there was the 1947 film noir Lady In the Lake, by Robert Montgomery, but it did not have the intense fast-paced action that Naishuller was trying to achieve. For such a film, the crew gravitated towards the GoPro, after looking at different cameras, like the black magic camera, settling on the GoPro because of its unique ability to capture quick pans without excess motion blur. The entire movie is told from Henry’s point of view, and the result is akin to a first-person shooter video game—without controls for the user. You can get a sense of the style in the trailer here. (WARNING: It does get pretty violent.)

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Both of these films use the GoPro to capture moments that would be near-impossible by a regular camera. Despite the excitement that surrounded Hardcore Henry, it is viewed by many as a flop, stating that its point of view gimmick is just that—a gimmick, and loses its punch within the first few minutes of the film. As New York Daily writer Stephen Whitty put it, “You could go see “Hardcore Henry”  — or you could gulp down a pint of vodka, load in “Grand Theft Auto,” then strap the TV to your face and throw yourself down the stairs.” On the other hand, Red Bull Stratos was a phenomenal viewing success, and has been viewed more than 41 million times and has broken the record for the most watched livestream, garnering 8 million viewers at it’s peak (Li). Why then, did the GoPro do so well with Red Bull Stratos and not Hardcore Henry? In truth, the GoPro only works in extreme sports videos and experiences, and is unsuccessful when used as a storytelling device in movies.  

First is the technicalities of the mount itself. By replacing a tripod with a human body, there are complications that arise. One of them is the shakiness of the mount. For most GoPros, they are mounted to helmets, chests, or held in the hand. In Red Bull Stratos, three cameras were used on Baumgartner’s body, one on each thigh and one on his chest pack. In Hardcore Henry, the camera was mounted on the stuntman’s head using a special camera rig designed for the film, intended to give the viewer a chance to see the stuntman’s arms and legs.

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Upon first viewing, the GoPro (despite all of its stabilizing features) failed to deliver. The camera was too shaky and the P.O.V was nauseating. The camera mount that was used had to be redesigned and the crew was constantly creating new prototypes for the mask mount even after initial production had started. The motorcycle chase is particularly stomach-churning.

 

In the clip , it’s hard to understand what is really happening. The quick head turns create too much motion and lack of a focal point make the action hard to follow. On the other hand, Red Bull Stratos used three different GoPros, including more cameras that were attached to the balloon that took Baumgartner into the stratosphere, and used footage from all of them to show his free fall from the edge of space. If one camera was only capturing the blackness of space, there was another one that was aimed at the Earth, creating a more dynamic viewing experience. Although the camera still had its shakiness in Red Bull Stratos, it was forgivable, because audiences had the opportunity to see a man break the sound barrier and free fall from the stratosphere. With film audiences, the expectations are different. There should be a clear storyline and a strong narrative, and audiences do not expect to see world records shattered, but are again, there for the story. Thus, the technical failures of the GoPro negatively affect the audience’s enjoyment of Hardcore Henry.

Second, mounting the GoPro on a person removes that person from the story and replaces it with the audience. In Hardcore Henry, the audiences is put in Henry’s shoes, who wakes up with no memories of his past and an inability to speak. The effect is jarring. Not only is the audience seeing everything from Henry’s eyes, they have no idea of his thoughts or feelings. Further, they do not have the opportunity to influence anything in the film, despite seeing everything from his point of view. In essence, this removes the protagonist from the story, and the audience has trouble empathizing with the main character because all of the information about him comes from supporting characters. Without building a character in which audiences  In comparison, the use of this first-person perspective succeeds in videos like Red Bull Stratos because the focus is on the event itself, rather than the storytelling behind it. This perspective works best when the experience is the focus, rathern than a journey. Also, the length of these videos has an impact on audience enjoyment. Most extreme sports videos are less than 10 minutes long, and audiences get a view of what the athlete was seeing —  for example, Baumgartner’s spin in space, which only got more terrifying as he gained speed:

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And then, it was over. With extreme sports videos, there is one central event, whereas Hardcore Henry tries to accomplish what a feature-length film would, with several different action-based sequences. The singular focus is what the GoPro does best. Otherwise audiences are attacked by a barrage of already heightened imagery which leaves them feeling overwhelmed and lost, which is never a good sign.

Moreover, the mount in Hardcore Henry was extremely intrusive in comparison to the ones used in Red Bull Stratos. In order to get the proper point of view shot, a mask was created for Hardcore Henry, as the helmet mounts did not include the actor’s hands and feet in the shot, which were integral to the action sequences in the film. The final mask was heavy and had to be fitted to the actor’s head, and the camera was placed close to the actor’s mouth, essentially caging him inside. After putting on the apparatus, the actor then had to act through extremely specific stunt scenes and be aware of where he was looking at the right time.Image result for hardcore henry mask Typically this much responsibility is delegated to the director of photography, but in Hardcore Henry, the actor had to not only act, but move the camera using his head in just the right way. That may have influenced Naishuller’s approach to creating the film; he played Henry for much of the movie, having written and directed the movie, it seems that he had the best knowledge of how to realize his vision. Despite the careful planning that went into planning the stunts in each shot, Hardcore Henry still feels like a video game rather than a movie. In an interview, Naishuller mentioned that most of the stunts involved making contact: for example, punches would have to connect with someone’s face in order to make the shot.

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Ouch.

Because the GoPro mount put the camera in the action, it was not possible to achieve a realistic effect without actually hitting someone. Of course, the stunts were still done in a controlled manner, but the result still misses the mark. It feels contrived and calculated, losing the organic integration of the audience that Naishuller sought to acheive. In contrast, the three cameras that were fitted to Baumgarten’s suit were unobtrusive. His main focus was on pulling off the stunt and managing himself and his own body, rather than trying to bend a knee or turn his head a certain way to get aerial shots of the Earth. His focus was on completing the jump successfully and  Thus, the experience that comes through Red Bull Stratos feels more truthful and real because audiences are seeing the raw, unfiltered view of the jump, rather than one that was calculated.

All in all, because of its technological limitations, removal of protagonist, and the intrusive mount, the first person point of view involving the GoPro was unsuccessful for Hardcore Henry. With extreme sports, all of these factors are forgivable, and even sometimes help to improve the viewer experience, like it did in Red Bull Stratos. Maybe next time, we should leave the GoPros to the professional athletes.

 

-Alison

 

Works Cited

  1. Li, Anita Final Numbers Are In: Space Jump Breaks YouTube Record. Mashable, 2012. Web.
  2. Whitty, Stephen ‘Hardcore Henry’ not worth point of viewing. New York Daily, 2016. Web.
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