How Action Cameras Have Changed Filmmaking

October 14, 2016
Gear News and Ideas
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If Nikon’s recent announcement of a 360-degree action camera tells us anything, it’s that the barely 10-year-old video phenomenon is probably going to stick around a little while longer. How did we get here? It seems like only yesterday that GoPros were lining the areas of store shelves reserved for holiday-season electronic gimmicks. Now, serious camera companies are making major investments in the action-camera market. Let’s take a brief look at the past, present, and future of game-changing action camera.

The Past

While the GoPro’s usefulness has expanded beyond its wearability (more on that later), wearability is where it all started, and the roots of wearable camera technology go far deep into the 1960’s. From skydiving to race-car driving, it took some clever ingenuity to use bulky film cameras to help create the first-person perspective. Some of these attempts even involved NASA. Nevertheless, the outcomes still look pretty cool.


Fast-forward to 1980’s. Canon released the tiny, rare, and expensive Ci-10, which was used in a few live television broadcasts and was of interest to private investigators looking for a discreet camera option. In 1986, Greg Marshall developed the Crittercam, a small camera used to record the behavior of animals with minimal human interference. Crittercam is still being used by National Geographic today.


From then on, various action cameras were developed to fit different needs. Some involved wearing a VCR as a backpack, others involved football helmets with antennae placed on top. Tech-innovator Steve-Mann even wore a camera 24/7 in a live broadcast of what became the first example of “lifecasting.”  He has had a continued influence on wearable technology since.


The common thread prior to the digital revolution was that, in order to get usable footage, cameras were either really expensive, incredibly distracting, or both. All of this changed with Nick Woodman, founder of the GoPro.

In 2005, The GoPro Hero 35mm 0001 only took still pictures, but it was still a big deal. For surfers and adrenaline junkies like Nick Woodman, the GoPro was the first affordable, wearable, and waterproof camera on the market. It was such a novelty that the world was treated to an adorable QVC pitch from Woodman once the camera was being distributed nationally.


GoPro went digital in 2006 and 10 second, audio-less, video became a reality. That’s when the current state of the action camera really began.

The Present

We all know the GoPro as an extreme-sports camera necessity, and we shouldn’t understate the impact of this. Just think about Red Bull. How many times have you watched one of their videos depicting an act of extreme skill, bravery, and possible insanity that you couldn’t help but look away from? Need a refresher? Watch this.


Or this.


These videos are enthralling. They’re also impossible to create without current action-camera technology. Our responsiveness to the first-person experience hasn’t gone unnoticed by Hollywood. Last year’s “Hardcore Henry” was almost entirely shot using GoPro’s, and the Oscar-nominated “The Martian” featured a lot of GoPro footage as well. This very in-depth article discusses the benefits of using GoPros on the film “Need for Speed.” Big time film productions are seeing the benefit of the action-camera’s standard use, but some filmmakers have been inspired by them in other ways.


Check out the starting point of the video below. The folks over at RocketJump have been known for their technical creativity, and it’s on full display here. Stitching together a bunch of GoPros lined up one next to the other, Freddie Wong and company are able to deliver a distinctly modern look to the old-as-cinema western genre.


Any conversation about the current state of action cameras would be incomplete without mentioning the role they’ve played in the prevalence of drone footage, but that’s a whole separate article in and of itself. For the sake of this article, though, it deserves to be noted that action camera technology has helped provide aerial footage to filmmakers who otherwise would not have been able to afford it.


The Future

With the flexibility and rapid evolution of action cameras, what will the future look like? Well, as we mentioned with Nikon’s new camera announcement, the short-term answer appears to be 360 degree footage. Right now, there are a ton of 360 action cams available, from Nikon, to Kodak, to companies I’ve never heard of. The only real limitation to shooting 360 is the limitation of watching VR. As VR watching becomes more widespread, so will these cameras.


Another near-future step may be livestreaming. Most of us have this capability with our phones and Facebook accounts, but widespread action camera capability could be huge. Sony is already beginning its implementation and GoPro has as well. However, these current updates seem to only be scratching the surface of what live-streaming on action cameras could be. Right now, a lot of these cameras require computers or smartphones to get their footage online or they have a direct-to-online time limit that hinders their usefulness. The less limited the connectivity is for action cameras, the more immediate and exciting their live streaming capabilities will become. This will capitalize on the already-intimate strengths action cameras currently possess.


Finally, the biggest future for action cameras might just be their connection to us. After all, these cameras are often attached to a person's body, and right now that's more or less what they are. However, if recent action cameras by Garmin and Graava are any indication, action cameras with awareness might be the next big market leap. Cameras that always know where you are, what your heart rate is, how fast you're going, and what video you're going to want to use might become the norm. Our phones already know more about us than ever before, why shouldn't our storytelling devices?

It's a given that action cameras will look and sound better in the future, but quality isn't really what makes them interesting. GoPro and others have not only helped change the way we shoot certain things, they're helping to change how we watch things as well. With the advancements on action-camera technology accelerating as competition grows, filmmakers would be wise to pay attention to this growing and changing market. You don't have to be Shaun White to make killer use of an action camera.

But it might be cooler if you were.


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Brent L Zaffino

I am a filmmaker out of Atlanta, Georgia currently working as a freelance director and videographer for music videos, short films, and corporate videos.

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