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Driving Fast Cars, Riding Fast Bikes and Hanging Out with the GoPro HERO3

As an editor and someone who lives and works predominantly in post-production, I rarely get to do cool shoot-related stuff like hang out of helicopters or travel to a tropical island to get that perfect shot in that perfect location. I’m not particularly fond of heights but I do like the ocean so I probably wouldn’t turn down such a work trip if the situation arose. I also like speed (and cars), so when such an opportunity came up to attend a GoPro launch event in San Francisco last week I jumped at it. At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to take three days off work to attend a camera-related event; it  didn’t seem somehow appropriate for a video editor who mostly writes about post. Plus, this was a press junket aimed at technology journalists and their ilk—I'm just a blogger who writes about what I know best. But when I saw the invitation and realized that this would be a trip unlike any before, I decided I had to make it happen. Attendees got to choose between a "Land, Air or Sea" adventure. Since the land adventure advised that one “must be comfortable at speeds up to 140 mph,” I knew that was the one for me. And since this was being produced by GoPro, the extreme camera company, my guess was it would be far from tame.

But I still wondered just how far down the StudioDaily food chain someone had to go before they finally asked their Nashville-based post-production blogger and reviewer to go. (Truth be told, both Bryant and Beth had conflicts and couldn't make the trip, plus Beth had an injured shoulder not yet ready for high-octane adventures of any kind; she also knew I liked fast cars.) Yes, the more I thought about it, the more I realized how appropriate it was for me to go. After all, we video and television editors often have to deal with hours and hours of GoPro footage in a lot of different formats, with point-of-views from all kinds of weird mounts and have to sort through it all. I wondered what GoPro had in store for us next.

If you’re unfamiliar with it, the press junket is really a strange thing. Some company flies a lot of strangers—though sometimes these press folks clearly get to know one another well over time—to some hotel and proceeds to feed them both food and booze and give them moderately usable stuff in the hopes that said strangers will Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and/or blog about their new product or service. That product or service is also supposed to be better than their previous product or service (and often those of their competition). In a rare instance, and maybe that is becoming less rare as we all adapt to social media, the company may have a jewel of an attendee who will attempt to spread the word through all of the above. That person is most likely a human dynamo or is using some app that sends the exact same thing to all of those services, thereby pissing off followers who might follow that person on more than one service. Sorry if that was me, but it was hard to keep up with so much happening at once.

The more the company wants their attendees to spread the word about what they are doing, then the better the product needs to be. Or the better the event in which they are showing the product. I honestly think GoPro succeeded on both fronts, and I’m not just saying that because of the swag (or other vital encouragement).

When we arrived on Tuesday we were treated to a reception and dinner before the young and enthusiastic CEO of GoPro, Nick Woodman, came onstage to tell us why we were all there. It wasn’t a big surprise that it was for the new HERO3. This new camera would take GoPro from a single camera company to one that offers three different options, the Black, Silver and White editions. They range in price from $400 to $300 to $200, respectively. The real price is actually one cent less, so subtract one cent from each of those numbers if you need it to be more accurate. While the buzz for these new cameras is smaller, faster, lighter, I think the big surprise came in the new specs for the flagship product:

The HERO3 shoots 4K.

Before editors begin too worry about all that current GoPro footage they must deal with suddenly quadrupling in size, let it be known that the frame rate of 4K is only 15 fps. While you’ll see 4K marketed heavily for the HERO3, even the GoPro guys would tell you it’s really only useful for a speed-em-up fake video time-lapse, or maybe for grabbing some still images. But the HERO3 also shoots some impressive still image frames-per-second as well, so there are actually a lot of new options.

What is going to be usable is the 2.7K resolution that the HERO3 also shoots. GoPro had their HERO3 demos playing all during the event on some nice HDTVs, and a lot of the footage was downright stunning, considering the size of the camera. Yes, of course it was very carefully composed and color graded, but it really showed what you can get out of this little thing. I think the extra resolution will be handy for post since GoPro’s wide field of view often benefits from some cropping and reframing (and stabilization), though don’t expect to make a close-up out of a wide with 2.7K.

In addition to the new resolutions there are also new frame rates that go all the way up to 240 fps. That’s at WVGA resolution, so we’ll consider 720p120 as the most usable for off-speed stuff. That’s a pretty nice frame rate; I’m sure YouTube will soon be inundated with HERO3 extreme slow-motion clips.

After some impressive sales stats at the opening night event we all got a bag containing a fresh-off-the-Chinese-assembly-line HERO3 Black edition, as well as all the accessories we would need to document the adventures we’d be taking the next day. The "Land" adventure consisted of lapping Sonoma Raceway in Audi R8s and riding on the back of a MotoGoPro-style sport bike. The "Air" adventure was taking a ride in a hot air balloon, then going up with the Patriots Jet Team for some Top Gun-style fun. The "Sea" adventure was only diving with sharks in the San Francisco aquarium and then helping pilot an America’s Cup yacht.

If you think about the most popular use of social media sites (like Facebook), which is essentially posting comments and pictures to show people you don’t talk to very often that you’re doing something cool that they aren’t, GoPro knew full well the company would get a lot of cool press about their new camera. They also knew that we'd all understand that a GoPro is the perfect little camera to take on your vacation/adventures of the future.

Wednesday began early; 5:00 a.m. eating breakfast, filling out emergency contact forms and signing waivers that if you wrecked an R8, crashed a jet or sunk an American’s Cup catamaran, you wouldn’t hold GoPro responsible. After that, it was a bus ride to the racetrack for some speed on land.

If you’ve never been to a race track, you don’t know what you’re missing. Folks who aren’t particularly interested in things with wheels going fast are impressed when you’re touring a well-kept course like Sonoma Raceway. And even the biggest stick-in-the-mud will smile when you hit 100 mph.

After a bit of classroom time from the Audi Sportscar Experience instructors about the R8’s vehicle dynamics and proper racing lines, we were off for some follow-the-leader laps around the track. If following sounds boring I can tell you that you probably want to have a driving instructor watching out for you unless you’re an actual race car driver. Triple digit speeds in a super car that isn’t yours just a few feet from a rather looming wall (that may or may not be a SAFER barrier) with a passenger that you want to impress could be a recipe for disaster without some boundaries. I did get a taste of proper race car driving in the R8s courtesy of a ride-along with IndyCar driver J.R. Hildebrand. GoPro is one of J.R.’s sponsors and GoPro also sponsors the GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma. J.R. was a very nice guy and was happy to talk me through the layout of the track and what it’s like to drive it in an IndyCar as we lapped in the R8 at 100+ mph.

Above is a lap around the Sonoma Raceway with the GoPro HERO3 mounted on top of the Audi R8. This is a clip straight out of the camera using the Protune setting.

As a comparison, this is the same Audi R8 clip after a bit of color grading on a Baselight.

After lunch we hopped on the back of a STAR Motorcycle School super bike for more laps. I have to admit that I was a bit apprehensive to climb aboard, especially since the option was riding along in a Lola S2000 race car with a Simraceway instructor. At first, it just doesn’t seem like riding on the back of a sport bike at 140 mph, leaning your knees close to the ground, is all that safe. But the guys running the bikes were very calming and reassuring. After donning proper “leathers” that included a full body suit, gloves, boots and helmet, you do feel kind of indestructible. And if you ever wonder how a racer can walk away from a bike crash, the answer is some incredible athletic ability, coupled with very protective equipment.

The above video is a lap around Sonoma Raceway captured from a HERO3 mounted to the helmet. The un-graded file can be viewed here.

What surprised me most about the laps on the sport bike was how smooth and surprisingly peaceful it was. Automobiles on a race track can be a much more violent affair, as you pull a lot of lateral g-forces going in and out of curves. That’s why race cars use a full racing harness to hold you in the seat. The sport bike driver was very precise in where he placed the motorcycle and I found myself beginning to lean more and more with him in the proper direction. While we never got close enough to the ground to drag our knees, it sure felt like we were just about to. When we came to a stop, my knees and ego were still intact and my smile was as large as it has ever been, second only to the birth of my kids.

I also weaseled my way into a ride in one of the two-seat race cars used by the racing school at Sonoma Raceway. Above is a lap around in the Lola S2000 race car. The un-graded clip can be viewed here.

The whole point of this land adventure was to try out the new GoPro HERO3. While the HERO2 was small, the HERO3 is considerably smaller and that’s especially evident when looking at them side by side. If you’ve ever done a lot of setting changes on a GoPro you probably remember it’s a festival of pushing buttons. The buttons on the HERO3 are larger and easier to press. While you won’t be pushing less buttons it is a more pleasant process. The best thing to happen to GoPro settings is the new $79.99 LCD Touch BacPac. Touch means touchscreen, so a lot of the setting changes can be done via the touchscreen. Don’t expect iPhone touch smoothness, as it sometimes took some effort to hit and activate the right thing on the touchscreen, but the LCD Touch BacPac provides a big boost in functionality. It’ll be a must buy for extensive GoPro use.

The GoPro HERO3 ushers in not just a smaller form factor for the camera (yes, a new form factor means a lot of the HERO2 accessories won’t work with the 3) but a lot of things that professional users will appreciate. I’m speaking mainly of the Black edition, the most expensive model in the new three-camera lineup. There are a lot of new resolutions and frame rates. While the 4K mode only shoots 15 frames per second, 2.7K can shoot full 30 and 24 (29.97 and 23.98) fps. Bump down to 720p and you can go up to 120 fps. 1080 can shoot 60. While there are a lot of other shooting options, those above will be most usable for broadcast and professional applications.

Above is a video from the event that was captured and uploaded to YouTube at 2.7K. If you change the YouTube setting to Original (and you have a monitor with enough resolution), you can view the video in 2K. The un-graded clip can be viewed here.

Now I can't end this report without talking more about the recent Protune update. The new Protune mode is probably the most important development for video pros. While Protune is a firmware update to add some new features to the HERO2, it really shines in the HERO3, upping the bit rate to a possible 45 Mbps. There’s even a camera RAW mode that “yields a minimally processed data file direct from the image sensor that allows for more precise adjustments to be made in the post process.” I don’t think we expected that from a $400 action cam—I certainly didn't. For the best explanation of Protune then read right from the source of Protune itself, Cineform. The Cineform Insider blog also has a post with images showing some of the advantages of shooting Protune. FXPHD spoke with Cineform about what they’ve been able to shove into the new little camera; it's interesting, so go check it out.

I think the simplest explanation of Protune comes right from the GoPro HERO3 user manual:

High-Quality Image Capture
Protune’s high data rate captures images with less compression, giving content creators higher quality for professional productions.

Neutral Color
Protune’s neutral color profile offers more flexibility during post-production color correction. Protune’s log curve captures more detail in shadows and highlights.

Film/TV Frame Rate Standard
Record video in cinema-quality 24fps and easily intercut GoPro content with other source media without the need to perform fps conversion.

I did some shooting over the weekend with both the new GoPro HERO3 and the HERO2. There’s just a noticeable improvement in image quality overall with the HERO3. I’m not a camera nerd and I’m sure the overall specs and end image quality of the HERO3 will be debated day and night once the HERO3 begins shipping into camera tester’s hands. There will be those who love it and those who loathe it. To my eye, it’s a damn good-looking image, especially considering the cost and size of the camera it is coming from.

And when you've seen as much GoPro HERO footage as I’ve seen come through the edit suite over the years, the HERO3 will continue this tradition (though I fear it might mean even more than in the past). Higher bit rates, better frame rates and flatter color profiles mean that post-production will be happy with the new GoPro HERO3 images. A smaller and lighter camera, easier setup options and built-in Wi-Fi means the DPs and camera ops of the world will be happy with the new GoPro HERO3 as well.

All in all, we should see some spectacular new images that we likely haven’t seen before.

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