To call Matt Cook a human drone is really giving drones far more credit than they deserve. In reality, drones are doing their best robotic renditions of Matt Cook. And unless you spent winter hibernating, you have definitely seen Cook’s incredible handy work.
Responsible for capturing some of the most insane footage of athletes the likes of Sage Kotsenburg, Bobby Brown, and Travis Rice, Cook is a great skier in his own right. His follows get close and personal with the best snowboarders and skiers the world over, providing unparalleled perspectives that make it feel like you’re right there with them.
While most people would be content just riding alongside, the innovative cameraman is always looking for ways to capture much more incredible (and intimate) footage. And he has powerful support when it comes to his shooting: as a full-time videographer and editor with GoPro, he is encouraged to experiment; and the results speak for themselves.
I recently caught up with the man putting action sports in focus, we discussed his start with GoPro, the nearly catastrophic collisions that are his occupational hazard, and how you might use your own GoPro to capture similarly jaw-dropping footage.
JP Schlick: Thanks for taking some time to chat. You have produced some amazing clips recently. What exactly is your position with GoPro?
Matt Cook: My title is snow production artist, so basically in the winter it’s my job to coordinate with all of our snow athletes and get their content from them and also go on all of the GoPro snow productions. My specialty on those shoots is follow cam and specifically this year I’ve been getting into doing follow cams with a gimbal. So this has kind of been a big year for me — I sort of upgraded from being an editor on the snow team to going on shoots all of the time and that put me in contact with some crazy athletes that I was so stoked to work with.
You’ve been filming follows at the X-Games for some time though, right?
Yeah. That’s how I got my foot in the door with GoPro. I was going to college at USC with a guy named Abe Kislevitz and he was one of the first media members at GoPro. When I was a sophomore in college, I got a call from a the GoPro media department. They were going to the winter X Games in Aspen for the first time ever and they wanted to put together production team. Specifically, they wanted someone who could ski and go off the jumps and do follow cams.
That, I think, was in January of 2011. I went out to Aspen (I was still in school) and everybody was super happy with the work so I continued to do that once a year — going up to Aspen and shooting X-Games. Then I graduated school and kept bugging GoPro to give me a full-time job; eventually I got it. I filled out all the legal paperwork about two years ago and transferred over to begin as an editor underneath Abe on the snow team.
At the beginning of last snow season, I became a snow production artist and was kind of the go-to man for all of our snow shoots… we just released the session camera and all of the snow footage on there is from two shoots that I was a part of.
So how did you first get connected with Abe in college? That sounds like a college kids dream to take off and film X-Games for a week and ride the course with the pros.
I was on the USC Ski and Snowboard team which was basically a club — we didn’t take it very seriously, but we used GoPros to film some video that became very popular and Abe was in charge of that. He reached out to GoPro when they first came out and asked, “Can we get some cameras to film our ski team with?”
The funny story is that I decided to go to USC because I saw they had a ski and snowboard club. When, I YouTubed “ski and snowboard club USC,” these GoPro videos popped up. I had never heard of GoPro and I saw these sick videos and I thought, okay, these kids can ski this will be fun, so I chose to go to USC. Now there’s five of us from USC who are all working for GoPro. So… yeah, that was just my first experience with GoPro, filming my friends on the weekends up in Mammoth.
There’s five of you from the USC ski and snowboard team working for GoPro?
At least. There might even be more. And there’s a couple that are on the USC ski team now that are interns here. But the core the group was me and Abe as well as Chris and Caleb Farro, who are like the GoPro twins. The twins kind of go all over and shoot different sports and we all just travel and film — it’s pretty rad.
That’s awesome. You guys are getting some amazing footage. Some of your stuff from last winter nearly broke the internet. That first follow with Travis Rice that you two put out was insane — you actually got mistaken for a drone! What was that trip like?
That was an amazing experience. We had an athlete camp up in British Columbia and that was basically bringing all of our powder ski and snowboard athletes together for a few days. It was half a learning session and half a filming session. In the morning, all of the athletes would come to the classroom we had set up at the heli-skiing base and we would just teach them how to use the camera more effectively. Then, in the afternoon, we’d all get into the helicopters and go out and shred.
I got to meet Travis Rice on day one. I mean, I grew up watching “That’s It That’s All” and “The Art of Flight,” so Travis Rice has been an idle of mine since I was a kid. I got to be in the same helicopter as him. I was like, “Travis, can I give you a follow cam?” It was the first time I had ever spoken to him; and it was the first run I was ever going to film him on. We dropped in and he does this sick cornice. We got this shot which he posted later that afternoon and the shot just went viral, and, as you said, people thought that it was a drone shot. I think the title of it was: “Travis Rice releases next level drone footage.” He was super pumped on it, so for the rest of the trip I stuck to filming Travis and got many more shots of him.
It was cool seeing that reaction to the one shot of him dropping that cornice. I was like, man, this is crazy, this gimbal combined with a skier who can kind of hang and knows what their doing it is super powerful. I mean, we stacked so many good shots, and a lot of those shots we’re still saving for a piece on that whole trip.
There’s some stuff that hasn’t been released yet?
Yeah, a ton.
That footage will be in a GoPro-produced edit?
Yep. That’s all 100% GoPro edit material. We produced it, filmed it; we put on the camp. We did the same thing two weeks later with our park athletes in Laax, Switzerland and we have incredible footage from that too. Hopefully that will be coming out in the fall.
Was the BC trip the first time you really messed with the gimbal?
Pretty much. I had dabbled with it occasionally, but I was scared to abandon my standard pole follow cams that have served me well in the past — if it wasn’t broke, I didn’t want to fix it. But then I got my hands on the gimbal and I just sort of figured out how to use it. It’s a totally different mindset than having that locked vertical position of the camera; it’s a totally different filming style, so I kind of had to adapt to it, but I had all that practice when I was up in BC. Now I’m hooked on it… I can’t go back to filming with a regular pole, the gimbal is just next level.
The gimbal is on the end of a pole?
Yeah, I mean it changes trip-to-trip, there’s no standard that we have in place yet. In that behind the scenes video of that other Travis Rice shot you can see we are just lashing a Feiyu Tech handheld gimbal onto the end of a monopod using rubber straps that we use to hold skis together. We kind of jerry-rig whatever works.
Well, that footage came out looking amazing. You do more than just follows though, right. You edit the videos for GoPro too, right?
Yeah, I’m really primarily an editor; hopefully that changes a bit this coming season — I’d like to be out in the field more.
How much editing work do you guys typically do in post to make the shots look good?
Well, I can safely say we put a lot of work into it. Some shots are a lot easier to work with than others. Some shots just don’t turn out that great and you’ve got to tweak them a lot; and some shots it’s like, Wow! It’s got great color and I’m not going to do anything to it… it’s just perfect. A lot of that footage from BC came out like that. That behind the scenes stuff with Travis, I just threw it together and it looked polished right off the bat.
You know, with any camera you are going to get mixed results based on lighting and other factors — some shots come out great and some need massaging.
With drones making huge entry into the market, a lot of people are thinking they will be replacing human follows. Obviously, there are places that prohibit the use of drones, where human follows are the only option. But in other areas, do you see drones replacing a lot of the human element of filming?
Drones are an incredible tool. And obviously they’re only going to improve. But I think the art of someone else being there using the camera is going to improve as well. I don’t think we’ll be able to get that level of personal shot with a drone anytime soon. I’m inches away from these people sometimes. I’ve even collided with some of our athletes in mid-air. You just can’t get that proximity with a drone right now and for the foreseeable future.
Also, with close proximity shots, using drones kind of present a safety risk: too with all those spinning blades. I think it’s for a different kind of shot. And you can tell when a drone is being used — there’s a level of disconnection going on. A human follow cam shot has the ability to get up-close and personal. You have the ability to bring the camera up to the person’s face, have them talk to it and be close to the ground and go through small areas that a drone couldn’t get into. And it’s a good thing that drones are getting better because it’s going to force people to get more creative on their feet.
I totally agree. Who, might I ask, did you collide with?
Haha, It’s happened with a couple people. But one that sticks out in my head was when I was following Bobby Brown in Switzerland. He was doing a rodeo and I was so close to him that he clipped the camera and knocked the gimbal off my pole. And even after that me and him fully collided. I had to grab his feet with my hand and throw them away from my head because he was going to hit me.
But the athletes know the risk. They get pretty comfortable with me being there in the air and they know that it can totally happen, but usually it ends up totally fine. We both are experienced and know how to crash. It’s like, “Okay, we’re going down on this one. Let’s ball it up and make sure we can walk away.”
I also had a collision with Jamie Anderson on that same trip. It’s always scary, but so far (fingers crossed) I haven’t been hurt and I haven’t hurt any athletes. It’s just another risk, another part of the job — getting close — but it’s worth getting the shot.
I’m sure you show up to shoots where there are filmers there with suitcases filled with thousands of dollars worth of camera gear and you show up with basically a backpack’s worth of equipment. Have there ever been any strange interactions or tensions with other filmers when you show up with a fraction of the equipment and get shots that they just cannot achieve?
Over the past few years, the stigma has definitely gone down. At the beginning, we’d get funny looks, or the guys with the big camera rigs would have a little bit of flaunting going on and we would kind of be looked down on. But now it’s just mutual respect, as filmmakers. I get a lot of, “man, those shots are turning out great” from those guys. It’s just another tool. People using those huge rigs respect the GoPro — they know that there is a time and a place for it just like there’s probably a time and place for those huge expensive rigs. It’s not like turf wars or anything like that. I think that there is a lot of that respect and love and everyone’s out there filming the same shit haven a good time trying to make skiing and snowboarding look as bad-ass as possible.
So no conflict. I think a lot of filmmakers are feeling inspired and they’re getting more creative with it. They want to just get a GoPro and try it out, see what new things they can do with it.
As a filmer on a tight budget, I know it’s tough terrain to traverse. On the one hand, I feel this compulsion to invest in the bigger, fancier rigs because it might make me seem more professional in the eyes of a client. But on the other hand, I know what the GoPro is capable of and I would have to spend thousands of dollars to get that field of view, those frame rate options, and the level of image stability that the GoPro has out of the box.
I know I’m not alone on that.
Yeah, you know, I think we are continually improving it. I honestly do feel like the stigma is going down, like the people who were too cool to rock a GoPro four years ago are now cruising around with a GoPro on their helmet. And it really does produce amazing images. I’m blown away by that footage I got of me mountain biking last week on the chesty gimbal — it’s almost hypnotizing to watch. The camera really does amazing stuff.
There is a time and a place where maybe the GoPro isn’t the best, but for 99% of people for 99% of purposes, it’s great. It really makes inexpensive, amazing video.
And now with the Session do you feel that even more of those guys who were “too cool” to rock a GoPro will now be on board because it’s so discrete?
Yeah, and that’s a response that I have seen especially when we were filming for the Session release reel and first pulled out those cameras and showed our athletes they were like, “Wow, that is a good looking device.” It’s so much sleeker and looks better on your helmet so I think that is going to be a big draw to people. I mean, everyone wants to look cool, that’s universal. And I think that was a lot of the draw to the Contour, like, “Oh well, it’s so much sleeker with that cigar shape on the side of your helmet,” and I think that the Session accomplishes that, some of the aesthetic goals that we set out to solve.
Do you know Nick Woodman?
I have met him a couple of times.
What’s he like?
He’s a good guy, a solid dude. He’s a surfer that became a billionaire and now he has a company that is filled with people that are so stoked.
I remember when the Hero 3 came out ,there was a big party and he gave a speech — and this was before I worked for GoPro and was the moment when I knew I needed to get a job there — he said, “You know, I created GoPro because I didn’t want to have a real job and I hope that working at GoPro never feels like a real job to any of you.” When he said that, I was like alright, this is a corporation I can work for. So far, it has been a really great experience.
It struck me recently (thinking about the progression of GoPro as a company and a product) how the camera has continually improved: with the Session, the focus is on aesthetics in addition to function; with Nick Woodman being the highest earning CEO in the country, he might very well be our generation’s Steve Jobs. Is that how you guys feel around GoPro?
Yeah, he’s the fearless leader. He’s got a vision and we’re all here helping him execute it. It seems to be working out.
Stepping back a bit, that chesty gimbal you mentioned before… is that an actual product that is sold together?
No, it’s a GoPro chest harness and a Feiyu Tech handheld gimbal — we attached it to a chest harness with a clamp that is made by Sail Videos System. SVS makes the third person mount that sort of sits behind and up above your shoulders and gives sort of a third person, video game view. The guy behind it is really cool and he realized that the clamps on his setup mount perfectly fit the the diameter of the gimbal. So a couple weeks ago he started manufacturing a few of those clamps and gave some to Abe. When we were in Whistler, we got to try some out and I was like, oh my god, this is perfect. I threw one on my chest harness and got those incredible shots.
What are your favorite GoPro edits on the internet right now? And feel free to include your own because yours are definitely some of the best.
A lot of my favorite GoPro edits are the epic single shots that don’t really require any story, or explanation, or even music. Kelly McGarry’s backflip over the 72-foot canyon on the mountain bike, that’s one of the best GoPro shots ever — I love that. I also love the stuff from this really talented editor here named Brandon and he put’s together a lot of the more artsy, longer story edits. And there’s this ski edit that was released years ago by GoPro called “Ryan Price: A Skiers Search For Meaning,” and that’s one of my favorite edits as well; it’s got all of these illustrations happening on top of it and talks about the physics of skiing and tells a really cool story.
And if we’re talking about edits not made by GoPro, “The Way I See It” is unbelievable — Candide’s stuff is incredible.
Yeah, and what he’s (Candide Thovex) doing with staging certain parts of the edit to make it even more like a video game is pretty next level. Not many people are taking it that far.
Yeah, totally it’s crossing the line between action sports filmmaking and studio, hollywood filmmaking. They’re merging and it’s kind of cool.
Are you guys moving more in that direction with your edits at GoPro, trying to maybe script out more of the footage or add effects to add to the production value a bit?
At GoPro, we make edits that show the quality of the video you can capture with the camera, so we try not to add too much stuff that wasn’t shot with the camera, meaning minimal effects. I do like some of these more planned edits, but I also really like the edits that capture the action as it normally unfolds. I made this Tanner Hall edit a while back which did use some effects, but the action was all totally real and un-staged and you got to feel what he was feeling on the top of those lines — those are my favorite edits.
I get the pleasure of going through all of this amazing athletes footage and it’s so much fun to see these raw, organic experiences in crazy circumstances, and that’s what I love. I know tons of people who would flip at the chance to see Travis Rice’s raw GoPro footage, to see how he acts when there’s no other cameras on him, when he’s just out there shredding. So even if the edit doesn’t have this proper arc and story and even if it’s not necessarily the craziest skiing and snowboarding that’s ever happened, there are still a lot of real life experiences that the average person would be so stoked to see. That’s the motivation behind a lot of my videos.
I also made “Mind The Gap” where Jesper Tjader does the double backflip over that huge gap, and that’s another instance where I was just going through his hard drive and realized he just left his head cam on accidentally. He forgot he was wearing the camera and there was all this real stuff that created a lot of suspense that was captured leading up to that jump rather than just turning on the camera and throwing down his best trick. You get that behind the scenes look.
You are a pretty badass skier yourself — you won the Collegiate Nationals in pipe and slope — did you ever think to pursue skiing professionally?
So at this point in the sport’s evolution, you know if you’re going to be a professional freestyle skier by the time you are a senior in high school. There isn’t really a collegiate path for that. So my middle school and high school years were spent on a freestyle ski team and I traveled the country doing pipe and slopestyle events, and by the time I was a senior in high school, I knew it wasn’t going to work out.
I’m a terrible competitor and I could never land in competitions, so basically that was the end of my professional skiing career. College was my plan B, sadly [laughs], but I’m glad with how things worked out because I am still getting paid to ski and I don’t have as much stress as the competitors.
That’s a tough thing to give up though — being at that high level. You must have been pretty self aware at a pretty young age to know that it wasn’t going to happen.
Yeah, I mean I was on the same team as David Wise who won gold in the Olympics, so I knew very well what the level was and that I might never get there. And I was getting hurt all the time and having surgeries and always breaking bones so I was like, alright, time to use the brain and let the body heal. It was a good choice and I’m happy with it.
Well, thanks a bunch, Matt. It was great talking with you. Before we leave, what are your recommendations for resources where people can go to learn how get the most out of their GoPro?
My number one tip would be to go to AbeKislevitz.com. Like I said, I went to school with him; he’s the one who initially reached out to GoPro before anyone knew who GoPro was. He’s like a frickin’ genius and knows absolutely everything there is to know about GoPro. He’s in charge of the snow team, but he’s also on all of the engineering boards helping to design the next GoPro, and he writes amazing, amazing tutorials about every aspect of every camera on his website.
The key to making a good video is to have the camera in the right settings, and that can be a little more complex than people think. I mean, people who complain that the GoPro footage looks like crap have it on the wrong setting. There is a right setting for what you’re doing — you need to know if your shooting in point of view or something else.
Go to his website and spend a couple hours reading his tutorials anymore. You won’t regret it.