The small gadget that might have saved Gwyneth Paltrow on the slopes

·5-min read
Tristan Kennedy, Gwyneth Paltrow
Tristan Kennedy, Gwyneth Paltrow

Where is the GoPro footage? That was the million-dollar question for Gwyneth Paltrow, Terry Sanderson and their eye-wateringly expensive attorneys as they duked it out in a Utah courtroom this week, trying to decide who hit whom on a ski slope seven years ago. Understandably, the idea that the case which monopolised so many of America’s finest legal minds could be solved by a simple helmet-cam, generated headlines. Alas, the answer was not quite that simple, and it now appears that the fabled GoPro footage may never have existed in the first place.

Neither party was wearing a camera at the time of the crash and, under cross-examination, Sanderson’s daughter told the court that a reference her father had made was to possible footage, rather than anything he’d actually seen. “He said, ‘there has to be GoPro footage because there was this big blood-curdling scream, so that means someone with a GoPro would have turned to look, and captured it’,” Ms. Sanderson-Herath explained.

In fairness to Sanderson senior, the theory that a hypothetical helmet-cam must have captured the disputed incident is not as far-fetched as it might initially seem. GoPros are ubiquitous on ski slopes. First launched in 2004, these portable waterproof cameras caught on almost instantly. Professional skiers used them to capture angles of their crazy Alaskan descents that no one had seen before. Ordinary skiers like myself, meanwhile, were sold on the promise that for just £350, we could now film professional-quality, first-person footage of our exploits. We could, in our minds at least, “go pro” – or at least feel like pros, however fleetingly.

By 2015, the cameras were everywhere – and I mean everywhere. On YouTube there are hours of footage from GoPros in places they shouldn’t be: getting stolen by seagulls, swallowed by sharks, dropped out of planes and even enveloped by lava. In each of these cases, incredibly, the tough exterior casing meant the camera survived long enough to extract the footage and, in many cases, keep filming.

Perhaps inevitably, GoPro’s market saturation eventually triggered a backlash. Skiers who wear them now get mocked, for what one of my friends calls “the radical unicorn look”. Cyclists who use them as an insurance policy against dangerous driving find themselves copping abuse and posting footage of road rage incidents has become yet another front in the endless online wars between the followers of Jeremys Vine and Clarkson.

There have been more worrying stories, too. In the aftermath of the low-speed skiing crash that left Michael Schumacher in a coma, investigators were claimed to have considered the possibility that the GoPro attached to his helmet might have weakened it in some way. The French journalist who’d initially suggested this theory subsequently retracted his statement. But the rumour was enough to send GoPro’s share price plummeting in the days afterwards.

Personally, my problems with GoPros have always been more mundane. I spend too long fiddling with the mounts, accidentally select the wrong setting or have to wait while the system fails, repeatedly, to recognise the wretched bluetooth on my phone. Often, by the time I’m ready to start filming, my friends are sick of waiting and have already scarpered down the mountain. There’s already plenty of faff when you’re skiing and this often just feels like an unnecessary addition, especially when the resulting footage rarely matches up to my expectations.

I have been told that the wide angle lens on GoPros tends to make slopes look flatter and obstacles appear smaller than they really are. As much as anything, though, I think the sense of “meh” I feel when watching back my own footage comes from the fact that skiers – or snowboarders, in my case – are like fishermen: we always remember the mountain as steeper, our descent as faster and our jumps as bigger than they really were. The camera gives the lie to these boasts, leaving few places for our ego to hide.

The main issue, however, is the sheer amount of footage GoPros generate. At least in the 1990s, home video bores eventually ran out of cassettes. Now, thanks to the wonders of digital compression, GoPro guy (and it is, almost always, a guy) can selfie-stick his way down the flattest pistes in any given resort all day, every day. The latest models have an auto-editing functionality, but playback is still a time-consuming process. There must be hours and hours of unwatched footage gathering the digital equivalent of dust on hard drives around the country. As everything moves to the cloud, there are doubtless vast, energy-guzzling data centres in the Arizona desert dedicated solely to preserving people’s dullest moments – the kind of footage that not even those of us who filmed it can be bothered to sit through.

I know all of this, all too well. And yet, and yet…

I can’t say whether it’s the promise of the camera’s name, the fact that I follow too many actual pros who still post great-looking clips, or just my vanity getting the better of me. But the tantalising prospect of maybe, this time, capturing something worthwhile is usually still enough for me to pick up the GoPro, put up with the radical unicorn jibes, and hit “record” – only to face the inevitable disappointment when, like Gwyneth’s lawyers, I realise those million-dollar moments are impossible to find. If they ever existed at all.