- Fred Smith
The Most Important Camera in Viral Video History
Updated: Aug 24, 2020
The first thing George Holliday shot with his brand new Sony camcorder in early 1991 was footage of Arnold Schwarzenegger on a motorcycle with his adolescent co-star, Edward Furlong.
Holliday wasn’t part of the paparazzi, nor was he a member of a film crew. The 31-year-old Argentinian was a plumber who had just bought his wife a new video camera and, in a textbook showing of American husbandry, had taken it upon himself to test his bride’s new electronic gift for himself.
But what should he shoot for his (er, his wife’s) camera’s maiden session?
Funny thing about living in Los Angeles. You never know what video-ready opportunities might come to your backyard.
It turns out, the Hollidays lived down the street from where a scene from Terminator 2 was being filmed. Why not break in the camcorder with footage of a Hollywood action legend?
Despite T2 becoming one of the biggest blockbuster movies of the 1990s, no one, save for a few TV local station workers and the FBI, has seen Holliday’s amateur footage of the Governator on a Harley.
That’s because what Holliday shot the second time he busted out his wife’s camcorder and aimed at something going on in his neighborhood proved to be a tad more noteworthy.
Just before 1 AM on March 3, 1991, Holliday and his wife awoke to sounds of police sirens and helicopters. The couple rushed to the balcony of their San Fernando Valley apartment and gazed across Foothill Boulevard at an impromptu scene whose violence was every bit as intense as anything the Terminator franchise could offer. But this brutality was real.
Holliday stood still and watched, dumbfounded at the sight. It was his wife who suggested he grab the new camera and record what they were witnessing. So, the plumber retrieved the camcorder from its still-pristine box, fumbled through its controls, and unwittingly captured what would soon become the first and perhaps most famous viral video in history:
If you’re too young to know what happened next and want details, ask Google about “Rodney King,” and the “LA Riots.”
Here’s a summary:
Holliday’s video found its way to more than 9,000 news stations nationwide. So often was the video aired that a CNN executive called it “wallpaper.” The grainy footage sparked a national dialogue on race in the US.
The video was the key exhibit in the ensuing trial of the officers who nearly beat King to death and were acquitted of using excessive force, inciting the LA riots.
The footage also ushered in the era of citizen journalism, which today dominates the daily news cycle worldwide.
But things were different in 1991.
People didn’t document and upload life’s every significant or mundane occurrence with high-definition cameras/personal computers/cell phones.
The internet, while technically existent in early ‘91, was widely unknown to most citizens. Sir Tim Berners-Lee had invented the World Wide Web in 1989, but it would not become public until August 7, 1991. (Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was in the first grade if that helps paint a picture of the web’s nascence.)
Today, there is an entire wing of the internet dedicated to the fallout from Holliday’s footage. If you went no further than Wikipedia’s entry on Rodney King, you’d get the basics.
Dig a little deeper and you’ll learn a bit about George Holliday, the man who just happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right camera to capture the beating heard round-the-world.
For as much as today’s internet contains about King, the LA riots, and even Holliday himself (there is a documentary about his story in the works), little has been written about the camera that captured the most important viral video in history.
Like the golf club Alan Sheppard swung to hit his famous shot from the moon (six iron, in case you wondering), Holliday’s camera is a piece of American history.
So, what did Holliday use to shoot the first and most influential viral video in history?
...a 1991 Sony CCD-F77 video 8 Handycam.
That Holliday had opted to buy his wife the latest in Sony’s popular Handycam line bears more than just trivial significance.
The camera’s optics performed well enough in the nighttime conditions to produce an image that, while grainy, was clear enough for public broadcast.
The instantly ubiquitous video would capture the public’s attention nationwide and forever change the conversation on race relations in the US.
Powerful as that visual turned out to be, it was the camera’s audio capabilities that proved paramount in the court of law.
Sony’s video 8 format was known for its high-quality audio compared with rival formats. It would be the enhanced audio from the footage that helped turn Rodney King’s fortune in his civil suit against the City of Los Angeles.
Forensic analyst Dr. George Papcun was the final witness to take the stand during the civil trial. During his testimony, the jury was played the enhanced audio from the tape on which a man’s voice was clearly heard saying, “Nigger, hands behind your back!”
King won the trial and was awarded $3.8 million in damages.
The only money George Holliday saw for the role he played in creating the pivotal piece of evidence was the $500 he received for selling his only copy of the tape his favorite local TV station, KTLA channel 5.
A drawback of the video 8 format was that its small tapes could not be played directly on a VHS VCR, making it difficult for novice users to make a copy.
That’s why the original tape’s contents sent to KTLA (and is now with the FBI) included nine minutes of King’s beating and arrest--the most violent 90 seconds of which would quickly be broadcast by thousands of TV stations nationwide--preceded by the aforementioned footage from the set of Terminator 2.
By all reports, the saga’s limelight brought nothing but misery to Holliday. Constant interview requests from the media combined with threats from those who disapproved of his making the tape public proved too much for his marriage to handle.
By the time LA burned a year later, he was divorced and wondering if he would have been better off staying in bed the night a little police chase concluded outside his apartment.
And the camera that captured the most famous viral video in history? It doesn’t live in a museum where its story can be forever be told to eager audiences. It ended up where it was originally intended: with Holliday’s wife...as part of the couple’s divorce settlement.
Fred Smith grew up in Miami in the 1990s. His debut novel,The Coolest Labels, is about a group of Miami teens trying to find their way after Hurricane Andrew devastates South Florida.