Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” made music history as MTV’s first world premiere video when the thirteen-minute epic was released on December 2, 1983. Directed by John Landis, who co-wrote the screenplay with Michael Jackson, “Thriller” was budgeted at half a million dollars in production. It has sold 9 million units to date. In 2009, this landmark video was inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, the first music video ever to receive this honor.
With exclusive access to the set of “Thriller”, photographer Douglas Kirkland documented Jackson in all his glory. Michael Jackson: The Making of "Thriller": 4 Days/1983 (Glitterati Incorporated) is an exquisite tribute to the King of Pop. With a hologram cover of Jackson’s remarkable transformation from pop star into dark zombie, the book features 200 never-before-seen photographs. We witness the grandeur and the glory of this production that has made Jackson one of the most beloved artists of our age.
Douglas Kirkland shares his memories of the historic video shoot, providing an incredible firsthand account of the man and the music that changed the world. In an interview with Nancy Griffin, published in the book, Kirkland recalls, “I met Michael Jackson for the first time on the night they were shooting at the Palace Theater, when I was taken to meet him in his trailer. Frankly I was somewhat intimidated at first. I’ve been around a lot of people, but I had no idea what kind of individual he would be. He already had so much myth surrounding him. I wondered if he was going to be strange or odd—who was this person I was going to be with, and how could I best do my job?
“With the power Michael Jackson had demonstrated on stage, and the aura that had been created around him, I expected him to behave like an assured giant in dealing with a LIFE magazine photographer and journalist.
“What I found was somebody who wasn’t remotely threatening or intimidating. In fact, he was disarming, and very responsive. He made me feel at home. He had a small voice and smiled easily, not a big smile but a small smile. A very light handshake as I recall, not a firm, ‘I’m in charge’ kind of handshake at all. Everything about him made me think that he was a gentle person.
“As a person taking pictures, I quickly try to drift into the background; the hellos are just to warm everything up. It worked because he was very receptive.
“When I went into Michael’s trailer he was having his make-up done, and he was actually ready before the crew was. He came out and was sitting outside the theater in a director’s chair talking to everyone. They had a video pinball machine there, and I have pictures of him playing with it. The eternal child, Michael was always friendly and playful between takes. He would hang out with the crew and joke with them, rather than hide in his dressing room.
“John Landis and everyone involved with ‘Thriller’ were very pleased that LIFE was there. I didn’t get the impression that Michael knew a great deal about photography, and he didn’t say anything about it. I heard that he collected antique cameras, but he didn’t know what my 300mm f2.8 lens was, what it represented, or why I would have that piece of equipment. It’s what I used to take interesting pictures of him in close-up from a distance.
“I took pictures with a long lens when he was sitting in his chair. I had a flash on him because he was in the dark. There’s one of him in profile biting his tongue, and a light in the distance that forms a kind of bubble behind his face. I was shooting with 64 Kodakchrome film—everything was 3mm, it was a pre-digital film—which sadly is no longer made.
“I’ve photographed a lot of people, and seen some geniuses. Peter Sellers was a genius: he had a way of knowing what buttons to press, what to do to create an impression, make people laugh and enjoy themselves. Michael wasn’t a comedian, but he had a comparable quality of knowing how to get the most out of a performance. People who aren’t in or around show business don’t really the spontaneity they see has to be carefully created. Michael could ‘light up’ for people when he was going before the lens, and really project a personality and a joy or whatever was necessary.
“When he stepped into the motion picture lights and was preparing to perform—that’s when his star quality could really be seen. In those minutes just before shooting, I was watching and following him with my long lens. This rather shy individual suddenly radiated confidence. He projected this glorious smile, which could warm anybody up. My favorite pictures of him have this smile. That was Michael being Michael, and that’s when I made my best pictures. He was in this beautiful lighting, the motion picture tungsten lights, so I used a fast Ektachrome 160 tungsten film. TIME magazine commissioned Andy Warhol to interpret one of those portraits for its cover. And years later I put one in book, Freeze Frame (Glitterati Incorporated).
“Michael got together with John Landis and they created ‘Thriller’ and had such fun with it. It was landmark; it established what a music video could be—more than someone just standing there playing a guitar. It was telling a story, like a small feature film. At that time the narrative video hadn’t been invented, and everybody copied it afterwards and it changed music videos forever.
“This was such an innovative period for Michael, it was tremendously exciting. He has broken away from The Jackson and had taken control of his career. He looked so great, he had such extraordinary ability, and watching him perform in ‘Thriller’ or when he unveiled the Moonwalk at the Motown 25 anniversary show, I felt that he wanted to explode, and to do his best. He was still searching for who he was as a performer, and what he had reached for he accomplished, and did it brilliantly.”