Entertainment

Behind the scenes of Michael Jackson's 'Thriller'

By Todd Leopold, CNN

Updated 10:24 AM ET, Thu March 24, 2016
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When Michael Jackson made the music video for "Thriller" in 1983, he was the biggest star in the world. It only stood to reason that Jackson, whose videos for "Billie Jean" and "Beat It" helped establish MTV, would now want to make one of the biggest videos. In a book published by Glitterati Inc., "Michael Jackson: The Making of 'Thriller' 4 Days/1983," photographer Douglas Kirkland chronicles the making of the groundbreaking film. Douglas Kirkland/Glitterati Incorporated
The "Thriller" video, a 14-minute narrative, went well beyond the usual three-minute promotional clip. Jackson worked with A-list Hollywood talent, including director John Landis and makeup artist Rick Baker. Playboy model Ola Ray played his love interest. The video cost $500,000, an enormous sum at the time. Douglas Kirkland/Glitterati Incorporated
Kirkland -- who had photographed Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Charlie Chaplin -- remembers being "somewhat intimidated" by Jackson at first. "He already had so much myth surrounding him," Kirkland recalls in the book. But Jackson quickly disarmed him. "Everything about him made me think that he was a gentle person," Kirkland said. Douglas Kirkland/Glitterati Incorporated
Baker, left, was already famed for his work on Landis' film "An American Werewolf in London." He was initially reluctant to take the "Thriller" job. "It's like being a dentist in a way," he says in the book. "They have to sit still in a chair for hours while you work on them. It's uncomfortable." Douglas Kirkland/Glitterati Incorporated
The plot of "Thriller" is two-fold: In part of it, Jackson plays a werewolf-like beast in a 1950s movie. Then the scene switches to the present day, in which Jackson is watching the 1950s movie in a theater with Ray. When they leave the theater, they're attacked by zombies -- and Jackson himself turns out to be one of the undead. Cue the song. Douglas Kirkland/Glitterati Incorporated
Baker didn't have much time for others on the film. The dancers weren't cast immediately, so Baker kept their zombie makeup fairly simple. "We'd only have three days from meeting the dancers to finishing their faces," he said. But Jackson was well cared-for. In this photo, Jackson holds Muscles, his pet boa constrictor. Douglas Kirkland/Glitterati Incorporated
Jackson was unfazed by the process. About the only thing he didn't like were the painful yellow contact lenses he had to wear for some scenes. Well, and one other thing, Baker said: the behind-the-scenes footage Landis shot. "Michael was so nervous that, as soon as the cameras came in, he ran off and hid in the bathroom." Douglas Kirkland/Glitterati Incorporated
Landis directs Jackson during a scene. Jackson was as brilliant a dancer as he was a singer, and cinematographer Robert Paynter was hugely impressed. " 'Thriller' was the only time I worked with someone who made me want to write down my thoughts about him and the effect he had on me," Paynter recalls in the book. The video was choreographed by the Tony Award-winning Michael Peters, who had also done "Beat It." Douglas Kirkland/Glitterati Incorporated
Kirkland took the photographs for Life magazine. He shot most of the pictures with a long lens, keeping his distance from the filming. Jackson was at his best just before a take, Kirkland recalls: "He projected this glorious smile which could warm anybody up," he said. "That was Michael being Michael, and that's when I made my best pictures." Douglas Kirkland/Glitterati Incorporated
When it finally released on December 2, 1983, "Thriller" was an event. MTV trumpeted its arrival with endless promotion, and aired it twice an hour. Even the making-of documentary earned heavy airplay on the 2-year-old video network. A videocassette of "Thriller" and other Jackson work sold 9 million copies. Years later, "Thriller" became the first music video selected for the National Film Registry. It's often considered the greatest music video of all time. Douglas Kirkland/Glitterati Incorporated