Everybody knows how the 13-minute-long, zombie-laden adventure that is the Thriller video shaped the history of music and saw the birth to a little phenomenon called MTV. Michael Jackson was primed to reinvent the medium from the start though, with his very first music video.
Released in 1979, that Michael Jackson video was “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough“. In 2014, it really doesn’t look like much. MJ’s dancing like a champ while wearing a huge bow tie and cropped tuxedo, sleeves pulled up above the elbow. His socks are white. And that background. Wow. It starts strong with a hyperspace effect and transforms into what appear to be orange Jell-O cubes. They might be crystals, but it’s hard to tell because the production quality is so basic.
Believe it or not, this video was on the forefront of a major shift in the special effects industry. This was the birth of the green screen era. It was also, in many ways, the birth of the King of Pop.
Motion picture enthusiasts will be quick to point out that these kinds of special effects had been around for decades by the time Michael Jackson decided he wanted to sing and dance on camera. It’s true! The history of Hollywood faking it is actually fascinating, but the simple task of joining a background with a different foreground remained complicated well into the 1970s. At that point in time, the blue screen was king, but it was also problematic. This is where the green screen and a video process commonly known as chroma key came into play.
The green screen gained in popularity at a time, when demand for these kinds of special effects was on the rise. It was cheaper and easier than using a blue screen because it wasn’t as difficult to project green onto a set, and green screens could be used outside since it wouldn’t blend in with the sky. Green screen also happened to work especially well with digital technology, though it would be a couple decades before that would become the standard.
When Michael Jackson made “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” in 1979, both the green screen and video were up-and-coming technologies. That does not, however, mean that they looked good. As Jackson’s biographer Nelson George would later write, “The production values of [the video is] typical of the kind of low-budget videos that black artists were saddled with well into the mid-1980s: videotape before a primitive green screen where backgrounds were dropped in later.” It’s almost ironic that Michael Jackson himself would later be the black artist who would shatter that convention by making music videos with the production value of Hollywood films, like Thriller.
Go ahead and watch Michael Jackson’s first music video from start to finish. The special effects are kitschy, sure, but you also see the beginnings of Jackson’s iconic style. (Highwaters and white socks!) As for those dance moves, well, he always had those.