Michael Jackson's Music Video 'Thriller'

Dive into the creative process behind one of the most iconic music videos and albums of all time with a special look at how Michael Jackson's Thriller came to be.

Michael Jackson's Music Video 'Thriller'
Thriller album cover

Welcome to the world behind the making of one of the most iconic music videos in history - Thriller. Released in 1983, Thriller was a game-changing hit that revolutionized the music industry and solidified Michael Jackson as an undisputed pop sensation.

Thriller Video

As a documentarian, our task is to delve into the behind-the-scenes process of creating this legendary video. So let's travel back to the 1980s and relive the making of Thriller.

The Song Recording

To understand the making of Thriller, we must first go back to its roots - the song recording. Penned by Michael Jackson himself, along with producer Quincy Jones and songwriter Rod Temperton, the song was recorded in Los Angeles at Westlake Studios.

The recording process took approximately two weeks, with multiple takes to perfect the sound. According to producer Quincy Jones, Michael wanted to create something that people would remember for years to come - and boy, did he succeed!


The Casting and Rehearsals

Ola Ray

Casting for Thriller was a crucial part of the music video's success. Michael handpicked a diverse cast, including his then-girlfriend Ola Ray, who played the role of his love interest. They also hired makeup artist Rick Baker, who was known for his work on horror films.

Choreographer Vincent Paterson worked closely with Michael to bring the iconic dance moves and zombie choreography to life. In an interview, Vincent shared that the rehearsals were intense, but Michael's work ethic and commitment to perfection were unparalleled.


Special Effects and Makeup

One of the most memorable aspects of Thriller is its special effects and makeup. The transformation of Michael Jackson into a werewolf was groundbreaking at the time.

Makeup artist Rick Baker used cutting-edge prosthetics and techniques to create the iconic look. It was a painstaking process that involved hours of work, but the end result was worth it. The zombie makeup for the other dancers was also meticulously done, adding to the overall eerie and haunting vibe of the video.


Dance Rehearsals

Thriller rehersals

The dance rehearsals for Thriller were nothing short of legendary. With Michael Jackson at the helm, the team spent countless hours perfecting every move and every step. Choreographer Vincent Paterson recalls these rehearsals as some of the most intense he had ever experienced in his career. In every rehearsal, Michael brought a relentless energy and tireless pursuit of perfection that inspired everyone in the room. The iconic 'zombie dance' was meticulously rehearsed, with every performer required to perform the routine with precision and synchronisation. The result was a chillingly synchronised dance sequence that, combined with the haunting music and make-up, created an unforgettable spectacle. This rigorous rehearsal process played an essential role in the success of Thriller, contributing to its status as an iconic piece of pop culture history.


Vincent Price's Memorable Voiceover

Vincent Price and Michael Jackson on Thriller

No discussion of 'Thriller' would be complete without mentioning the chilling voiceover by the legendary Vincent Price. Known for his distinctive, creepy vocal style, Price added an eeriness to the song that made the Thriller experience truly unforgettable. His lines were written by songwriter Rod Temperton, and they included the infamous laugh that ends the song. Price's contribution added a unique gothic horror element to 'Thriller', further pushing the boundaries of what music videos could be. His voicing of these lines, and the haunting laughter that followed, sent shivers down the spines of viewers, adding to the video's success and legacy.

Vincent Price's Other Memorable Works

House on Haunted Hill (1959) Vincent Price

Over a career spanning five decades, Vincent Price established himself as a true legend in the world of horror and suspense. Before his memorable contribution to 'Thriller', Price starred in a number of iconic roles that helped solidify his standing in the industry. In 1953, he starred in 'House of Wax', one of the first films shot in 3D, which earned him considerable acclaim. Price's roles in films such as 'The Fly' (1958) and 'House on Haunted Hill' (1959) cemented his status as a master of the macabre. His distinctive voice was also used in a number of animated projects, including the role of Ratigan in Disney's 'The Great Mouse Detective' (1986).


Rick Baker's Other Works

Rick Baker

Rick Baker, a master of special effects makeup, has contributed to a plethora of renowned films outside of his work on 'Thriller'. He won his first Academy Award for Best Makeup and Hairstyling in 1981 for his innovative work on 'An American Werewolf in London', a film that set new standards for the industry. Additionally, Baker's talent for creature creation shone in the 'Men In Black' series, where he designed an array of aliens that became a hallmark of the franchise. His other noteworthy projects include 'The Nutty Professor', 'The Grinch', and 'Planet of the Apes', each demonstrating his extraordinary ability to transform actors into entirely different beings. From horror to comedy, fantasy to science fiction, Rick Baker's craft has been pivotal in enhancing cinematic storytelling.


The Filming Process

The filming of 'Thriller' was a significant undertaking that pushed the boundaries of what was typically done for a music video. The attention to detail is evident in every frame - from the eerie urban backdrop to the synchronized dance sequences. Shot primarily on 35mm film, a format usually reserved for feature films, it elevated the production quality and cinematic feel of the project.

Landis directing Jackson on set of Thriller

The filming was carried out at various locations, including downtown Los Angeles and the Palace Theatre. The team also filmed at the Griffith Park Observatory for the scenes where Michael transforms into a werewolf. The use of Steadicam for the dance sequences provided fluid, gliding shots that added dynamism and a sense of immersion.

The video's climactic scene - the dance sequence in a deserted street - was filmed over 3 nights. Landis directed the dancers like an army, synchronizing their movements to the beat of the music. This painstaking attention to detail resulted in a scene that would become one of the most recognisable in music video history.

Jackson on Thriller set

Despite the immense pressure and high stakes, the cast and crew recall the filming process as a thrilling and rewarding experience. The energy on the set was electric, driven by Michael's infectious enthusiasm and commitment to the project. Ultimately, the hard work paid off when 'Thriller' was released to the world, forever changing the landscape of music videos and pop culture. Despite facing challenges with budget constraints, John Landis managed to create a cinematic experience that was ahead of its time. The final product exceeded everyone's expectations and surpassed anything that had been seen before in a music video. It was a masterpiece in its own right and has since been hailed as the greatest music videos ever made.


The Cost

Jackson and Landis on Thriller

Producing the 'Thriller' video was an expensive endeavour, especially by the standards of the 1980s. The budget reportedly exceeded $500,000 (equivalent to over $1.2 million today), making it one of the most expensive music videos ever made at that time. This was in part due to the extensive makeup and special effects, the large cast, and the night-time shooting schedule. However, Michael Jackson was determined to make a high-quality, memorable video and was willing to personally fund it to realise his vision. Despite the high cost, the video's monumental success and enduring cultural impact have made it a worthwhile investment. 'Thriller' is a testament to the fact that art and creativity, when backed with adequate resources and commitment, can result in a timeless masterpieces.


Reviews on Release

Upon its release, 'Thriller' was met with overwhelming acclaim from critics and viewers alike. The 13-minute video was hailed as a groundbreaking masterpiece that redefined the music video genre. Music critics lauded Michael Jackson's exceptional performance, noting his unmatched dance prowess, charisma, and relentless commitment to perfection. Entertainment Weekly called it a "watershed moment for the [music] industry" that "marked the arrival of a new kind of pop star."

Rick doing Jacksons makeup for Thriller

The video's cinematic quality and innovative storytelling also received high praise. Director John Landis was commended for his visionary approach and seamless execution. The fusion of horror, music, dance, and cinema was a novelty in the realm of music videos, setting a gold standard for future productions.

Simultaneously, Vincent Price's chilling narration and Rick Baker's groundbreaking makeup effects were recognized as integral elements that heightened the video's scare factor. The intricate zombie choreography, masterfully orchestrated by Vincent Paterson, further enhanced the overall eeriness and dramatic impact of 'Thriller'.

The impact of 'Thriller' was tangible, with the album sales skyrocketing after the release of the video. The success of 'Thriller' cemented Michael Jackson’s status as the 'King of Pop', a moniker that remains unchallenged to this day. The video's influence on pop culture is inestimable and continues to inspire artists globally, reaffirming its enduring legacy and iconic status.

'Thriller' On The Music Charts

1980s music charts

The release of 'Thriller' had a monumental impact on the music charts globally. In the UK alone, it rocketed to the top of the album charts within weeks of its release, solidifying its status as a trans-Atlantic hit. Furthermore, 'Thriller' topped the Billboard 200 in the United States for an astounding 37 weeks, a record in the music industry. The album, driven by the success of the title track and its groundbreaking video, generated seven Top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, a testament to the album's universal appeal and Michael Jackson's unparalleled talent. The enormous success of 'Thriller' on the music charts further underscored the influence and power of the music video, marking a new era in music history where visuals and storytelling became a crucial component of an artist's repertoire.


'Thriller' - The Biggest Selling Album

Jackson with awards for Thriller

'Thriller' holds the record as the biggest-selling album in the history of music, with estimated global sales surpassing an astonishing 66 million copies. The album's commercial success was unprecedented, setting new records and raising the bar for artists around the world. Michael Jackson's unique blend of pop, rock, and soul, along with his innovative music videos and electrifying performances, catapulted 'Thriller' into the annals of music history. Undoubtedly, 'Thriller' forever altered the landscape of pop music, demonstrating the power of artistically compelling visuals in promoting an album's success. Its legacy continues to impact and inspire artists across diverse genres, further validating its status as the best-selling album of all time.


Thriller: A Mini Movie Experience

Indeed, Thriller was not merely a music video - it was a mini movie. With a running time of nearly 14 minutes, it was unprecedented by the standards of the time. It pioneered the concept of 'long-form' music videos, breaking away from the conventional three-minute format and reshaping the landscape of music videography.

Still from Thriller video

Thriller was a visual masterpiece, with a narrative arc consisting of a beginning, middle, and end, just like a traditional film. The video opens with Michael and his girlfriend watching a horror movie in a cinema, setting the tone for the rest of the storyline. As the plot unfolds, viewers are taken on a thrilling ride, filled with suspense, horror, and dance.

The video's cinematic quality was further amplified by director John Landis's intricate storytelling and sophisticated filming techniques, reminiscent of his work on feature films. The use of steadicam shots, crane shots, and other innovative filming methods enriched the viewer's experience, making 'Thriller' a ground-breaking work of art that blurred the lines between music video and film.

The dramatic scenes, the dialogue exchanges, the atmospheric setting, the impeccable choreography, and the unforgettable music all combined to create a cinematic experience that captivated audiences worldwide. In retrospect, Thriller was not just a music video, but a mini movie that forever changed the world of pop culture.