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Michael Jackson's First Music Video and the Birth of Green Screen

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.


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"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."

MTV was very much alive and hitting high ratings years before Thriller at least for its targeted audience. Thriller introduced the music video concept to older folks but those of us in our teens or pre-teens were already watching MTV practically full time after school. MTV introduced many of us to music our local radio stations wouldn't play or didn't even know about. But by the time Thriller came around, MTV was pretty "mature" and on target for the audience they were aiming at. Thriller's real break through was the "short story" video.

The video in your post was produced for a show called "Friday Night Videos" I believe. Music videos were actually around at least 5 years before MTV broke ground. ABBA and the Bee Gees had a lot of pre-MTV videos as did Black Sabbath and others. MTV was really just the repository of music videos, a sort of "one stop" on the fledgling cable package many families were just beginning to receive.

Many of us had "monster" (6 feet wide like the one in the picture) dishes in our backyards to receive the signal and there was a flourishing pirate market.

You could get raw signals from all of the "massive" number of channels (maybe 6-10). You could watch Dan Rather pick his nose during commercial breaks. As I remember it, this was how satellite was sold during this time (Hey! watch what the Networks do during the commercials!)