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Kenny Ortega on This Is It

Published October 29, 2009 in Movie Interviews
By Fred Topel | Image property of respective holders
This Is ItMichael Jackson's This Is It
The idea of a posthumous concert film has people divided over Michael Jackson’s This Is It. Once you get over that, brace yourself for this. There’s a new “Thriller” video. That’s right, the seminal music video got reinvented for Jackson’s final tour. The show and film’s director, Kenny Ortega, explained his inspirations.

Kenny Ortega Talks Michael Jackson's This Is It


“It also came from my background of loving Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ and being a huge fan of all of his short film work,” Ortega said. “But it was one of the first ideas that Michael and I talked about was let’s create a 3-D experience in an arena for the fans. Of course, people were like, ‘What?’ The technology, they were really racing to get it finished. We had the first HD 3-D screen up and we were creating these films. There were people that were not even sure it was going to work. When we first tested the 3-D on the screen in the arena, it was mind blowing. Then what we were planning on doing was Michael had all these other ideas of we had Michael Curry who designed ‘The Lion King’ was one of our scenic designers and puppeteer designers. We had giant illuminated characters dropping out of the ceiling over the heads of the audience and these beautiful puppets that were coming doing the aisles and moving out of the vomitoriums. Michael was so excited about it. He liked to call it a 4-D experience, so you were going to have a 3-D movie, the cast on stage and then the smoke billowing off the edge of the stage into the audience and all of these elements dropping in over your head and your 3-D glasses on.”

Ortega has worked in movie musicals since the ‘80s, and directed his own High School Musical trilogy. Normally, he films music to playback. Since This Is It was not intended to be a film, he had to work with the material that was recorded live on set.



“Fortunately we had everything being recorded. We had our monitor guys. You know when Michael’s talking, when he’s going, ‘I’m not trying to be difficult. I realize you guys are trying to do your job but I’m having a problem. It’s like somebody sticking their fist in my head.’ He’s talking to the monitor guys who are over there recording everything. Not everything was recorded where we had separate stems. Some things were just in two track so we didn’t have the ability to bring Michael’s voice out as much as we would have liked to. We did our best and other times we had it as good as in a recording studio where you could pull it out and mix it so we were able to get a greater sort of mix. But everything you heard was happening right there in the room. That’s Michael’s band playing all that music. Those aren’t records. He wanted it like the records as he made very clear, but those were his singers singing live. That was his band playing live. That was Michael up there obviously. If anybody needed to put that concept to rest, I mean you saw him. He would just start to improvise and start to sing out of nothingness and suddenly the band kicked in and we were into a rehearsal. That’s how organic that process was for us.”

Putting together the film in the aftermath of Jackson’s death has exhausted Ortega, but he maintains a positive spirit about all his work. “You know, I haven’t had any sleep for the last few months. I haven’t. During the rehearsals, I worked pretty late hours and then we did the memorial and then we started up on the film and the film was 14 hours a day, seven days a week, every week since we started and then we handed the movie over and it was like mixing. We just came back from 10 days out on the road starting in Chicago with Oprah and back here for the premiere. It’s just been an absolute whirlwind. Like the wind last night, I was like nothing new to me.”

Other dancers shine in This Is It too, showing that Jackson never hogged the spotlight. “He said to me, ‘Kenny, go out and find the best artists in the world. Invite them to come and join our journey and then let’s inspire them to go to places that they’ve never been before.’ So Michael knew who was in front of him and he had the greatest admiration and respect for everybody. [We looked for] collaborators and people that are not afraid to go on a journey and get outside of their head and that are less concerned about an idea being theirs and more concerned about being a part of a team that arrives at something special. Even if he had a little debate or a disagreement with someone, he never wanted it to get to the place where that person might have thought that he didn’t care for them or that he didn’t respect them.”

This Is It is now playing.

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Fred Topel
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