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Michael Jackson’s 20 Greatest Videos: The Stories Behind the Vision

The most important visual artist in music history, remembered by the directors he collaborated with

No single artist has shaped, innovated or defined the medium of “music video” more than Michael Jackson. The popularity of MTV itself was rocketed into the stratosphere by a clip so good that it defied antiquated, racially biased ideas of rock music programming. The iconic directors behind decades of cinematic masterworks – The Godfather, Raging Bull, Do the Right Thing, Boyz N The Hood, The Social Network – can all claim his as a collaborator. And 13,597 people in Mexico City didn’t break the world record for dancing to Prince now did they? Here are his 20 best, with stories of how they came to be. By Christopher R. Weingarten

Additional reporting by David Browne

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5. “Smooth Criminal” (1988)

For the 42-minute "Smooth Criminal," the centerpiece of Jackson's 1988 movie Moonwalker, director Colin Chilvers wanted the lighting of a noir classic and Jackson wanted to pay tribute to an MGM musical. Together they visualized Jackson's second most famous dance move — a gravity-defying lean. Chilvers, who had done special effects on Superman, affixed Jackson's heels to the ground and kept him from toppling over with piano wire.

Colin Chilvers, director: I showed Michael a movie that I felt would fit the theme of the piece, The Third Man. He loved the look of it, that sort of film-noir look, so we used that to get the camera man to light it in a similar way. The dance piece was a tribute to Fred Astaire. And actually, he wears a similar kind of costume that Fred had used in one of his movies – Band Wagon. We had the pleasure of having Fred's choreographer come on the set. [Astaire's choreographer] Hermes Pan visited the set while we were doing the song and dance piece and said that Fred would have been very happy and proud of being copied by such a wonderful person.

The lean that we did, obviously that was a bit of a heritage from my days of Superman. 'Cause we had Michael on wires and fixed his feet to the ground so he could do that famous lean. I fixed their heels to the ground with a slot, so that they were locked into it. If you look in the video, when they come back up from that lean, they kind of shuffle their feet back – they were unlocking themselves from the support they had in the ground. 

We had 46 dancers plus the choreographers, hair, make-up, everything else. And every day, lunchtime, we'd go and watch the dailies from the day before. And it would be like a party going on in the screening room. Michael would be there as well and they would be hoopin' and hollerin' when they saw themselves and how good it looked – or else, Michael would say, "We can do better than that." Not the usual way to make a Hollywood movie, that's for sure.

It was Michael's movie and he was going to do exactly what he felt he needed to do to make it perfect. The producer, Dennis Jones, was coming in from outside the studio and obviously he was concerned about the time we were taking. He had a habit of walking towards me and looking at his watch. And [fellow director] Jerry Kramer, didn't drop a beat and said, 'Dennis, with Michael, you don't need a watch, you need a calendar." Michael wanted it to be perfect and that's the way he was.

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4. “Scream” (1995)

Though director Mark Romanek disputes "Scream"'s legacy as the most expensive video ever made, this dystopic, playful spaceship dance-off between Michael and sister Janet was no fly-by-night affair, totalling $7 million. "We couldn't go to the 'spaceship location'… so we had to build one," says Romanek. "We were only given two weeks to design and construct a dozen pretty large-scale sets. The only way to get it done was to throw manpower and lumber and money at the problem." The result is stark yet sumptuous, based on Romanek's love of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Jean Cocteau's novel Les Enfants Terrible, a story of two siblings playing games in isolation.

Mark Romanek, director: [Michael and Janet] obviously had a deep affection and love for one another and were very excited to finally dance together on camera for the first time. There was some very healthy and good-natured sibling rivalry going on there in that scene.

I was surprised by how normal, likable, and approachable he was. I spent a good deal of time with him in his trailer and between takes just talking about hobbies and movies and various random topics. He was very charming, in that he seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say and my opinions about things.

It was the experience of being that close to him when he moved that's stuck with me the most. It seemed like a magic trick, like your eyes were deceiving you.