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Kenny Ortega Discusses 'Michael Jackson's This Is It'


Kenny Ortega

Kenny Ortega at the LA premiere of 'Michael Jackson's This Is It'

© Richard Chavez
Michael Jackson's This Is It, the 111 minute film composed of rehearsal and behind the scenes footage from the planned series of concerts, set a box office record its opening day, grossing an estimated $2.2 million domestically. That enthusiastic reception by Michael Jackson fans moved This Is It into first place for the biggest opening Tuesday in October, and the swift sale of tickets should prove Sony made a great deal by snatching up the concert rehearsal footage for $60 million shortly after Jackson's untimely death. And the mostly positive reviews by critics should help nudge on the fence into checking out the film during its short theatrical run.

If Michael Jackson's This Is It proves to be successful, then all the hard work director Kenny Ortega (High School Musical film franchise) put into making it a reality will be worthwhile. Ortega was Jackson's creative partner and director of the stage show, and at the LA press day for Michael Jackson's This Is It he admitted he hasn't been getting much sleep because of his work on this special film. "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 [at the LA premiere]," said Ortega.

The raw footage was never meant to be seen by audiences, but there are short films Ortega and Jackson put together that were supposed to be viewed by those who bought a ticket to the concerts. "We had three big chunks of footage that we worked with. You saw the big films that we incorporated into the storytelling. Those were 10 short films that Michael and I developed and produced together that were incorporated into the concert. So those were always intended to be a part of the concert. Those were made for the live show and ultimately down the line when we filmed the live show in London, which was a plan, those would have been a part of that," explained Ortega. "Then we had the behind-the-scenes interviews, the 'Making Of' because Michael had intended to film the concerts in London so he wanted to have a nice behind-the-scenes to be able to attach to that. So that’s where you got the dancers and band members talking and seeing the scenic shots."

"Then you had what I call the miracle footage, which was the footage that we use. It was a tool for us to videotape the rehearsal so that we could, at any time we wanted to, go back and look at something and say, 'Why don’t we open this up musically?' or 'You know what we should do here with the lights?' Or, 'Why don’t we bring the dancers out at this moment?' That it offered us an opportunity to kind of, after the fact, step back, look at something and be able to make creative adjustments. We’d done that ever since we started working together. We didn’t always turn those cameras on and there were only two of them and sometimes one."

Ortega added, "You can imagine the complication of trying to tell a story and cut this movie together. There were times where I was on the floor banging and kicking and screaming because we didn’t design this to be shot as a film. We never planned it. There was no script. I didn’t say, 'And now go in for the close-up and can we do one more take of that?'"

Not every musical number from the planned concert made it into Michael Jackson's This Is It. "The day that Michael died, we were waiting for him to come in to block him into 'Dirty Diana,' which was at the end of 'Dirty Diana' he stepped into an illusion and before your eyes went up in smoke and then suddenly appeared completely on the other side of the stage rising up on the cherry picker and out over to the audience for 'Beat It.' He was really looking forward to it. The night before, he had said to me he was very happy. He saw the dream coming to light on the stage. The only thing he wanted me to say to anybody creatively, dancers, creative team was, 'I love them. Everybody’s doing a great job. I love you, Kenny. I’ll see you tomorrow. Thank you.'"

"He left, and we were invigorated. We came back that next day and we were all up on the stage really excited working with our illusion makers, working with our technicians. We had our aerialist, Danielle, on the stage and Tony Testa - one of our associate choreographers - was standing in for Michael. It was just like we were getting everything ready for him to walk in and step into what was going to be one of his favorite days because he loved illusion. When we discovered that, in fact, everything stopped."

Everything about the concert series pushed the edge, including the technology Ortega and Jackson were hoping to use to give the fans an experience unlike anything they'd had before. "[...]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," revealed Ortega. "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."

Page 2: Kenny Ortega on the Footage and His Friendship with Michael Jackson

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