June 14, 2011 at 9:00 am

How Michael Jackson’s Virtual Flash Mob Was Crowdsourced

michael jackson behind the mask crowdsourced music video

The king of pop might be gone, but he’s not forgotten.

A massive collaborative act of music video creation by — and for — his fans has helped make sure of that. Thousands of MJ fans worldwide contributed to the posthumous Michael Jackson music video for “Behind the Mask” released Tuesday on the star’s Facebook page (watch below).

Director Dennis Liu  told Evolver.fm that the video was inspired by Jackson’s own work, in particular, his 1991 “Black or White” video, with its emphasis on “connecting” people — something that today’s social technologies are sometimes about, too.

The idea of having people act out moves from the video came from the crowd too, according to the director — in particular, flash mobs in which everyone from Philippene prisoners to Swedish volunteers dances to his music.

The new video for the song “Behind the Mask” premiered on Facebook, where Jackson’s regularly-updated presence has been “liked” nearly 36 million times — a large number that pales in comparison to the over 750 million albums he is said to have sold.

michael jackson behind the mask crowdsourcingThis crowdsourced, professionally-produced video was under tight wraps until today, but director Dennis Liu, whose other clients have included both Apple and Microsoft, gave Evolver.fm a verbal preview of the virtual flash mob he made from the over 15,000 videos submitted by fans since March.

Some clips ran 15 seconds, and others covered the song’s duration. A team of five needed two months to sift through the videos before Liu and his team arrived at the finished product, including video of 1,600 participants woven together. (The video was produced by@radical.media, the same folks behind that awesome steerable Danger Mouse video.)

To participate, fans selected from a number of actions from Jackson’s website (“playing an instrument, singing a lyric, acting out a crowd reaction or demonstrating a classic MJ dance move”) and then filmed themselves with a webcam or uploaded video shot elsewhere. Using a split-pane interface, they could then line up their video with Jackson’s in order to follow the directions.

“Doing posthumous video is always a tricky thing because for me, as an artist, I want to respect the artist’s vision, which is why the musician wrote the piece,” explained Liu. “So initially, it’s always tricky to take that, given that Michael’s not with us anymore.”

He hears two main riffs in Jackson’s legacy.

“He was all about diversity — an international presence. Everyone was an equal, and there was always this magic behind his presence… How [could we] bring the world together for some sort of video? The inspiration was ‘Black or White,’ in showing how he helps connect the world, because we wanted to go big and do something that would knock everyone’s socks off.”

Indeed, participants came from 103 countries. The other riff he wanted to echo was Jackson’s well-evidenced embrace of technology in making his videos, which affected how this video was made and distributed.

“Michael always tried to push the limits of technology with his videos,” continued Liu. “Without a doubt, everyone knows that Michael Jackson was at the forefront of music video innovation, from Thriller to Scream.”

Only a star of Jackson’s reach could convince people to contribute well-coordinated video to a project on this scale, according to the director. Several documented Thriller flash mobs back him up.

So, how did Liu’s channeling of 15,000 submissions into a single crowdsourced video turn out? In the spirit of crowdsourcing, you can decide for yourself, “like” it or not.

Either way, Jackson’s fans have something new to watch: each other.

Photos courtesy of MichaelJackson.com