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Morph sequences from Black or White music video

by Steve Anderson

The music video for Michael Jackson's Black or White included two remarkable scenes that explicitly address  issues of race and sexuality. First is a morph sequence in which lip-synching actors of various races and genders morph into each other, echoing the color-blind and gender-neutral politics of the song. The video was deemed too controversial for prime-time broadcast not because of this sequence but because of the next scene in which Jackson smashes windows painted with racist epithets and makes sexually suggestive gestures. These two scenes in juxtaposition offer a glimpse of the ambiguous racial politics of Jackson's work, exemplifying the two extremes of populist assimilationism in the morph sequence and the overt anger and aggression of the window-smashing sequence. This final scene is also bookended by Jackson himself morphing in and out of the figure of a black panther.

Visual Effects: Morphing

by Jeremy Butler

“In a medium whose very essence is the ability to reproduce the look of everyday reality, one of the surest ways of attracting the viewer’s attention is to violate that reality,” contends Paul Messaris. What intrigues him is advertising’s use of distorted imagery to make a viewer notice a product. Studies in cognitive psychology show that this distortion is most effective when it varies only slightly from a familiar object. As Messaris explains, “if the discrepancy between the unfamiliar shape and some preexisting one is only partial, the mental task of fitting in the new shape becomes more complicated. As a result, such partially strange shapes can cause us to pay closer attention.” If an object is wholly different from what you are familiar with, you may ignore it completely or place it in a new visual category; but if it is partially similar, then your cognitive processes work overtime trying to figure out whether or not it is a familiar object.

Messaris cites digital morphing as a prime example of this principle. A morph takes two dissimilar objects and creates a seamless transition from one to the other. In so doing, it creates a strange, reality-violating hybrid of two familiar objects. Morphing first came to viewers’ attention in the films Willow (1988) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), where humans morph into various shapes, but it found its widest exposure in Michael Jackson’s Black or White music video and television commercials in the 1990s. Notably, a Schick Tracer razor com mercial morphs between a variety of faces—effectively communicating the idea that the Tracer will fit any shaped face and simultaneously getting viewers to concentrate on the ad by violating the reality of human physiognomy— as when a white man transforms into a black one. Morphing remains a common part of the CGI toolbox. There’s even a quick morph in the Winn-Dixie commercial (2010), when the mother and daughter transition from blackand- white to color.

Panther morph sequence from Michael Jackson video

The panther morph and window smashing scene from Michael Jackson's Black or White music video

from Black or White (1991)
Creator: John Landis / Michael Jackson
Posted by Steve Anderson
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