January 20, 2021

Tour Set Dies with Michael Jackson


On a brilliant summer day in Topanga Canyon last month—the morning after Michael Jackson’s sudden death stunned the world—the art director Bernt Capra was walking home up Fernwood Pacific with the slow gait of a man in deep reflection. He was carrying a single manila envelope that he’d just picked up from his post office box. In it were the proof sheets of the latest photographs of the just completed sets that he had designed for the fifty “This Is It” concerts that were supposed to have opened this month at the O2 Arena (The Millennium Dome) in London.


Tour Set Dies with Michael Jackson

Bernt Capra poses in front of a painting by his son, Pablo, another one of the talented Capras, that hangs outside the family home in Topanga.

“I’ve never had a boss die on me before,” said the soft-spoken Capra, shaking his head. Originally from Vienna, but having lived in Topanga since 1980, he seemed almost in a state of shock. At 6’6”, fit and tan from surfing, he has the quiet, dignified mien of a European nobleman. Tristfully, he took out the two sheets of photographs and passed them through the car window. “This is very sad because these sets we designed can only live with Michael performing. Michael Jackson was an original like Elvis. No one can take his place on these sets.”

Capra, who has had a long and remarkable film career, had worked with Michael Jackson from conceptional design to being ready to shoot in just five weeks. “We all were working very hard. There was no margin for error. The week before Michael Jackson died we were done with everything, [except for] the re-shoot with the sets, and that never happened.”

“It really hurts me to think that all this work we did will never be shown. The whole idea to make this concert such a theatrical event was really nice and I don’t think there will be a way for any of us to see it now. It hurts that it won’t ever be seen the way it was supposed to be.”

Capra worked here in Los Angeles with Michael Jackson to turn his design conceptions for the O2 Dome concerts into a reality on the “the biggest four sound stages in the Culver Studios, Culver City, all 235 feet by 150 feet, and 45 feet tall. These were the same stages where they shot the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind.

“This was supposedly the biggest LED (light emitting diode) screen assembled. It was 33 feet tall and 100 feet wide, and so, ...it was to cover the whole stage with a background of videos shot in 3D running the whole time (the audience was supposed to get 3D glasses with their tickets).... and because of the 3D effect those phantom dancers and sets would blend seamlessly with the real dancers live on stage, much like a hologram would, to give the audience an ultimate image.”


Tour Set Dies with Michael Jackson

“We had live wolves and ravens flying around in the cemetery set. There were Mummies and Zombies in the cemetery and the Zombies were dressed like historic characters, Louis XIV, Napoleon, a Federal Soldier… I’m really sad my decomposed pirate will never be seen.” —Bernt Capra

Capra and his partner worked on the remake of five of Jackson’s videos for the tour: “Thriller,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Smooth Criminal,” “They Don’t Care about Us,” and “Earth Song.”

“I know all the rumors about Michael Jackson but what I can say is that he was the nicest guy to work with—there was no facemask—he always was elegantly dressed, he definitely looked like Michael Jackson—he’d wear a black military style jacket with elaborate golden braiding to rehearsal, a red leather jacket with elaborate embroidery… but Michael was businesslike, very accessible, super polite and incredibly considerate. I had tickets today for the funeral, but I gave them to a friend,” Capra said over the phone, about an hour after the memorial at the Staples Center had ended. “I was hoping to see the sets used. I was in tears when I saw Paris Jackson speak of her father. Michael introduced his children to us when he took them on a tour of the sets. The children were normal children, very happy children and they just wanted to play on the cemetery set and he played with them. He seemed like a natural dad and I am sure that he loved his children and he obviously doted on them.

“His life was obviously a little surreal. When he arrived to work, he’d have to come with heavy security of course. There was an entourage of dark suits, at least four body guards. We even had a code name for the production stages in Culver City – “DOME.” We were the Dome Project. AEG was obviously worried about security. He would arrive in one of the two or three brand new shiny dark Cadillac SUVs that would accompany him to rehearsal. One vehicle for him and the children, one that contained the four bodyguards and sometimes there was a third car just to throw off the paparazzi a little. None of the cars had license plates.


Tour Set Dies with Michael Jackson

“Michael Jackson was very well read and he loved art, and he knew his photography, and he liked this photographer, Lewis Hine, who had been a social worker in the depression era and shot photographs of victims of child labor – four, five, six year olds working in mills and mines. He was also very well known for a collection of photos of the construction of the Empire State Building which are very valuable now. Michael loves this guy and he based “The Way You Make Me Feel” choreography and set design on the photos of the men constructing steel beams as if they were on the top of a skyscraper having a lunch break." — Bernt Capra.

“Usually when Michael came to the sets, he was there to work; he just wanted to show us what he was doing and choreograph the dancers on the sets with the show’s choreographer, Travis Payne and with the director, Kenny Ortega, who is also a long-time choreographer. The rehearsals were amazing to watch. I think Michael invented all the moves. Michael defied the laws of nature. From where I stood, which was about 30 feet away from the stage, he looked like he was dancing like he did thirty years ago, he was beautiful to watch. He was so lithe, and his dancing so fluid—there is no one that could dance like this—for me there was no better dancer, not Nureyev, not Fred Astaire.

“One thing you realize when you meet Michael is that he has this natural charisma—I don’t know what to call it really—I don’t know if it’s a chemical reaction, because I’ve worked with Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro but working with Michael felt so different from anything I’ve ever experienced. We only had five weeks to go from conception to production, which is so little time for a project like this—but whenever he saw me, he was very considerate of me and the sets and very nice. There was no time to do things over, everything had to be approved and there was no going back. I only saw him for the first time when we were halfway through the construction stages that they had rented for him to rehearse at the Forum.”

Capra got the job through a line producer, “an old friend I happened to be working with at the time, making some viral films for the internet, and he got into this accidentally through another producer that he had worked with before. He couldn’t tell me over the phone what the project was, but when he asked me if I wanted to work with him on something, I said yes, but I didn’t know what it was. So I came in for a meeting with Robb Wagner of Stimulated Incorporated who was in charge of the execution of the whole project (he was also part of the Memorial) and I was introduced to Robb Wagner and Bruce Jones. We sat down at the table for our meeting and I saw that this was a bigger project than I thought.

“Nothing Michael Jackson does is small. Really everything he does is big budget so we were never turned down for anything we asked for but we were told we had to make it happen fast and so everything was always done by the ‘best people’ with a big budget. I worked with the conceptual artist Nicole Loebart and her husband, the art director William Budge. I sat down with her and from photos and ideas she makes these elaborate conceptual drawings on her computer and everything was pretty much approved so we could begin to build the sets.

“Michael Cotton designed the stage and built it. Bruce Jones, co-director in charge of visual effects, was the digital creator, doing the tech parts. The whole concert was like a flamboyant opera performance. The set was conceived like a big musical Broadway show, elaborate, but instead of rebuilding the sets between songs—because Michael wanted the show to be seamless, there would be no time—the sets were these 3D videos we made.”

Capra ordered all of the construction material from Topanga Lumber.

Capra was born in Vienna during World War II. His father was drafted into the war, and when the allies started bombing his mother fled with him to her mother’s farm. He was only one when he left Vienna and stayed on the farm until he went back to get a BA at the University of Vienna. “I was basically a farm boy.” He went