The story behind the album and CD cover for Michael Jackson’s 1995 ‘HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I’
The making of a monument to a troubled king
Michael Jackson was mad.
For the follow-up to 1991’s Dangerous, which eventually sold over 32 million copies worldwide, Jackson needed to get some things off his chest, and his old ways of making records wouldn’t suffice. There would be no songs about supposedly fictitious baby mamas, or easing on down the road or keeping on with the force.
Nah. Mad Michael was going to get sacrilegious, use racial slurs and tell his detractors to stop “f—— with him.” As a Rolling Stone critic wrote in 1995, Jackson was “angry, miserable, tortured, inflammatory, furious” while creating HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I — his ninth album.
Jackson, who died in 2009 and would’ve turned 58 on Aug. 29, was at that point the most popular performer in the world. His 1987 Bad tour grossed over $125 million, and he sold the broadcast rights to the Dangerous tour for a record-breaking $20 million to HBO in 1992. Jackson seemed untouchable — but the music on the album, even the massive hit song Scream, which he recorded with his sister Janet Jackson, expressed his rage: Kicking me down / I got to get up / As jacked as it sounds / The whole system sucks.
He had the following going on: charges of child molestation that ended in a financial settlement with the alleged victim. There was a painkiller addiction that led to an unexpected cancellation of his 1993 Dangerous world tour. There was scrutiny and skepticism and sympathy regarding his ever-changing skin tone and facial appearance. There was also his then-recent marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of the late musician Elvis Presley, which was widely panned as a publicity stunt.
With HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I, the self-proclaimed King of Pop reinvented — and reimagined — himself as what he believed the world viewed him as: a monument. And he needed cover art to match.
In 1994, a year before the release of HIStory, special effects artist Diana Walczak answered a phone in the kitchen of her Williamstown, Massachusetts, home. Family friend David Coleman, a longtime art director and executive at Sony Music, was on the line.
Coleman was inquiring about an upcoming album in need of art. According to author Randall Sullivan’s 2012 book Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson, when Sony asked Jackson for promo ideas for his upcoming HIStory tour, among other things, he suggested that Sony “build a statue of me.” Jackson wanted a marble white statue that resembled Russia’s 300-foot “The Motherland Calls,” a part of The Heroes of the Battle of Stalingrad memorial complex.
“Michael … was really picky, which makes all the sense in the world to me,” Walczak said jokingly to The MJCast podcast back in March. “And if they hired an artist to do something, they had the experience of having to rehire the artist repeatedly, because Michael wasn’t satisfied.” To circumvent that possibility ahead of time, Sony opted for a digital statue of the then-12-time Grammy award winner — one that mirrored his stoic opening pose from 1992’s Dangerous world tour. This in case Jackson “wasn’t satisfied” halfway through the process.
You’ve likely come face to face with Walczak’s work at least once in your life. Sylvester Stallone’s 1995 sci-fi thriller Judge Dredd? Walczak created the visual stunt double for the former Rocky. The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man thrill ride at Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure? That’s Walczak’s, as well. She’s also created visual art for 1994’s Stargate and Clear and Present Danger, 1992’s Honey, I Blew up the Kid and the first three films in the X-Men franchise. And even if you’ve somehow missed all those attractions, that Columbia Pictures logo with the woman draped in a toga and holding up a torch? Yup, Walczak, a pioneer in the whole computer-generated imagery (CGI) field, helped create that visual, too.
In order to replicate the King of Pop, Walczak met with Jackson in person to take her own reference photos. She wanted to “capture his face and also … his soul in his face.” She used four large-format cameras to simultaneously capture every angle of Jackson’s body, and one handheld camera to get close-ups of his hands and face. “I got to touch him,” she said. “And move him around.” She asked Jackson to not wear makeup for the photos — but he did.
Starting with the armature — the skeletal base of the sculpture that acts as the femur, holding the clay in place —Walczak and her two assistants began the molding process. Using over 300 pounds of wet clay, she sculpted day and night for a week straight. “Maybe,” Walczak said. “I came out to eat.” She was seven months pregnant at the time.
When the close detail was finished, she sent stills and videos of the original 48-inch sculpture to Sony and Jackson, who provided his own notes. He was particularly critical of his face — he knew what a nasolabial fold was. He was also critical of his body — “Thighs too fat” was a note he left on one of the photos. Following a week for alterations, Sony gave Walczak the green light to start the casting process, which morphs the water-based clay into the basis for a plasterlike silicone mold that becomes the permanent material. This mold is what you see on the HIStory cover.
Then, using gridlines and a permanent marker, Walczak added over 10,000 polygons to the hardened cast in preparation for the digitizing process, which took place in Los Angeles. The background, lights and other CGI materials seen on the album cover were then added in after the digitizing. The original image Walczak created, which she presented in September 1994, included a statue base with small human figurines to better accentuate the sculpture, but Sony decided to crop out most of the image, leaving the familiar shot of Jackson’s upper body.
Almost a year after Coleman first reached out to Walczak, another Sony employee, art director Nancy Donald, called to let Walczak know her design would be used on Jackson’s forthcoming album. “That,” she said, “is where I probably almost fainted.”
These days, Walczak still runs Synthespian Studios, a computer graphics and visual effects company, with her husband Jeff Kleiser. She also recently launched a website, which she’s using to help fund a large replica of the original HIStory statue to possibly be located in Jackson’s hometown of Gary, Indiana.
And as far as the whereabouts of the original sculpture? The clay version deteriorated from drying out over time. The white-plaster version was cut into various pieces for the digitizing process, and somewhere along the way the bottom half was lost. So Walczak only has the white marble bust, complete with the lines she drew on it back in 1994.
“It’s well protected.”