In 1985, two groundbreaking works of animation could be viewed, sometimes in the same hour, on MTV.
One was “Take On Me,” the A-ha video in which a woman (actress Bunty Bailey) gets yanked out of a café by lead singer Morten Harket and into a black-and-white animated realm where they fall in love and get chased by bad guys. The other was “Money for Nothing,” the Dire Straits MTV diss track that brought the two complaining blue-collar workers from the song to 3-D animated life.
The two videos demonstrate how creative and technologically ambitious videos had become halfway through the decade, a fact reflected the following year at the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards, where the two were the most nominated videos of the night. “Take On Me” earned 8 nominations and won six awards, while “Money for Nothing” received 11 nominations and won two Moon Men, including the big prize, Video of the Year. Animated sequences also could be found in other major nominees, including “What You Need” by INXS and “Road to Nowhere” by Talking Heads, whose stop-motion-style section would inspire a subsequent music video masterpiece, Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.” But “Take On Me” and “Money for Nothing” were the standouts.
With regard to animation technique, the two videos sat at opposite ends of the spectrum. “Take On Me” relied on a style of animation that dates back to the early 20th century: rotoscoping, which involves tracing live-action images and rendering them to look like literal moving sketches or drawings. “Money for Nothing” was largely created using a Bosch FGS-4000, one of the earliest computer-graphics systems, and Paintbox, a program that allowed creators to manipulate and color images with a stylus pen. These tools were basically brand new at the time. Here’s how brand new: Luxo, Jr., the game-changing 3-D animation short that first established the capabilities of Pixar Animation Studios, was unveiled on August 17, 1986, a little more than two weeks before that year’s VMAs.
Steve Barron, who directed many prominent videos in the 1980s, including Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me,” and Madonna’s “Burning Up,” was responsible for directing both of the classic musical shorts. During a phone call from Bucharest, Romania, where the Irish-British filmmaker is currently directing the upcoming BBC co-production of Around the World in 80 Days, he recalled that the production budgets on the videos were identical: 100,000 pounds. (Around $400,000 in 2020 value.)
“We very rarely got that kind of budget,” he said. “It was a budget designed to really do something spectacular.”
By 1985, “Take on Me” had already been released as a single and a more standard music video, neither of which captured public imagination. But Jeff Ayeroff, an executive at Warner Records who often offered Barron video gigs, was convinced that A-ha could become a thing. He came to Barron with the idea to produce a second “Take on Me” video to accompany a revamped version of the single, and suggested that Barron work with a pair of animators, Michael Patterson and Candace Reckinger, who had some experience in rotoscope.
Ayeroff also gave Barron something that was rare for music-video directors to have back then: time. Barron was told he could take as much as he liked. It would end up requiring four months to get the work done.
Inspired by the rotoscope possibilities, Barron began devising a story concept and immediately was struck by a visual idea. “An image kind of jumped out of this drawn hand, reaching out of a comic book into the real world,” he says. “I got goose bumps from that moment. I thought, ‘This could be amazing.’ That was the springboard for the whole narrative, really.” As for all the business with the motorcycle racers who chase Harket and Bailey, that was inspired by some visuals he remembered from TV 21, a British comic he read as a child. Why was Harket being chased, though? For the same reason most things happen in music videos: Because it looked cool.
The entire video was shot over two days with the band and actors in London, during which time some actual, non-animated sparks were generated on set between Harket and Bailey.
“There is the piece where he leads her into the drawn world and shows her the window into the real world, so they can look at each other for real,” Barron recalls. “He held onto her hand, pulled her across. And then I’d say, ‘Right, we need to do another one.’ And then we did take two, take three. By about take four, they weren’t letting go of each other’s hands when we cut.” Harket and Bailey dated for a year or two after that. She also appeared in another A-ha video, “The Sun Always Shines on TV,” whose opening is a sequel of sorts to “Take on Me.” Barron directed that as well.
Once production on “Take on Me” was finished, the edited live-action video was sent to Patterson and Reckinger so they could do the painstaking rotoscope work on each frame and send it back to Barron. Having seen the animation as it came through, Ayeroff got excited and shared a preliminary version of the video with other executives at Warner. Suddenly, the label wanted the video done right away, but Barron was still waiting for the last five animated shots he needed. He cut it together as well as he could, thinking this iteration would be for internal eyes only. But it wound up being the version that would go into heavy rotation on MTV.
The “Money for Nothing” video, which also got onto Barron’s plate via Ayeroff, was a dicier proposition because Mark Knopfler, the front man for Dire Straits, did not care for videos and wanted the “Money for Nothing” clip to consist of nothing but performance. The timeline also was going to be tighter to get it done. On top of that, Barron wanted to try 3-D animation, a process he had discovered while working at a post-production facility and meeting an animator named Ian Pearson.
Barron went to Budapest and shot footage of the band in concert, per Knopfler’s request. Then, over dinner, Barron pitched him the concept of the video, which would incorporate the live performance into a computer-generated realization of the song’s lyrics, in which two guys complain about how easy life is for the dudes who play the guitar on MTV.
“I thought, why don’t we just put another level of irony in it and have them made of a television, have them made of pixels?” Barron says.
During the conversation, Knopfler “didn’t say yes” to the concept, Barron says. “But he didn’t say no. So we just did it.”
Working with Pearson and digital designers, Barron helped create the two pixelated bros in the video who haul microwaves and refrigerators. The whole process happened in just six weeks. The result looks very primitive now. As Barron says, “It was very early days, and we were just trying to discover what we could do.” But at the time, this incarnation of CG looked like nothing else on MTV or just TV, period.
Even though “Money for Nothing” was innovative and won the VMAs for Music Video of the Year, it’s “Take on Me” that has had more staying power, in part because the song has continued to remain in the Zeitgeist thanks to baseball games, TV shows, and TikTok videos. So has the video and its visuals, which have been hat-tipped on Family Guy; weirdly, by Donald Trump (A-ha did not approve); and, yeah, on TikTok. Earlier this year, “Take on Me” also became just the second music video from the ’80s to amass one billion views on YouTube. (The first: “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses.) The video that utilized one of the oldest forms of animation has turned out to have more timeless appeal.
“Conceptually, and also production wise, ‘Money for Nothing’ never quite got finished,” says Barron, who wrote a memoir about his music video days called Egg ‘n Chips & Billie Jean. “It worked for what it was, but the idea wasn’t fully fleshed out. Whereas A-Ha’s felt like a more rounded, more satisfying beginning, middle, and end.”
And now, after years of seeing that “unfinished” version with five rotoscoped shots missing, the definitive version of “Take on Me,” recently remastered in 4K, is on YouTube.
“The good version is finally back up there,” Barron says. “Only in the last year, after 28 years of pain for me.”