In any other year, either A-ha’s “Take on Me” or Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” would have no doubt dominated the MTV Video Music Awards. But 1986 was no typical year. Incredibly, both clips — two of the greatest animated music videos, or even greatest music videos, period, in MTV history — came out in the same eligibility window. Therefore, they had to share the glory at the ’86 VMAs. “Money for Nothing” earned 11 nominations and scored two Moonmen, including one for Video of the Year; “Take on Me” missed out on that top honor, but won in a whopping six of its eight nominated categories, including Breakthrough Video, Viewer’s Choice, Best New Artist, and Best Director.
Even more astounding? Both videos were the work of the same director: a true video vanguard, Steve Barron.
Had Barron never come up with the wild ideas to cast the Norwegian heartthrobs of A-ha as comic-book moto-racers or have cube-headed, computer-animated repairmen act out “Money for Nothing,” the British director’s place in the MTV annals would still have been secure. Long before 1986, his video for the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” helped usher in pop’s Second British Invasion; his groundbreaking clip for Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” then broke the color barrier at MTV, as one of the first videos by a black artist to ever air on the largely rock-based network. But just as “Take on Me” turned A-ha into overnight sensations and “Money for Nothing” revived the career of old-school classic rockers Dire Straits, these two landmark videos also catapulted Barron’s career to new heights; he soon moved on to major feature films, directing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Coneheads. (His latest directorial project is Britain’s ITV dramatic series The Durrells.)
“It just happened to be a year that there were these two big challenges and two big opportunities to do something special,” Barron tells Yahoo Music. He never thought he’d be talking about these videos three decades later. “I knew we were on to something very good, as soon as we finished shooting and cut it together as the animation was coming in — but nothing could have prepared me for this getting so much attention over the years. You always wonder how long your work is going to stay around, how many generations might get to see it.”
In actuality, at one time it looked like no one, of any generation, would get to see “Take on Me” and “Money for Nothing.” Both videos almost didn’t get made at all — the former due to resistance at MTV and radio, the latter due to resistance from Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler himself.
Barron’s animated “Take on Me” was actually the second video for the song. In 1984, a different mix of the single came out — accompanied by a basic, performance-based music video shot against a plain blue backdrop, seen below — and it went nowhere (other than #3 on Norway’s pop chart). But Warner Bros. executive Jeff Ayeroff truly believed in A-ha. So Ayeroff went back to the drawing board — quite literally — and recruited Barron.
“It was very rare in the ‘80s, and probably very rare now [to give a band a second chance],” Barron says. “When ‘Take on Me’ [originally] came out, radio stations didn’t respond, and TV stations didn’t respond to the video, but Jeff said, ‘Wait a minute. These guys are amazing-looking; they have an unusual sound; they feel really commercial. They just need to be presented in the right way.’ Which was wonderful from a record company, because a lot of record companies didn’t embrace videos the way Jeff did.
“So that’s when he came to me and said, ‘Look, we tried this release. Nothing’s happened. You’ve always wanted to do animation. We need something spectacular.’ I said, ‘Give us four months and we’ll do it — if you can wait that long.’ And he said, ‘I’ll wait as long as you like, until you can be absolutely done with it.’”
Barron had the idea to render the video with Rotoscoping, “a very old animation technique where you base it on the live action and trace out the outlines frame by frame; it was more used in the 1920s, actually, and it hadn’t really been around much since. There were parts of certain animation films that had been done that way, where you can really feel the reality behind the drawing.” Eventually Barron’s animators, Michael Patterson and Candace Reckinger — who later brought MC Skat Kat to life for Paula Abdul’s “Opposites Attract”! — spent 16 long weeks Rotoscoping 3,000 individual frames for the new-and-improved “Take on Me” video.
But before all that, “It was about coming out with a concept that justified the animation. I was a real stickler at the time for having a motivation for what you were doing — as opposed to just doing it for show or for fashion,” says Barron. Eventually, inspired by the comic books and cafeterias of his childhood (“I spent a lot of my youth in ‘cafs,’ getting egg and chips; I lived in cafeterias, they were my home”), Barron came up with the video’s speed-racer plot, and he prepared to film the live action at Kim’s Café and on a soundstage in London.
“Then it was about trying to find that moment between live action and animation. I remember it distinctly, because I was going to a hotel in New York and playing the track over and over, and suddenly it came into my head: an animated hand reaching out from the comic book into the real world,” Barron recalls, describing the pivotal “Take on Me” scene that eventually elicited gasps of awe from MTV viewers. “You know that feeling you get, those tingles and those goosebumps? Well, I got that tingly feeling, which I get occasionally when a good idea comes along. I just knew that if I could weave a story around that, we could be on to something really special.”
It wasn’t just Barron’s attention to detail or Patterson and Reckinger’s painstaking animation that made “Take on Me” so special — it was also the casting. “I used film people, as opposed to models,” Barron explains. “I wanted to get real actors. Even the guy who plays the baddie, who’s only seen in animation, is a real actor — his name is Philip Jackson, and he’s been in a bunch of British films, like Give My Regards to Broad Street.”
Actress/dancer Bunty Bailey, the love interest of A-ha frontman Morten Harket in “Take on Me,” was an especially genius casting choice. Not only did this “really genuine character” become an atypical video girl of the ‘80s era, but she became Harket’s real-life girlfriend for “nearly a year,” Barron says, after they cute-met on the “Take on Me” set.
“The thing about Morten was he had, absolutely, a strong, striking, handsome look — but inside, he was kind of a less experienced, slightly more naive character. It didn’t feel like he’d really lived his years yet. I think he was about 21… I don’t think he’d had a real girlfriend before then,” Barron recalls. “And he certainly hadn’t been on a set, being filmed and being asked to pretend [to be in love]. This was a new thing for him. I think the thing that actors realize quite soon is that you get very close with people on set. Especially with your [co-star] on a film of any sort — you’re told to have this bond, and the lines can blur between what you’re pretending to do and what you’re actually feeling.
“And so, there was a number of times when we were doing these different takes, and there was one [scene] where Morten was leading Bunty by the hand. We did maybe five or six takes of that, and by the fourth time, instead of him taking her hand and then letting it go at the end of the take, he just carried on holding it. I noticed that at take five: They were still holding hands, even when we weren’t filming. It was a real moment, very sweet and innocent — it felt obvious then that something nice was going to happen. That’s what you strive for in film: relationships and connections. When they happen organically, it’s just a bonus, a plus.”
As for “Money for Nothing,” which ultimately beat out “Take on Me” at the 1986 VMAs, that video didn’t come together quite so naturally or easily. Dire Straits singer Knopfler was staunchly anti-MTV, and was particularly disdainful of high-concept, plot-driven music videos. “Mark was very stuck in his ways, and felt that they had to be onstage — with [the viewers] just hearing the lyrics coming from the band, not given some visuals to make them think about anything else.” Barron was therefore dispatched by Dire Straits’ record label — again, Warner Bros. — to Budapest, where the band was on tour, to change Knopfler’s mind.
“I said, ‘Look, Mark. I really feel like MTV now is at a stage where you have to do something extraordinary. It has to be a bit different. You can’t just do the same thing. It’s gotta be something very special,’” Barron recalls of their Budapest dinner conversation. “‘And this song as well, it’s about MTV. I understand that’s kind of more of a derogatory thing in a way, but it is about MTV. So we have to kind of play on that, and do something that’s not just you guys performing.’
“And he didn’t say a word. And I’m starting my way through this pitch, and I say: ‘You know, I just feel that the idea with this is that there’s irony in it. And the irony is that these two characters are actually made of the pixels that make up television!’ And so I was pushing this irony. I told him, ‘I can’t show you anything, because it’s never been done before. But there are graphics that can be done inside of the computer…’ And this went on and on. I was getting deeper and deeper into this tangle of technology, and I could feel like he was thinking, ‘Get this stoner out of here! Tell him to just go away!’ I could just feel that coming from him.
“But he had an American girlfriend, I think, and she was at the table, and she said, ‘You know what? You’re absolutely right. MTV is a real wakeup call.’ I think that’s when she went into a little bit of a monologue about the videos that she did and didn’t like. The meal sort of petered out, and Mark didn’t say anything — but he didn’t say no! So we just did the video, and presented it to him.”
Instead of relying on “Take on Me’s” hand-drawn technique, for “Money for Nothing’s” neon live-band scenes, Barron and his animators Ian Pearson and Gavin Blair used Bosch FGS-4000 CGI system and a Quantel Paintbox — a music video first. “People think it’s the computer animation that was the cutting-edge thing, but the most cutting-edge thing at the time was the colorization of the live action, which was a thing called Paintbox,” say Barron. “At the time, no one had electronically colorized frame by frame like that.”
So, did the success of “Money for Nothing” soften Knopfler’s anti-video stance at all? “I believe so,” Barron says. “I worked with him later, another five or six times, on a bunch of videos, where he really trusted me with what I wanted to do. So I think it all worked out.”
Incidentally, there are some outtakes from both “Money for Nothing” and “Take on Me” that definitely belong in a music-video-themed wing of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or maybe even the Smithsonian. Barron shot “Money for Nothing’s” two fake video-within-a-video clips — “Állj Vagy Lövök,” by real-life Hungarian pop band Első Emelet, and “Sally,” by the fictional Ian Pearson Band — and even more excitingly, a pre-Rotoscope version of “Take on Me” actually exists. Says Barron: “I can’t find it — I was trying to find it about 10 years ago — but somewhere, there is a live-action version of ‘Take on Me’ all the way through, with my scribbles [notes] on it, pencil marks over it. I couldn’t find it anywhere, but maybe it’ll show up.”
Interestingly, while both videos are MTV classics, and “Money for Nothing” took home top VMAs honors in 1986, Barron acknowledges that, 30 years later, “Take on Me” is the more beloved and iconic video of the two. “‘Money for Nothing’ is more of a comedy in a way, and therefore it worked as a kind of moment in time — something quite cute. At the time, very little computer animation had been done; now we’ve got these incredible animations from Pixar and they’ve taken it way beyond that, so ‘Money for Nothing’ has a vintage [dated] quality to it. But somehow, ‘Take on Me’ could come from almost any time — it could be a period piece, or it could be made now.”
As MTV prepares to hold the 2016 VMAs — at which the top nominees are Beyoncé, Adele, Justin Bieber, Drake, and Kanye West — Barron fondly recalls the 1980s’ golden age of music video (during which he also masterminded videos for Madonna, David Bowie, Culture Club, the Jam, Adam & The Ants, Simple Minds, and Tears for Fears). “It was a great journey,” he reminisces. “It was definitely entering the unknown, not having a real open book on what to do and what could be done. It was very much us [early video directors] being able to be free spirits.”
Barron’s memoir, Egg n Chips & Billie Jean: A Trip Through the Eighties (the title is a nod to his cafeteria-dwelling youth), is now being made into a feature film — although Barron has opted not to direct it himself, since he’s obviously so close to the subject matter. As for whether he’ll direct any music videos in the future — perhaps warranting another trip to the VMAs’ podium — he did direct A-ha’s farewell video for “Butterfly, Butterfly (The Last Hurrah)” in 2010, but says wistfully: “I really miss working with music. I haven’t done anything with music in many years… I’m from another era, so I don’t get asked to do videos anymore. But if there was a track I connected with, I would definitely do it.”