"TAKE ON ME" - THE GREATEST MUSIC VIDEO EVER!
Back when they totally ruled the world in the 1980s, MTV (Music Television) actually aired hours upon hours of wonderful pop music videos, day after day (and some a lot more than others) – and yet, despite its repetitive nature, my generation couldn't pry their eyes away from it. In those days, the visualization of modern music (via the radical "new" art form of videos) was just like some really tasty candy - so sweet and mighty delicious. As more families installed their cable boxes, it was exciting to see how these promotional music clips evolved so quickly from cheap, little productions to lavish and elaborate mini-events that showcased the latest tunes and, in many ways, helped define and set many of the cultural trends of the era. As someone who spent part of my teenage years during that decade of consumerism, I can attest to the power that these videos had over my peers and me in every way – MTV's target audience was 12 to 34 years old, after all.
By 1985, in terms of artistic creativity and ambition, the art of making music videos had reached its pinnacle; the record companies became more competitive and pushed for glossier presentations to outdo one another. By being the main showcase of these videos, MTV became an influential cultural force, and if the cable channel's programmers liked a video and placed it into heavy rotation, they could even be idolmakers. So it was that with just one video, an undiscovered synth pop group from Norway named a-ha seemed to become world famous overnight. Their unforgettable and revolutionary video was a landmark that would become an influential Eighties staple, with an inviting coolness that has stood the test of time.
The talented pop trio of a-ha - consisting of Morten Harket (vocalist), Pal Waaktaar (guitarist) and Magne "Mags" Furuholmen (keyboardist) - originally formed in 1982; their "Take on Me" track was the only composition written jointly by the group from the "Hunting High and Low" album, their 1985 debut. Although a previous bare bones video had been filmed, with a different edit of the track, the music executives at Warner Brothers imagined a bigger video for their catchy "Take on Me" single, which would ideally serve as a much larger vehicle that could push the band in a big way across the globe. Having already directed Michael Jackson's classic "Billie Jean" and other memorable music videos, Irish director Steve Barron was called in to helm what would become something very special.
Speaking about the video, Barron recalled, "I had worked with the Warner Brothers executive Jeff Ayeroff from early on. The first video we did together was Bryan Adams' 'Cuts Like a Knife'. Over those few years, I had always asked him to give me the time and the money to do an animation video. In 1985, he told me about a-ha and how it would be a good opportunity to work with animation. He said, 'Take as long as you need.' I jumped at it."
Barron continued, "It was all really down to Jeff, who was a maverick in the Warners marketing department and was given a free rein. He was convinced [a-ha] could be massive if presented in the right context - he wanted to hold back their good looks with a stylish video that would then explode them onto the scene."
With budget of 100,000 British pounds, the video had a two-day shoot and required extensive post-production for its animation. The cartooning process used in the video is called rotoscoping, a method originated by animation pioneer Max Fleischer in 1915. The technique involves using a rotoscope machine that allows an animator to draw over live action film, resulting in the movement in the cartooning being more fluid and lifelike - today the technique is easily done on a computer by animators. In the "Take on Me" video, the process is seamless as the two leads interact, in and out of animation.
"We storyboarded the video," recalled Barron, "then did a stills shoot which was to be re-drawn for the comic book in the same style as the animation. Then we shot it all, including the fully animated sequences, on 35mm. In the cutting room after we finished editing, I scribbled in Chinagraph pencil all the areas of the film that would then need to be animated. The animators, headed by Michael Patterson, then worked for three months, sending me frames of reference for each shot as they did them."
Besides its clever use of animation, the video provided viewers a memorable story that is full of heart. In the little romantic fantasy, a young lady (actress Bunty Bailey) reads a comic book featuring a motorcycle racer at a coffee shop. From the pages of the comic, the racer winks at the girl and extends his animated hand as an invitation for her to come inside the book. Within the pages and panels, he shows her his penciled world and, via a magical window, even his true self (singer Morten Harket) - viewers also get to see the other members ("Mags" and Waaktaar) of the band, in both animated and live-action forms. As the smitten couple gaze upon one another, two evil race car drivers interrupt them, forcing the lovesick duo on the run. To save the girl, the hero gives her passage back to the real world, despite the imminent danger his actions place himself into. Returning to reality, she runs home with the comic to discover her hero's outcome and is saddened to find him fallen in the book…until he emerges, struggling to break into the real world inside her apartment, fighting to get out of the comic book for her. In the end, Harkett courageously emerges to rejoin her. If you've never seen this video, hand back your credentials to the human race, because viewing it should be a requirement for anyone with a pulse.
Regarding the plot of the "Take on Me" video, Steve Barron recalled, "The story came from an idea I had sitting in a hotel room in New York - I was trying to think how to justify and motivate the animation in the video - I didn't want it to just be a gratuitously animated video. An image flashed into my mind of an animated hand reaching out from a comic book into a live-action world. I got a sort of tingle down my spine. I knew then this could be really cool. Then I remembered a comic book I had read as a kid, featuring a sidecar motorcycle race between goodies and baddies. I embellished it all into a love story of sorts. A struggle between dimensions."
Unlike most music videos, the innocent storyline displayed a bit of the very sweet feelings of the song instead of showcasing other distractions, like the high life, babes and parties. The director commented, "The lyrics have very little to do with the story of the video. I was a stickler in those days for not being too literal. (Ironic that the YouTube literal version was massively popular after all those rules for myself.) For me, it was all about finding the atmosphere, tone and energy of a song and making the drama of the images ride along in conjunction with that."
The end of the video was a moment inspired from Ken Russell's "Altered States" film. Barron said, "Yeah, that was a bit of a cop-out, I suppose. I just wanted him to fight his way out of being a comic book hero and had seen 'Altered States' fairly recent to doing the video. If I would have given it more thought, I would have come up with a struggle depiction that wasn't 'borrowed.'"
Key to the video's longstanding popularity are the memorable performances of both Morten Harket, a non-actor, and Bunty Bailey, the actress, both of whom conveyed every emotion needed for the drama within the video, all without a single line of dialogue. "I remember Morton being quite shy and a little naive around girls," chimed the director. "I asked him and Bunty to hold hands on a shot, as he leads her toward the comic book window - we did about six takes, and by end of the fourth take I noticed they were still holding hands after we cut the camera and as they went to their start position again. It was very sweet. They went out together for over a year after that."
At the 1986 MTV Music Awards, this video won "Viewer's Choice," "Best Direction" and awards in four other categories. It has aired countless times on MTV and just about any other outlet that's ever showcased a music video. Its pop culture impact even earned it a parody in the fourth season of "Family Guy," where Chris Griffin met Morten Harkett's animated character within the setting of the classic video. As someone who suffers from insomnia and watches tons of video late at night, I've remarkably yet to see anything remotely close to the magic, charm and creativity of "Take on Me" in the twenty-five years since this influential video captured the world by storm.
So did Steven Barron ever imagine the video becoming such an iconic part of the gigantic 1980s? The director laughed and said, "Never thought it would get the attention it has. I'm really flattered that people still respond to it after all these years."
Very special thanks to Steve Barron for the conversation.