Director Steve Barron recalls making A-ha’s ‘Take on Me’: ‘I knew we were on to something very good’

Lyndsey Parker
Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
A-ha's "Take on Me" video (Photo: Warner Bros.)

Had Steve Barron never come up with the wild idea to cast the Norwegian heartthrobs of A-ha as comic-book moto-racers in their iconic “Take on Me” music video 35 years ago, the British director’s place in the MTV annals would still have been secure. Long before that video premiered in May 1985, his clip 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 colour barrier at MTV, as one of the first videos by a black artist to ever air on the largely rock-based network. And his work on another animated video, Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” was arguably as ground-breaking as “Take on Me.”

But “Take on Me,” along with turning A-ha into overnight sensations, catapulted Barron’s career to new heights: He soon moved on to major feature films, directing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Coneheads.

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“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,” Barron tells Yahoo Entertainment. 

The dazzling video, which was recently restored and upgraded to 4K resolution to improve its visual quality, just surpassed 1 billion views on YouTube — making it YouTube’s second-most-viewed video from the ‘80s (right after Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine”) and the fifth-most-streamed track of the entire 20th Century. (Only three other 20th Century videos have passed YouTube’s 1 billion mark: GNR’s “November Rain,” Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”)

But at one time, it seemed like no one, of any generation, would ever get to see “Take on Me.” The video almost didn’t get made at all.

Barron’s animated epic was actually the second video for the song. In 1984, a different mix of the single came out — accompanied by a basic, performance-based promo, shot against a plain blue backdrop, as seen below — and it went nowhere (other than to No. 3 on Norway’s pop chart). But Warner executive Jeff Ayeroff truly believed in A-ha, so he 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 acknowledges. “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.”

Barron continues: “So that’s when [Ayeroff] 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-much-improved “Take on Me” video.

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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.”

Group portrait of A-Ha at Eel Pie Studios during the making of their first album, Twickenham, London, 1984. L-R Pal Waaktaar, Morten Harket, Mags Furuholmen. (Photo by Erica Echenberg/Redferns)

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 met-cute 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 realise 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.”

Steve Barron at the 32nd American film festival in Deauville, France on September 02nd, 2006 - Photo call of ' Choking Man ' by director Steve Barron (Photo by David LEFRANC/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Incidentally, a pre-Rotoscope version of the “Take on Me” video actually exists. “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,” Barron chuckles. “I couldn’t find it anywhere. But maybe it’ll show up.” 

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Barron says “Take on Me” could “come from almost any time — it could be a period piece, or it could be made now.” But it’s unclear if the video really could have been made in any decade other than the 1980s, a wildly creative time when rising directors didn’t have to follow any formulas or hard-and-fast rules. “It was a great journey,” Barron says of his early career. “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 [‘80s video directors] being able to be free spirits.” 

Barron’s graphic 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, he 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.”