The 1980s were a golden era for music videos, transforming how we consumed music and leaving an indelible mark on popular culture. This decade saw the rise of MTV and, with it, the birth of the video star, turning musicians into visual icons and their songs into cinematic masterpieces.
From the groundbreaking imagery of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” to the visual spectacle of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” the ’80s were packed with music videos that were as memorable as the songs themselves. But what went on behind the scenes to create these iconic pieces? This article pulls back the curtain to reveal the stories, challenges, and creative breakthroughs that made these videos stand out.
Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”
Directed by John Landis, the music video for “Thriller” set a new benchmark for what music videos could be, blending music with cinematic storytelling in a mini-horror film format. The production was groundbreaking, featuring elaborate makeup, special effects, and a dance routine that would become iconic. Jackson and Landis faced challenges in funding the ambitious project, leading to the making of a documentary that helped cover costs and showcase the innovative spirit behind the video.
Behind the scenes, the creation of “Thriller” was as much about pioneering new techniques as it was about artistic vision. The makeup artist Rick Baker brought the undead to life with his prosthetic designs, while the choreography, led by Michael Peters alongside Jackson, required intense rehearsal to synchronize the complex dance moves of the zombie ensemble. The set was alive with creativity and problem-solving, pushing the boundaries of the music video medium and setting a precedent for future projects.
Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”
Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” is renowned for its innovative use of stop-motion animation, claymation, and pixelation, making it one of the most visually engaging videos of its time. Directed by Stephen R. Johnson and animated by Nick Park of Aardman Animations (later famous for “Wallace & Gromit”), the video was a laborious project that took months of frame-by-frame shooting to complete. The painstaking process involved Gabriel lying under a glass sheet for 16 hours at a time as animators meticulously changed each frame to create the illusion of movement and transformation.
The behind-the-scenes effort for “Sledgehammer” was immense, requiring collaboration among various artists, including those skilled in claymation, stop-motion, and traditional animation. The video’s visuals were not just groundbreaking; they also perfectly complemented the song’s themes of transformation and rebirth, earning it a record-breaking nine MTV Video Music Awards. The dedication and creativity of the team paid off, resulting in a video that remains one of the most celebrated examples of innovation in music video production.
A-ha’s “Take On Me”
The music video for A-ha’s “Take On Me” is a quintessential ’80s masterpiece, blending live-action footage with a rotoscope animation technique to tell a cross-dimensional love story. Directed by Steve Barron, the video was notable for its comic book-style narrative that saw lead singer Morten Harket and actress Bunty Bailey leap between real-life and animated worlds. The ambitious vision for the video presented unique challenges, notably the labor-intensive rotoscoping process, which involved drawing over each frame of the live-action footage to create the animated sequences.
Behind the scenes, the “Take On Me” video was a testament to the creative possibilities of music video as a form of art. The rotoscoping process was not only time-consuming but also required precise coordination between the live-action filming and the animation to ensure that the transitions were seamless. The effort and creativity invested in the project paid off spectacularly, with the video becoming one of the most memorable and beloved of the decade, catapulting A-ha to international fame and forever changing the landscape of music video production.
Madonna’s “Like a Prayer”
Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” video was as controversial as it was groundbreaking, weaving together themes of race, religion, and sexuality in a way that music videos seldom had before. Directed by Mary Lambert, the video’s narrative and imagery—featuring stigmata, burning crosses, and Madonna witnessing a murder and experiencing stigmatic wounds—sparked widespread debate and even led to a public feud with the Vatican. Despite (or perhaps because of) the controversy, the video was a critical and commercial success, showcasing Madonna’s ability to push the boundaries of pop music and video artistry.
The production of “Like a Prayer” was a massive undertaking, with meticulous attention to detail in every scene to ensure the video’s powerful message was clearly conveyed. Behind the scenes, Madonna and Lambert worked closely to balance the artistic vision with the potential backlash, understanding the impact their work could have. The video’s set was a hive of activity, with the crew navigating the complex logistics of shooting various challenging scenes. This behind-the-scenes effort paid off, as “Like a Prayer” became one of the most iconic and talked-about music videos of the decade, cementing Madonna’s status as a pop culture provocateur.
Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing”
Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” video was a pioneering effort in the use of computer-generated imagery (CGI), showcasing a then-revolutionary 3D animation that captivated viewers worldwide. Directed by Steve Barron, who also directed A-ha’s “Take On Me,” the video was one of the first to blend rock music with advanced technology, telling the story of blue-collar workers watching music videos. The CGI sequences were groundbreaking, offering a glimpse into the future of visual effects in music videos and beyond.
Creating the “Money for Nothing” video was a technological challenge, with the team venturing into uncharted territory with their use of 3D animation. The process was time-consuming and expensive, requiring the use of state-of-the-art computers that were far less powerful than today’s standards. Despite these challenges, the video’s success was unparalleled, earning it heavy rotation on MTV and helping to solidify Dire Straits’ place in rock history. The video not only marked a significant moment in the evolution of music video production but also heralded the digital age of animation, influencing countless artists and filmmakers in the years to follow.
Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”
Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” video was a vibrant, colorful celebration of female empowerment and individuality, matching the song’s spirited anthem with equally exuberant visuals. Directed by Edd Griles, the video featured Lauper dancing through the streets, joining a cast of diverse characters in a series of playful and whimsical scenes that perfectly captured the song’s essence. The video’s inclusive message and joyful energy made it an instant classic, resonating with audiences around the world and becoming an emblem of 80s pop culture.
Behind the scenes, the production of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” was a whirlwind of creativity and collaboration. Lauper’s vision for the video was to create a party atmosphere that welcomed everyone, regardless of background or identity, reflecting her own eclectic style and inclusive values. The shoot was a bustling, lively affair, with dancers, extras, and crew members all contributing to the
The behind-the-scenes stories of these iconic music videos reveal the creativity, innovation, and sometimes controversy that fueled their creation. The artists and directors behind these memorable pieces pushed the boundaries of technology, storytelling, and visual art, setting new standards for what music videos could achieve. As we look back on these groundbreaking projects, it’s clear that the 1980s were not just about the birth of the music video era but about setting the stage for the future of music and media.