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Technology Throwback Thursday: Special effects killed the radio star

September 17, 2015
By Susan Hering

Last month, I took you on a trip down memory lane to the days of early promotional videos and MTV’s TRL. This month I’ll highlight some of the ways music videos’ style, production budgets and technical elements have evolved over the years.

Throughout the end of the 20th century, artists recognized the vital role music videos could play in driving album sales, influencing stardom and popularity, and overall increasing the global distribution of their music. This realization led many bands and artists to experiment with new technologies and artistic concepts to enhance their videos that simultaneously pushed production budgets and special effects to new levels.

Green screen technology

Legendary pop singer Michael Jackson can be credited with ushering in a new wave of special effects in music videos with his 1979 release of “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” Jackson appears chroma keyed, or green-screen composited, dancing in front of abstract geometric images that scroll in the background. (Chroma keying is an editing technique that relies on color hues to layer various videos together.) The video also features Jackson dancing at one point in triplicate, a new visual editing technique for the time. These two new conceptual innovations made this video an instant hit among fans and paved the way for green-screen enhanced videos that would become widely circulated for decades to come.

Bigger production values

Produced and released in 1982, Jackson’s “Thriller” brought a whole new meaning to the words “music video.” Jackson debuted the first-of-its-kind, 15-minute fright fest that watched more like a horror movie than a music video, and still hails as the most iconic music video of all time. The groundbreaking video incorporated a full plot with scripted lines for Jackson and the rest of the actors. It also featured elaborate costumes, special effects and intricate dance moves, making it one of the most expensive music videos produced up until that time, with a $750,000 production budget.

Over the years, Jackson would go on to produce many more long-form music videos for songs including “Smooth Criminal” and “Black or White,” though many other artists would follow in his footsteps in the decades that followed. (Fun fact: The Guinness Book of World Records recently awarded “the world’s first 24-hour music video” to Pharrell Williams for his 2013 release of his single “Happy.”)

Other artists began to invest more heavily in production values and turned more to special effects and artistic storylines that incorporated animation to help push their music videos toward the top of MTV’s popular countdown shows, most notably TRL.

Animation meets live-action

In 1986, British rock band Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” was one of the first videos to include computer graphics and rotoscoped animation in a music video. This progressive new approach of splicing together on-screen computer graphics with live-action band footage earned this video the Video of the Year award at the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs).

Also breaking ground that year, a-ha further pushed the envelope of using creative animation in their music video for “Take on Me.” The video, which starts with a series of animated pencil-drawn comic book images, changes to live-action footage of a woman in a café. One of the comic’s pencil-drawn hands reaches out to her and pulls her into the comic. The remainder of the video follows a chase narrative mashing together the live-action heroine with the pencil-drawn hero. The integration of live-action footage into the drawn animation was a very unique and complex video concept for the time, garnering it six awards at the 1986 MTV VMAs, including recognition for Best Concept Video, Most Experimental Video, Best Direction and Best Special Effects.

But Peter Gabriel’s 1987 music video for “Sledgehammer” really skyrocketed the use of animation in music videos to a whole new level. To create this video, Gabriel partnered with some of the most talented animators of the day to include claymation, pixilation and stop-motion animation elements. The video’s influential visuals and creative narrative won Gabriel nine awards at the 1987 MTV VMAs, including Video of the Year, Best Concept Video and Most Experimental Video.

More videos incorporating animated on-screen talent would grow in popularity throughout the ‘80s, ‘90s and into the 21st century, including videos produced by GorillazDaft Punk,The White Stripes and Paula Abdul (who danced alongside the now infamous animated cat, MC Skat Kat, in her video for “Opposites Attract.”

360-degree music videos

Now in the 21st century, music video producers have continued to experiment with visually stimulating and technologically advanced concepts in order to keep their videos relevant to the times and popular with fans.

Spring forward to just this year. Avicii’s “Waiting for Love” was the first music video to use Google’s Jump platform, an interactive 360-degree filming capability, in a music video. Videos filmed using Google’s 360-degree technology allows viewers to interact with the video by navigating around a scene via their curser, or by moving their phone to explore onscreen scenes. This filming style essentially creates a panoramic view of what’s been filmed and a seemingly more realistic and “as if you were there” effect for the viewer. Other artists who have recently experimented with this new technology include Duran Duran with their music video for “Pressure Off” and Fort Minor’s music video for “Welcome.”

Related reading

From MTV to YouTube, the evolution of music videos

What did '90s movies teach us about technology?

Full List of #tbtech (All our Tech Throwback Thursdays)

As a member of the TEKsystems’ marketing communications team, Susan Hering helps develop and write strategic marketing collateral, including brochures, case studies and presentations. When she’s not in the office, she enjoys traveling, cooking and spending time outdoors.

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