Penciling in the History of A-ha's 'Take on Me'
Spend enough time surfing through YouTube’s vast catalog of vintage music videos and you’ll eventually come across “Take on Me” by Norwegian trio a-ha. The surreal, sketch-pad animation of the 1985 MTV staple is hypnotic. It’s been viewed over 1 billion times on the site, a rare milestone for a song recorded in the 20th century.
Yet a-ha can also claim to having a forgettable video for “Take on Me,” one that virtually no one paid any attention to. How can both things be true?
Easy. The enduring iteration of “Take on Me” was actually the group’s fourth attempt at the song.
A-ha lead singer Morten Harket met bandmates Magne Furuholmen and Paul Waaktaar-Savoy while all three were in their late teens. Furuholmen and Waaktaar-Savoy had already formed a group, Bridges, when Harket joined up. During one session, Furuholmen played the hook of what would eventually become “Take on Me” on the piano. After several years of hammering away at the song, the group had come up with the catchy “Taaaaake on Meeeeee” hook based on the famous three-note octave in Richard Strauss's symphonic poem “Thus Spake Zarathustra” and managed to land a record deal in England. They thought they had a hit.
When “Take on Me” was released in October 1984, it sold 300 copies.
It was an inauspicious beginning, for both the song and the band—who tried again with a remixed version of "Take On Me." This, too, failed to find an audience. On the advice of then-Warner Bros. record executive Jeff Ayeroff, a-ha tried for a third time under the tutelage of producer Alan Tarney.
The final version was released in the United States, along with a simple video (which you can watch above). It did not work.
Fourth Time's a Charm
At this point, many groups—and their producers—would have accepted the fact that their song was not resonating with audiences. But Ayeroff felt differently. For one thing, he perceived Harket to be a very handsome man who was ideally suited for the image-conscious MTV era. For another, he knew a dynamic video could capture the public’s imagination. So, for a fourth and perhaps final time, a-ha tackled “Take on Me,” this time with the help of director Steve Barron and animators Michael Patterson and Candace Reckinger.
Barron was experienced in the music video world, having helmed the videos for Michael Jackson’s "Billie Jean," Madonna's "Burning Up," Toto's "Africa," Eddy Grant's "Electric Avenue," and Bryan Adams's "Summer of '69." But "Take on Me" would be far more ambitious. Barron instructed the animators to use a technique called rotoscoping, which amounts to tracing animation over live-action footage. (The approach can also be seen in films like Richard Linklater's 2006 movie A Scanner Darkly.) The idea is that using the footage as a base will allow the animated characters to move more naturally. Patterson had already made a short film, Commuter, that employed the approach.
It took four months for Patterson and Reckinger to draw a total of 2000 sketches that would be used in the video, which features Harket’s romantic pursuit of his love interest, played by Bunty Bailey. This was unusual for music videos of the era, which would typically feature footage of the band and be shot in a week’s time or less. Ayeroff was so confident a-ha would take off that he told Barron to take as much time and money as he needed. The video wound up costing about $400,000 in today’s dollars, which might not seem like a lot, but was considered an extremely high budget in the 1980s. "We very rarely got that kind of budget,” Barron told Vulture in 2020. "It was a budget designed to really do something spectacular."
“An image kind of jumped out of this drawn hand, reaching out of a comic book into the real world,” Barron continued. “I got goose bumps from that moment. I thought, ‘This could be amazing.’ That was the springboard for the whole narrative, really.”
Filming the band took just two days, leaving Patterson and Reckinger to draw over it. When Ayeroff saw early footage, he got excited and told Barron to give him a close-to-final version. Barron did, and that unfinished cut wound up being played on MTV.
The many months of effort paid off. When the rotoscoped version of “Take on Me” debuted on MTV in 1985, it became a sensation, helping the single hit the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. MTV bestowed 11 Video Music Awards nominations on the song, of which it won eight. (A-ha no-showed the ceremony, though, opting to play a gig in Houston instead.)
"Take on Me" was the second of Barron’s significant music video animations that year. He also directed the video for “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits, which beat “Take on Me” for Best Music Video honors at the VMAs. A-ha continues to tour, no doubt bolstered by the lasting charm of the song and its visual component. The original video has logged just 2.6 million YouTube views.