The Art of Music Videos: Essential Music Videos You Need To Watch


Feb 14, 2023

There are many music videos that have stood the test of time across our music history. Some are more theatrical, some are performance based, and others are more animated. The diversity of this art form can be seen with many artists across five decades. In this blog, we will dig deep into the story behind 5 iconic music videos that are essential viewing if you have not seen them.

“Thriller” by Michael Jackson:

The original music video for "Thriller" is a 13-minute-long narrative-driven film that is edited like a short horror film. The video tells the story of Michael Jackson and his date, played by Ola Ray, who are walking through a foggy graveyard and run into a group of zombies. It combines elements of horror, suspense, and romance, creating a captivating viewing experience. Director John Landis, well-known for "An American Werewolf in London," brought his cinematic expertise to the music video. The production values and special effects makes this feel like a Hollywood movie, which set a new standard for music video production.

The video features Michael Jackson's famous dance moves which was choreographed by Michael Peters. The notable dance sequences in the video include the famous zombie dance, which has been imitated throughout our popular culture. The "Thriller" video utilizes impressive makeup and special effects, especially in the transformation scenes when MJ turns into a werewolf. The zombie makeup and prosthetics have become an iconic part of the stunning imagery of the video.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen:

Originally released in 1975, “Bohemian Rhapsody” became the biggest single for the Queen as it charted high in multiple countries around the world. The concept for the music video was to create a visual representation of the operatic nature of the tune. Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen, had the idea for the video and worked with director Bruce Gowers to bring it to life. The video features footage of Queen performing the song, shot in a simple black background studio. Each band member was filmed individually performing their vocal parts, using close-up shots and dynamic camera angles to capture their emotion.

"Bohemian Rhapsody" was one of the first music videos to use special effects and visual storytelling to enhance the song's narrative. The video's creativity and ambition set a standard for future music videos. Gowers wanted to enhance the visual experience by incorporating different visual effects, which includes multiple exposure shots and superimpositions. These effects created a dream-like atmosphere, matching with the song's unique structure and sound. The music video utilizes a montage style, a technique where you are cutting between various shots and scenes to match the certain sections of the song. This editing technique adds to the video's intensity and also complements the song's arrangement. During the opera section, the video uses images of the band members dressed in intricate costumes, adding to the theatrical element to the video.

“Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel:

“Sledgehammer” was originally released as a single in 1986 and was later in Peter Gabriel’s fifth studio album, So. The music video was directed by Stephen R. Johnson and it quickly became one of the most innovative and visually stunning videos. The "Sledgehammer" was made from stop-motion animation and claymation with over 2,000 frames to create the stunning visuals in the video. Peter Gabriel collaborated with Aardman Animations, who were well-known for animating the "Wallace and Gromit" series. The studio's founder, Nick Park, and Stephen Johnson, helped create this iconic video of Gabriels. The video used many innovative animation techniques, including claymation, pixilation (stop-motion with real people), and other forms of stop-motion animation. The combination of different techniques resulted in a visually stunning and surreal video.

In the video, Peter Gabriel himself contributed to the video by lying under a sheet of glass for 16 hours while being animated, and other physically demanding sequences. The video's sophisticated transitions were achieved through careful layering and placement of each frame. The video has a mix of live-action and animation sequences, creating a surreal and captivating experience. The camera work in the "Sledgehammer" video was groundbreaking, as the use of motion control allowed for smooth and precise camera movements. This was integral for the complicated animation and visual effects.

“Take On Me” by A-Ha:

“Take On Me” was released as a single in 1984 and was on A-ha's debut studio album Hunting High and Low. The music video directed by Steve Barron is just as classic as the song itself. The idea of the video was developed by A-ha's keyboardist Magne Furuholmen and Steve Barron. The narrative revolves around a comic book character who comes to life and enters the real world for a romantic relationship. The video utilizes a combination of live-action sequences with animation. It begins with live-action scenes of a woman reading a comic book in a coffee shop, with the lead singer of A-ha, Morten Harket, playing as a comic book character. As she reads, the world of the comic book comes to life, and Harket’s character interacts with the woman in the real world. The most iconic part of the "Take On Me" video is the use of rotoscoping animation, which is where live-action footage is traced frame by frame to create a hand-drawn animated look. This technique was used to transform the live-action footage into the comic book animation.

Filming the video involved many challenges and required a team of talented animators and artists. Production for the rotoscoping process went on for many weeks for just creating five minutes worth of animation. The video used state-of-the-art technology for its time, including a Vidicon camera (a specialized video camera). Barron and his team also used a Quantel Paintbox, which was an early digital image processing system that allowed for the blending of live-action and animation. The "Take On Me" video had a cinematic quality with professional lighting, sets, and costume design, giving it a polished Hollywood look. The video became a massive hit during the MTV era. Its innovative use of animation and its great storyline resonated with audiences and contributed to the song's global success.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana:

Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is one of the most iconic songs of the 90s and was a big single off of the band’s album Nevermind. The music video brought an end to the 80s hair metal era and started the grunge era of the 1990s. The idea for the video was by Nirvana's frontman, Kurt Cobain, who wanted to capture the energetic and rebellious nature of a high school pep rally, mixed with a sense of disillusionment and anarchism. It is meant to be a parody of mainstream culture while showcasing the band's raw energy. The video was shot in the gymnasium of Culver City High School in Los Angeles. The place was chosen for its authentic and unpretentious feel, reflecting Nirvana's grunge aesthetic. The casting of extras features a mix of high school students and punk rock fans, adding to the grungy feel of the video.

The video shows Nirvana's raw and energetic performance, with Kurt Cobain's passionate singing and guitar playing at the forefront. The band's stage presence was essential in creating the video's exciting atmosphere. One of the most iconic scenes in the video is the mosh pit, where fans energetically engage in chaotic and unrestrained movement. This scene perfectly embodies the spirit of the grunge subculture and captures the rebellious nature of the song.