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10 Great Special Effects from Music Video History

Mirada's 2013 VMA Win for VFX Work Puts It in Good Company

Creative studio Mirada — founded by Guillermo del Toro, Guillermo Navarro, Matthew Cullen and Javier Jimenez — won an MTV Video Music Award for VFX on Sunday for its work on "Safe and Sound," a decade- and genre-hopping dance music video for L.A. duo Capital Cities. Filmed in the renovated Los Angeles theater, the video depicts a momentous dance party choreographed by Mandy Moore and featuring more than 70 dancers in more than 40 unique dance sequences — each one targeted to a historic period and dance style. The result is a riot of not just different dance moves but different period looks, which bump up against each other as black-and-white film stars jump into the full-color spotlight, old-timey TV performers leap out of the cathode ray tube, and aerobicizers, B-boys and roller-boogiers tear up the stage.

Mirada compositors worked on more than 80 VFX shots in the video, randing from simple head replacements and color tratments to complex animations and psychedelic visuals. Stock footage and silent-film visual treatments were incorporated in the visual mix.

Integrating all those different elements predictably turned out to be a massive roto and tracking job for Mirada's artists, who worked in Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and After Effects as well as The Foundry's Nuke, Autodesk Flame, and Apple Final Cut Pro. 

That's pretty impressive work, and it got us to thinking about other great moments in the history of VFX for music videos. Here's a look at 10 other striking VMA winners in the Special Effects category — which got its name changed to VFX last year — featuring everything from stop-motion Lego animation and moving floors to kissing robots and dancing chickens.

1984 – Herbie Hancock "Rockit"

The first-ever VMA for Special Effects went to Godley & Creme, the directorial duo behind this simultaneously compelling and disturbing clip for jazz artist Herbie Hancock. The robotic figures populating the video were designed by British artist Jim Whiting, who won the VMA for Best Art Direction for his work. Wikipedia notes that the video was the first to be edited in sync with the sounds of turntable scratching in the music composition, meaning the image scrubs back and forth repeatedly in time with the scratching rhythms. Hancock appears only on a TV screen.

1986 – A-ha "Take on Me"

No clip did more to educate laypeople on the meaning of the animation term rotoscoping than this video for the Norwegian synth-pop band A-ha. It tells the story of a cartoon character who falls in love with a woman in a diner who's reading the comic book he appears in. First, he invites the woman into his world. By the end of the clip, he escapes into the real world, having become human. The animation was drawn by hand on top of live-action reference footage, giving it an incongruously natural, three-dimensional feel. The show-stopping moment comes as the camera tracks through the cartoon world, first showing how a live-action version of the woman appears to the cartoon man, then tracking around the frame of a comic-book panel to show a cartoon version of the woman gazing at the live-action man. It won six VMAs, but lost the coveted Video of the Year award to computer-animated "Money for Nothing" by Dire Straits. The VMA for Special Effects went to husband-and-wife animators Michael Patterson and Candace Reckinger.

1987 – Peter Gabriel "Sledgehammer"

Reportedly the most-played video in the history of MTV, "Sledgehammer," directed by Stephen Johnson, featured the first truly high-profile work from the creative team at Aardman Animations. Objects animated for the film include claymation figures, frozen chickens, various fruits and vegetables, and Peter Gabriel himself, to delightful absurdist effect. Aardman co-founder Peter Lord was cited for the special-effects work. Be sure to watch this one full-screen — it's been remastered in 1080p, a rarity for a vintage music video. 

1989 – Michael Jackson "Leave Me Alone"

Animator Jim Blashfield was a back-to-back Special Effects VMA winner, earning the same prize again the following year for his work on "Sowing the Seeds of Love" by Tears for Fears. "Leave Me Alone," directed by Jerry Kramer, is not just a witty and wildly inventive bit of animation but also a piece of late-1980s cultural history, as it documents the world's biggest pop star lashing out against the media and taking control of his own tabloid stories. Don't miss cameo appearances by Liz Taylor, Bubbles the Chimp, and the dancing skeleton of the Elephant Man.

1995 – The Rolling Stones "Love Is Strong"

Fred Raimondi, at the time a VFX supervisor at Digital Domain, took home a Moonman for his VFX work on this high-profile Stones clip. Compositing the band members and assorted models into black-and-white New York City environments might not seem like a huge trick these days, but at the time the effect was stunning. First, there was the picture-perfect photographic and compositing techniques that made the human figures really look at home among the skyscrapers in locked-down shots. There are some subtle camera moves early on, including that tremor at 0:43, but Fincher doesn't really start showing off until the chorus starting at 1:16, when he starts panning and tracking all over the place. There hadn't been anything quite like it.

1997 – Jamiroquai "Virtual Insanity"

It's not actually the floor that's moving in this mind-bending video, but the walls. It's an exceptionally clever idea that never gets old, as director Jonathan Glazer and Smoke & Mirrors founder Sean Broughton figure out different ways to make it pay off. The clip won Video of the Year, Breakthrough Video and Cinematography awards in addition to Special Effects. The VMA was shared by Glazer and Broughton.

2000 – Bjork "All Is Full of Love"

Drector Chris Cunningham has made some of the creepiest music videos of all time, and "All Is Full of Love" is no exception. You can almost think of it as a chilly modern version of "Rockit," above. In this one, a female robot with distinctly Bjork-like features is fabricated by machine. By the end of the video, one robot is tenderly embracing another as the fabrication equipment continues to work on them from behind. By the way, if you feel like you've seen these robots before, it may be because the ones in the feature film version of I Robot, released five years later, are remarkably similar to Cunningham's designs. (No, Cunningham did not work on I Robot.) The Special Effects VMA went to London's Glassworks.

2001 – Robbie Williams "Rock DJ"

Brit-pop superstar Robbie Williams deflated his own ego with this video that has him struggling to impress a group of women at a roller rink by stripping down — first taking off layers of his clothes and then, when that fails to stop the traffic, peeing off layers of skin and tossing chunks of his own raw meat toward the women. In the context of a cheery pop song, the effect (it might be more apropos in a Hellraiser movie) is hilariously grotesque. The VMA for Special Effects went to Carter White FX (now Altered States FX) in Shepperton, England, Audiomotion Studios in Oxford, England, and the now-defunct Clear Postproduction in London.

2002 – The White Stripes "Fell in Love with a Girl"

The White Stripes didn't make a huge splash on the music scene until their third album dropped, uneashing this hard-driving rock-and-roller and the accompanying Michel Gondry-directed, Lego-animated music video on the world. Its less than two minutes long, yet the physical work that went into building each frame is breathtaking. The Moonman for Special Effects went to Twisted Laboratories, an L.A. VFX house run by Gondry's brother Olivier Gondry, and animator Sebastien Fau. 

2004 – OutKast "Hey Ya!"

It's Andre 3000 x8 in this painstakingly composited yet charmingly retro video for OutKast's breakthrough pop hit that has OutKast's co-front man leading an imaginary band called The Love Below in an imaginary live performance on an imaginary variety show. The VMA for special effects went to Elad Offer and Chris Eckardt of Money Shots. 

6 Comments

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  • VFX Mania

    Not sure why Studio Daily forgot to point out that many of the above “Best Music Video’s” were created using UK based QUANTEL Techology/tools ie: Quantel Harry & Quantel HENRY & PaintBox truely amazing VFX technology that changed the Media & VFX world we know…

    • Anonymous

      Didn’t really talk systems in this post but, yeah, Paintbox especially was fantastic, groundbreaking technology. Thanks for pointing it out!

  • Anonymous

    Lou Reed ” No Money Down “…. peels off his own face to reveal a robot underneath…. was amazing at the time.

    • Anonymous

      Yeah, amazing and a little creepy, too. The video does not seem to be online! I have it on VHS somewhere around here …

  • Max Power

    Enjoyed this one! What about Dire Straits’ Money for nothing? ;)

    • Anonymous

      It was a VMA winner for Video of the Year, but not for special effects! Go figure.