It took just four minutes and 56 seconds for Michael Jackson to go from a popular Motown frontman to the mega-unit-shifting King Of Pop.
That transformation can be pinpointed to the 1983 video for Billie Jean (pictured right), which was created with a $50,000 budget by filmmaker Steve Barron.
“When they saw how big he was getting, the budgets for his next two videos were up to £400,000 for Beat It and $2million for Thriller,” says Barron, who also saw his career explode thanks to Jackson’s iconic performance across lit-up paving slabs.
“When I was first approached to do it, I wasn’t sure I had time to run out to LA. Three years before, Michael had done Off The Wall and started coming through as a solo artist but he had disappeared.”
Luckily, in his own words, Barron came to his senses.
“When I got the track I really liked it,” he says. “It didn’t sound like anything else.”
When it came to making the video Barron didn’t know what to expect from Jackson’s dancing.
“All his manager said was he had been practicing some moves in the mirror,” he says. “I left almost a blank storyboard for the dance section.”
Barron had wanted the entire sidewalk to light up, but because of his budgetary restrictions was only able to provide 11 light-up paving slabs – meaning Jackson had to improvise his moves to make sure he covered only those markers.
“It was mind-blowing,” says Barron today. “My eye-piece steamed up – I knew I was seeing something extraordinary that was going to explode on the world.”
The rough and ready nature of the shoot mirrored Barron’s career up to that point. He had started out in the film industry as a clapper loader on Richard Donner’s Superman and Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far until he lucked his way into music video.
“My parents were in the film business,” he says. “I was crap at most things in school, so I went into film through the camera rental side with a firm in Cricklewood. There was no apprenticeship or film school.”
While filming people in the West End, he met a road manager who asked him to film a band he had touring Germany.
“He was impressed that I was this 19-year-old working on Superman,” says Barron. “He didn’t know the difference between a clapper loader and director.
“There was a divide between the film industry and the music industry at that time – both were mysteries to each other, unlike today.”
Barron agreed to the job, put together a woefully low budget and began to make films for musicians. Meeting The Jam at Reading Rock Festival and making “promo films” for their hits Strange Town, and its follow-up Going Underground, was his first break.
“I made tons of mistakes,” he says. “It took me at least 30 videos before I started understanding what a director did. I knew cameras and lenses, but pre- and post-production and storytelling were things I had to learn.”
MTV changed everything for music directors – not least in giving them a platform where their work could be seen.
“There were record company doubters who said videos made no difference and that they were a waste of money,” says Barron. “When MTV came along, a lot of that thinking had to go.”
Once Billie Jean had gone big he started getting film scripts, including his first movie Electric Dreams.
“I shot it like a music video, not knowing how else to shoot it,” admits Barron.
He also had a hand in the film’s soundtrack, which featured contributions from some of the bands he had worked with – including Culture Club, Heaven 17, ELO’s Jeff Lynne and the title song by The Human League’s Phil Oakey and Giorgio Moroder.
Aside from the Jackson video, he is also known for immortalising Dire Straits’s Money For Nothing, and a collaboration with a then- little known trio from Norway – A-Ha.
“Those guys were really fun to work with,” he says. “They were very collaborative, and their music was perfect for visual interpretation. We got some really good budgets.”
Most importantly, Barron also got time, which meant he could start combining animation with live action – as on the classic A-Ha video Take On Me.
“Usually people would ring up on Friday wanting a video nine days later,” says Barron.
With Take On Me, the label held back the release of the single until Barron had spent four months making the video.
“I loved Disney films, especially Pinocchio,” says Barron. “When you’re trying to tell stories in a music video, unless they have a certain momentum with people moving at a certain rate they are hard to match to music without the soundtrack racing ahead.
“With animation it feels natural – you can make it match with the pulses.”
It was that desire to tell stories which saw Barron finally turn his back on the music video after making Def Leppard’s Let’s Get Rocked in 1992, aside from a brief reunion with A-Ha for their final single Butterfly Butterfly (The Last Hurrah) in 2010.
“It felt like a lot of videos looked like they came out of the pages of Vogue,” he says. “Music videos were going one way, I was going another.”
In 1988, he worked with Jim Henson and Anthony Minghella on the short-lived series The Storyteller, recreating dark European fairytales.
It led to him taking the director’s chair for the blockbuster Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 1990, after hearing about it through Minghella.
“We had to talk Jim Henson into it because it was quite a violent film, with the nunchuks and swords,” he says. “It was something the Creature Shop hadn’t done before. It was a very low budget – $7 million with $3 million on the creatures.”
When New Line Cinema picked it up it became a worldwide smash.
Since then Barron has worked on a variety of films and mini-series, ranging from the 2001 cult comedy Mike Bassett: England Manager to the 2011 Sky mini-series of Treasure Island.
“Diversity has been a big attraction,” he says. “It is a different industry now. It is hard to get things made.”
His current projects include Delete, a mini-series he has made in Canada, based on his own original story about artificial intelligence and the vulnerability of the modern world, and a projected sequel to Mike Bassett.
“For me it is all about the story,” he says. “It’s what is going to keep people engaged, entertained and enthralled.”
- The Basement, Kensington Street, Brighton, Tuesday, February 12. Doors 7pm, tickets £10/£8. Visit www.thespace.uk.com
- Also at The Space on Tuesday is David Prowse, the former bodybuilder who terrified a generation as the evil Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy.