When citing examples of music video directors with signature looks, names like Anton Corbijn or Matt Mahurin jump out, but the unfortunately overlooked genius in this club must be Jim Blashfield. Creating a trademark visual sensibility with just a handful of videos, the Oregon native created dreamlike fantasies with a cut-out xerographic animation style that reveals a gentle magic hiding the ordinary — strangely devilish garage-sale travelogues, if you will. Jim’s artisan videos, which embrace both texture and perspective, include Talking Heads’ “And She Was,” Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble,” Tears for Fears’ “Sowing the Seeds of Love” and Michael Jackson’s wildly self-effacing “Leave Me Alone.” His most visually-trippy grab bag of kitchen sink mischief, though, is his clip for Nu Shooz’s “I Can’t Wait” from their album Poolside. The video he created for his fellow Portlanders, Valerie Day and John Smith, helped propel the duo’s inescapably catchy hit into pop history — and also into the still-curious minds of video music fans everywhere.
I spoke to Jim recently about his career, and he shared his experience on creating this amazing piece of filmmaking:
“I explained that I wanted to improvise it. I didn’t want to plan it at all. I wanted the experience of just making it up from what was around when we got to the studio. The morning of the shoot, I loaded my kitchen table and chair and lamp into my car along with some biology slides and a coffee maker and some kind of cigar box and headed over to the stage. I rummaged around among the props there and found some canvas and some walls from a commercial and some fake cactuses. I went upstairs where the band and the crew were assembled– we had a good and very professional crew, as you can tell from looking at the images– and told them I would be back in 10 minutes with instructions about setting up for the first shot, about which I had no idea whatsoever. I rummaged around in people’s offices and borrowed a few other items which looked promising. I went upstairs and said we were doing a video that took place in the desert, and set people about creating that. It seemed like we needed something in front of the green walls, so the video editor went down the street and came back with a dumpster, and rigged a way to make the lid go up and down with fishing line. I recalled that my friends who were on vacation had a great looking dog house for their dog Buster, and some people went there and stole it. We called up a friend with an obedient dog who would stay when asked, and he brought his pooch over. Somebody else got a bunch of tools out of the trunk of their car.”
“After the shoot the next step was a trip to Seattle to get the footage transferred and do strange things to some of it. Then, for post production, a trip to the thrift store and the corner grocery, returning with every other little gadget and doo-dah you see on the screen. The video editor was Mike Quinn who subsequently did the high-degree-of-difficulty video editing for my videos for Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel and others. During editing I called my friend Roger Kukes, the animator, and asked him if I could use part of his animated film ‘Up’ for the ending of the video where Valerie opens the little box and all the wiggly images come out, revealing all knowledge known to humankind. I recall that the opening scene with the Banana and souvenir totem pole dropping onto a piece of metal with holes in it took about 8 hours to composite, and was completed while I slept on the couch in the editing room. The scene where the image of the dog watching the golf ballish thing swings in and unceremoniously lands on Valerie’s head– and where it remains for longer than might be considered, strictly speaking, necessary– is there because it made me laugh when we tried it in post and was left in because nobody said I couldn’t. We had a take in which the guy with the smoke machine walks through in the background waving it around while Valerie is singing, but I left that out, due to some conservative impulse on my part, which I regret.”
Exclusively for The Golden Age of Music Video, Valerie Day and John Smith collectively answered a few questions about the video by email:
Q: How did you and Jim find each other?
A: Jim Blashfield was a local film maker/artist working in our hometown, Portland Oregon. We knew him first as a cartoonist, His drawings appeared in the local ‘free press.’ By the time the Shooz signed to Atlantic he’d become a world class video director, and his stuff was unique. It seemed like a good fit, and as it turned out, it was. His ‘I Can’t Wait’ video is our favorite of the three we made.
Q: How was working with Jim during the shoot? He said you really went with the flow.
A: The whole shoot was a swirl of madness. We had 48 hours between coming off the road and a vacation in Mexico. Jim improvised the whole thing, grabbing up objects like plastic sharks and samovars and somehow working them into the shoot.
Q: What do you recall as a highlight from the shoot?
A: A few days ago we were talking to a friend who worked on that shoot. She says she remembered Valerie sitting on a chair atop a spinning platform. They shot hours of this spinning thing. Jim kept saying ‘Shoot it one more time.’ None of that footage made the final cut.
Q: After I spoke to Jim, I realized that most of it was done on the fly and there’s no real subtext, other than Valerie plays a scientist examining things and trying get the answer to “tell me what it’s all about”. When people ask you to explain parts of the video, do you find that irksome or amusing?
A: We prefer to let people come up with their own interpretation. Carl Jung’s work with the unconscious suggests that everything in our heads is connected, all our preferences and prejudices, what we like and what we don’t. Somehow the random imagery in the “I Can’t Wait” video ended up saying exactly what we wanted it to say.
Q: Jim said, “If viewers look closely they may notice that happiness seems to be represented as a shark found lurking in a coffee pot, a metaphor which is certainly worth considering, if you ask me.” What do you think about that?
A: In the hands of a lesser director we might have ended up with a melancholy/needy girl waiting by the phone. Not Jim. It wasn’t that we discussed our vision so much as he was just as psychedelic as we were.
Q: What did you think the first time you saw it, and what do you think when you see it now?
A: MTV was a cultural revolution. In some ways it ruined music, in some ways it added a new dimension. At the time it was just thrilling to be a part of it, to know they were watching us in Cleveland…and Brazil. When we see it now, it still holds up as a perfect piece of art, one that represents Nu Shooz exactly how we wanted it to be seen.
Nu Shooz is still going strong with a new album and live dates, so check out their website, and they’ll be playing Manchester, England on November 13th as part of the “Legends of the Old School” series which is their first appearance in the UK since the 1980s.