His Secrets are Heard Around the World!
It is the subtle, yet crisp sound of walking upon fresh-cut green grass. Or perhaps it is the violent, fatal sound of a flock of Canadian geese being consumed by both jet turbines of an Airbus A320; the captain of US Airways flight 1549 was SULLY.
The Lake is home, his studio is in Los Angeles. SULLY is just one of his many movie credits. Others on his long list include Pirates of the Caribbean, Waterworld, Godzilla and the recent Academy Award winning La La Land.
Jim Ashwill lives at the Lake of the Ozarks as he nears retirement from a long, successful career of mixing sounds into movies. His ‘secret’ sounds enhance the movie soundtracks that provide the audible impact experienced in theaters and homes around the world.
In his 34-year career of mixing sound, he has more than 400 full-length movies to his
credit as Foley Mixer, and many more movies on which he worked. Why Foley? That may be a strange term to most of the movie viewing public. In the early 1900s, when movies transitioned from “silent” to “talkies,” the microphones at that time captured the actors’ dialogues, but very little more. It was Jack Foley, a Universal Studios employee, who is credited by the industry as the pioneer in supplementing and complementing the films by capturing live sound effects.
Part of the magic of the experience in movies is the reproduction of everyday sounds that create a heightened sense of reality within a scene. Most movie watchers may not even notice, but they might think something was a little off if those sounds weren’t there. The Foley artist creates the sound ‘art’ through the creative use of props, materials and tools to provide reality in the sound for the scene. The Foley Mixer is the control person for microphone placement, recording and mixing the fabricated sounds from the Foley stage.
THE ROAD TO HOLLYWOOD As a kid growing up in Topeka, Kansas, Jim never expected to be working on movies in Hollywood. He inherited a strong work ethic from his parents, who were both raised on the farm. They also planted the seed for his fondness of the Lake of the Ozarks and fishing; he has warm memories of the coves of the Lake in the late 1950s and floating on innertubes. His oldest friends call him “Fish.” Infatuated with fishing, his early career aspiration was to be a marine biologist. Even with his collection of aquariums, many of which he custom built himself, he was geographically challenged by living in Kansas where there were no post-secondary education offerings in that field. So he took a short course of study in recording engineering at the Dick Grove School of Music at studios in Hollywood and Burbank.
Jim’s two cousins came to Topeka in 1974 with a moving van filled with instruments and sound equipment, and invited him to ‘join the band’ as their soundman. So started a 43-year career in sound.
After two years of gigs in the Midwest, which included mentoring on microphone placement from Kansas City studio owner John Moseley, the band headed to Los Angeles. In 1979 they were hired as a backup band to record at the original One Step Up studio where the Eagles were working on their album The Long Run.
Chief engineer Ed Bannon was grouchy but genius, the crankiest yet the most generous man in Hollywood. Once Bannon figured out that he could not scare Jim off, he taught him. Jim applied his Midwest determination and work ethic to do anything in that studio he could to learn from Bannon. He showed up every day for six months, with no or low pay and very long days. Under Bannon’s watchful eye and professional mentoring, Jim was promoted to second engineer.
The studio was sold two years later to Foley engineers, and it was the first time Jim had ever heard the word Foley. His knowledge base from his work with music producers was transferred to work with sound editors, and he learned to use new equipment: videotape players and synchronizers locked to the recorder.
Eventually, in 1982, he became a Y9 Recordist in the IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees), and in 1985 became a full-fledged Y1 Foley Mixer.
LIFE AS A FOLEY MIXER Normally, a full-length movie is five to eight reels long; the Foley team watches the first reel of the movie to have a ‘feel for it.’ The first reel has three tracks: dialogue, music and temporary dubbing. Jim has anywhere from eight to 65 tracks on which to record sounds. In a day’s work, about 300 sounds are recorded.
Recorded! Even more are created — in fact, working sounds arecreated about every two minutes on average. So, for a 35-year career, that is an amazing number of Foley recordings. While it is not possible for Jim to identify any one movie as his favorite or most challenging, he does speak to several notable memories and challenges.
In the movie Waterworld, a full-size, aboveground swimming pool was set up on the Foley stage. The Foley artists spent weeks splashing and swimming and creating sounds. The special underwater sounds were recorded by wrapping a Lavalier microphone in a condom to submerge it. Unfortunately, the mic would ‘drown’ at times and require substantial drying time.
Pirates of the Caribbean presented other unique Foley challenges. Footsteps had to sound like they were on old wooden ships, with big groans and creaks. A chair on a wood pallet was utilized to create the creaks of the pirate ship. There were also the sounds of creatures with barnacles or squid tentacles, and cannons firing loads of chains or silverware.
The challenge list for a Foley team is long. Sounds for films of space and science fiction are difficult to create because the sounds are truly unknown.
Human sounds of footsteps and touching various surfaces are always Foley creations. Action films with a foot chase presents challenges due to the footsteps on a multitude of surfaces: concrete, grass, roof, on a car, over a fence, fire escapes and many more.
There are scenes that can consume a full day, usually tedious and full of minutia on the film. Think about capturing the sound of scratching a cheek or twiddling thumbs. At the bottom (or top depending on perspective) of Jim’s list for tedious and challenging sounds is a sword fight, such as in Gladiator, which might take days to record. The Foley mixer must judge for a clean, distortion-free sound, take care with the transient sounds, synchronize to the action, and personally bear the sound level at the industry standard: the actual loudness of theater sound levels.
FOLEY MISHAPS What could possibly go wrong in replicating and creating sounds in the Foley Studio? Creating the water sounds in The River led the Foley team to run a fire hose through the ceiling, onto the stage, then into the pool they had constructed. The water flow was totally unexpected and blasted into the control room glass; Jim feared the amazing water force would blow out the glass.
On another project for a cave scene, the team was creating the sound of the torches. The artists used a wooden dowel rod with a rag attached to it, soaked it in 151 Rum and set it afire. The artist waved the ‘torch’ much too strongly. The flaming rag flew into the wall, fire ensued and the fire suppression system was activated. Of course it resulted in an unimaginable mess in the studio.
There are several more; however, you must speak with Jim off-therecord to hear about them!
LOS ANGELES TO LAKE OF THE OZARKS (…AND BACK AND FORTH) A soul-searching conversation with his doctor in 1998 helped Jim go in search of that ‘other place’ to address stress levels. He took a break and visited an old friend from Topeka at the Lake of the Ozarks. Reinforcing his fond memories from childhood, he found his ‘other place.’ He bought his Lake home THAT WEEKEND!
On Memorial Day weekend Jim hosted a party at his new Lake home. His friends from the neighboring cove attended and brought along Debbie, the woman who would become his wife. Debbie returned to Los Angeles with Jim that year, and in 2002 they married at his home at the Lake. They both lived in Los Angeles until 2006. Debbie has two children and a stepson, and was anxious to be near their first grandson, so she returned to make the Lake her full-time home.
And so Jim became a commuter. When he began his shuttle to Los Angeles, he spent 7 ‒ 8 months there; as he closes his career it is now 7 ‒ 8 months here at the Lake. The Lake has certainly agreed with his health. Fishing and boating are his favorite (and most medicinal) things to do and share with Debbie.
Jim doesn’t like to think of the miles in his air-travel commute, but that is humbled by the time spent on the 405 in Los Angeles. Staying with his cousins (yes, from the band), he has a 21-mile drive to the studio; on a good day it is a little more than an hour each way. He passes this time by listening to books on tape. While in the air, he may do the same or watch a movie. He is required to watch at least 70 to 80 films a year.
Yes, 70 to 80 films, as a voting member of the AMPAS (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) he has to screen that many movies per year. Membership is by special invitation from the Board of Governors of the Academy. Jim has been a member of The Academy for 17 years and he votes on the nominations for sound only, and casts final votes on all categories for the Oscars. Debbie, by the way, is still waiting for a trip to the Oscars!
The top award in Jim’s category, Foley Mixer, is actually awarded by the Cinema Audio Society (CAS). He has often been nominated for the award, and this year won for his work on La La Land!
Jim has teamed with his Lead Foley Artist, Dan O’Connell, who also owns the studio, for 25 years. Although Jim and the studio have had high accolades for many of their works and popular films, his studio does not choose their projects, nor do they prioritize projects. As he says so simply, “You never know when the new and up-and-comer could be the next Steven Spielberg.”
Jim watches movies, especially the first viewing, from a technical perspective. He does not particularly enjoy watching his own movies, but he does indeed enjoy others. In fact, he has already viewed the first season of the Netflix series Ozark twice; the second time was to ‘catch the story,’ as he puts it.
AT HOME AT THE LAKE With a long, storied career in sound, it is only fitting that Jim would have a personal collection of microphones. His favorite is the only one in his collection that he has given a name: ELVIS! Elvis is a vintage Lawson L47 microphone. Plated in true 14K gold, Jim says it’s a ‘flashy and mellow’ mic, like its namesake.
Looking forward to closing his West Coast commuting, he foresees engaging with many local musicians to re-enter his roots and ‘give back’ a bit of those decades of ‘sound’ experience. Along with Debbie, we all look forward to seeing more of Jim at the Lake.
Oh, by the way, that secret sound in Sully: geese in the jet turbines? Foley Artist Dan O’Connell set the Foley stage. Foley Mixer James Ashwill mixed and recorded the sounds of a feather duster being forced into a running household fan. Now, how will you watch (or LISTEN to) your next movie? Enjoy those secret sounds!
ABOUT JIM ASHWILL For a full list of movie credits, awards and nominations, download the iPhone/Android app: IMDb. Or go to the website: IMDb.com and search for James Ashwill. •