James Gawley, aka “Jimmy Claws” as he is known to friends and family, earned this nickname through an extensive career in the film industry as a special effects expert. His iconic special effects worked their magic on such films as I Robot, the X-Men series, JFK and recently, Pacific Rim to name a few.
The recent anniversary of the JFK assassination brought back bitter-sweet memories for Jim surrounding his work on the 1991 Oliver Stone film, JFK – one of his first experiences working as a special makeup effects artist. Tasked with helping to reconstruct the final moments of an American president’s life. Jim found himself saddened by memories of the event itself but at the same time jubilant to be working on such an important project. Working under Gord Smith from the effects design firm of FXSMITH, Jim designed and built a prosthetic appliance to fit on the head of Steve Reed, the actor portraying John Kennedy in the film. The appliance was used in the assassination scene in the Dealey Plaza. It consisted of relays, timers, compressed air and stage blood. It was fabricated in Toronto and shipped to Dallas, where it would be installed daily on Steve Reed’s head and fired fourteen times over the next two weeks.
Jimmy’s early beginnings in Gizmology
Jim’s interest in mechanics began at a very young age as a fascination with anything that moved or flashed; by age four, he had already disassembled all of his toys to see how they worked. He loved nothing more than trips to his great grandmother’s house where he was afforded the freedom to explore the basement, finding wires and old appliances – a veritable treasure trove for a young boy with a burgeoning passion for anything mechanical. Jim chose to spend most of his time on his own, or with friends sharing similar interests, tinkering around with machines, pouring over the book series Mechanix Illustrated and building the projects within its pages.
By at the age of 8 in his third grade, Jim had built his first go-kart – a simple construction without a motor, a nearby hill provided its only propulsion. Jim’s kart may not have been the fastest, but while the other boys’ karts were built by their fathers, Jim had constructed his entirely on his own. The son of an insurance man who was respected in his field but not mechanically inclined, everything Jim learned was self-taught. At age 11, when his family moved into a larger home with a 2-car garage, Jim used the extra space to build a bigger and more elaborate motorized go-kart. This garage, or “Jimmy’s Shop” as it became known, served as the backdrop for many projects between 1966 and 1986, including go-karts, motorized bicycles, mini-bikes, dirt bikes, motorcycles, nitrous oxide kits and cars, not to mention countless other non-vehicular projects.
When Jim was in the ninth grade, he began to study machine shop and drafting in school. By the end of the school year, he was able to read drawings and operate any machine in the shop. Jim continued to take shop classes until graduation, supplementing his studies with a part time job manufacturing packaging machinery. Just three days after his sixteenth birthday, Jim got his driver’s license, and a whole new world opened up before him – a world filled with the promise of freedom only a motorcycle could deliver. He soon got his wish: a ’62 Honda 250 road bike… in pieces. But in no time at all, Jim had it running and on the road.
Upon graduating from high school in 1974, Jim attained a job working in a prototype shop making precision parts to test new products. This is where he refined his machining skills and learned about plastics and moulding – skills that would prove extremely useful in his future career in the film industry. One such example being his work on the first of three X-Men movies in 1999, during which Jim oversaw the design and moulding of over 2000 Wolverine claws produced in his shop for the film.
Jim’s machining career took him to Owen Tri-cut, a small, Mississauga, Ontario manufacturing company where he worked on letter opening machines. In addition to getting two machines CSA approved, he was responsible for managing monthly maintenance of machines, assembling machines for sale, and managing all electrical for machines. Here, his troubleshooting skills were refined as a result of field repairs on high speed mail processing machines. Jim also worked with Oshawa Pattern & Model, a family-owned pattern company, making automotive verification fixtures. This experience allowed him to further expand his knowledge base to include manufacturing tolerances and metal casting.
Making Movie Magic
Since 2004, Jim has nurtured a side passion for designing and constructing kinetic sculptures. Specializing in clocks without faces which employ a set of screws driving chromium balls, Jim loves developing systems for keeping time that are as uniquely beautiful as they are accurate. Made from found goods and entirely one-of-a-kind, each piece is both a labour of love and a demonstration of Jim’s extensive experience in numerous avenues of machining. One of his designs, affectionately named “Little Jimmy,” is now going into production. This limited quantity sidewinder with a 12 hour cycle is a luxury piece, featuring exotic woods and gold-plated metal parts.
Jim’s movie career has included work on over two dozen films including, in addition to the aforementioned films, Jacob’s Ladder (1990), The Incredible Hulk (2008), and RED (2010). He greatly enjoys the challenges these projects provide, giving him the opportunity to apply his machining knowledge in new and creative ways to fit the unique needs of the film industry. Jim is currently working on the upcoming Disney feature Tomorrowland, starring George Clooney.
What does the future hold for Jim? He aspires to take his diverse skill set, acquired over decades of experience in the machining and film effects industries, and apply it to projects which contribute to finding a solution to our global warming problem. Seeing this as the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced, Jim can’t wait to roll up his sleeves.