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Jaws Anniversary


Released 30 years ago this month, the blockbuster Jaws was a landmark film for the many below-the-line craftspeople who worked on the project. Director Steven Spielberg wouldn’t have achieved such fame without several key collaborators.Production designer Joe Alves came aboard from having worked as art director on episodes of the Night Gallery TV show which gave Spielberg his start. He faced extraordinary challenges. Not only would most of the film be shot on location in Martha’s Vineyard, but the entire second half of the story took place at sea. Alves modified existing exteriors and was responsible for all seaworthy vessels and equipment, including the mechanical shark.Robert Mattey’s fabricated sharks were revolutionary. Together Alves and Mattey oversaw the construction of several mechanical sharks articulated with a combination of pneumatics and electronics. As they appear on film, the appearance of the Mattey sharks (deftly intercut with footage of real great whites shot on Australian locations by Ron and Valerie Taylor) convinced and frightened audiences.Days on location turned into weeks, then months for the crew (the total shoot exceeded 150 days), as the limited availability of the mechanical sharks meant that Spielberg would often get only a handful of completed shots in a full day’s shooting. Editor Verna Fields, a veteran of complicated multi-scene films such as Medium Cool, What’s Up Doc?, American Graffiti and Sugarland Express, came to the rescue, making the most out of limited footage. Fields was nicknamed “mother cutter” for her ability to serve as a maternal figure and edit at the same time during the grueling location shoot. Her expertise lent the movie its requisite suspense, and some of its best moments occur when no sharks appear onscreen whatsoever and the narration relies instead on the shark’s point-of-view as it glides through the water, increasing the buildup of tension and terror.Some of the most memorable moments in Jaws are owed to the water-level cinematography of Bill Butler. Spielberg wanted the movie shot from a swimmer’s point of view. This called for Butler to build a water box for the camera, allowing it to bob just below the surface then pop up, without droplets getting on the lens.Another crucial aspect of Jaws is its sound, created by Robert L. Hoyt, Roger Heman, Earl Madery and John Carter. Who can forget the horrible drowning sounds made by the shark’s many victims? For the sounds of Chrissie’s attack, the team had actress Susan Backlinie scream while Spielberg spilled a glass of water down her mouth.Another key contributor was composer John Williams. For the first half of the movie, the killer shark was virtually unseen and relied on the “shark’s point-of-view” for its suspense. What Willams delivered—the driving bass line—became among the most recognizable character-based theme music in motion-picture history. One hears the theme and instantly associates it with the relentless attack of the shark. Spielberg himself has credited Williams’ music with creating much of Jaws’ suspense.When it was released in June of 1975, Jaws quickly became the top box-office grossing movie of all time. It earned Oscars for Fields’ editing, Williams’ score, and the sound work of Hoyt, Heman, Madery and Carter. The film was also nominated for best picture. To mark the picture’s 30th anniversary, Universal Studios Home Entertainment will release a special DVD edition of Jaws on June 14.

Written by Scott Essman

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