40th anniversary of Jaws: Technology that revolutionized movie-making
By Lindsay Lauck on June 19, 2015
An ode to Bruce, the animatronic-robot shark that started it all
Let's begin with a quick preface, shall we? I geek out when it comes to robots. Obviously. Not, so obvious? I also geek out about sharks. So, when the 40th anniversary of the cinematic classic Jaws approached, the gears in my imagination conjured up our old, faithful and terrifying friend, Bruce. Dear, sweet terrifying Bruce, this is for you. And also for you, my fellow techies-because I know you'll geek out over all this animatronic, revolutionary cinematography stuff as much as I do. Read on for delightfully nerdy facts and learn how the robot shark technology that was Jaws has shaped our movie-making today.
Bruce, of course, is the nickname for the 20-foot animatronic shark that was designed to instill fear in the beach-going public during the summer of 1975. He did good, apparently-as I am unable, to this day, to get in the water with my eyes closed. Just watch here. But, beyond the movie, Bruce's impact on the monster-movie genre and visual effects is larger than even his toothy grin. Together with Art Director Joe Alves and head engineer Bob Mattey, Bruce changed the movie industry forever.
Fun fact: It took an entire team of production assistants and engineers to operate the mechanical Megladon.
The monster movie that almost wasn't
Jaws was director Steven Spielberg's second major movie. His second movie! Production studios were pretty hesitant to sign off on the flick, but when the book Jaws became a national best seller, they quickly signed on-and gave Spielberg an impossible deadline to pull it off. To make things worse, the very first time Bruce was brought out in front of the cameras and placed in the water, he broke! Nothing worked! It turns out that seawater is very bad for robot-sharks (good to know, for the impending robot-apocalypse) and Bruce's inner-working hydraulics all malfunctioned. However, what could have been a complete disaster, in fact, made the movie a suspenseful masterpiece.
Instead of shooting killer shark scenes, Spielberg had to spend more time developing the story and the characters. By using revolutionary, first-person style cinematography, theater goers were forced to tap into their imagination and envision the horror taking place below the water. The end product resulted in a story that built overwhelming suspense and terror, with one of the most infamous character reveals in monster-movie history. The audience spends 45 minutes waiting for their villain to appear, and when he does, the understatement of the year becomes movie-quotable history: We're gonna need a bigger boat!
Fun fact: Bruce was named after Spielberg's lawyer.
The animatronic revolution
As a child of the 80s, I cannot stress enough just how important animatronics were to the next few decades. Animatronics, puppets and physical movie props brought life and realism to movies. Without this boom in creature-building technology, I probably would have grown up without a Luck Dragon. And, if having Falcor as an imaginary friend is wrong, then I just don't want to be right. I don't even want to imagine a world where Gizmo's dance moves weren't a part of my childhood. Oh Bruce, you did so much for the next two decades.
Without you (and your quick thinking engineering team) the movies of my childhood – and other movies for tech geeks – would have been really lame. Heroes in half-shells, Elliot's buddy from outer space, intergalactic teenaged aliens who brought Ethan Hawk and River Phoenix on board their parent's spaceship, David Bowie…the list goes on and on. The point is, after the success of the movie Jaws, animatronic affects unleashed unlimited possibilities for movies (and their financial backers) like never before. Setting the precedent with a giant, $150,000 killer shark (that barely worked) sounds like the serendipitous plot of some kid's movie.
Yes, the little shark-movie that almost wasn't became the big summer blockbuster that changed the way people spent their summers: inside cold, air-conditioned movie theaters and out of the water! By the time the movie had finished its theatrical run, a whole slew of monster movies, family friendly fantasy flicks and imaginative kid's shows were in the works. Artists, engineers and technologists found themselves occupied by a profession where the sky was limit-and even then, they found a way to navigate the story line with their inventions. And, they're still doing it today! Yes, CGI might reign supreme. But you would be surprised. Just take a look at the movies War Horse and SeaBiscuit. (OK, those are both horse movies. Still, though, have you seen this footage of Joey, the War Horse?!) Movies like Attack the Block seamlessly integrated their CGI space aliens with robotic props. The 1993 movie, Jurassic Park, managed to scare and delight audiences with an animatronic T-Rex and a sickly Triceratops. Even director Peter Jackson uses animatronic props and camera trickery to bring Tolkein's world to life. So, this year, 40 years after your big-screen debut, we salute you. Happy anniversary, Bruce.