The Shark That Changed My Life
Most movie buffs can recall a moment, usually in their formative years, when they attended a movie and experienced such unprecedented excitement, they knew film would be a lifelong addiction. For a lot of my peers, that moment occurred during Star Wars. (You know, the 1977 movie that originally had no Roman numeral attached.)
For me, the definitive moment happened in the summer of 1975. A tired and beleaguered sheriff slops fish entrails over the side of a boat, mutters a funny line, complete with a mildly shocking cuss word, and suddenly, an enormous shark lunges from the ocean waters, snapping its enormous jaws, and sending the theater audience into a unified, jolted conniption.
The movie was JAWS, of course, and that scene was one of its most talked-about shocks. It was also the first really good look we got at the mechanical shark, already the subject of so many newspaper and magazine articles, and even then, famous for being difficult to work with.
I was ten years old, and it was the best scare I had ever had. (And I loved being scared!) Mind you, JAWS had already delivered perhaps the best shock moment in movie history in its first act, (if you’ve seen it, you surely know which one I mean), but this chumming scene was more crucial to the story; not just a sudden surprise, but the long-anticipated payoff of the shark’s mostly off-camera build-up. What an entrance! On top of that, it was a dramatic turning point for the main protagonist, the instant in which Chief Brody sees exactly what he is up against. It’s a virtually perfect movie moment.
Like so many others, I geeked out over JAWS for the rest of that summer. (Okay, for the rest of my life.) I glommed onto every bit of information I could find about the making of the movie, and about its temperamental mechanical star. The print media offered a few oft-repeated facts about the creature; that it was nicknamed Bruce, that there had really been three of them, and that these had worked so rarely, it forced the filmmakers to improvise, in ways that ultimately made the movie better.
One fact stood out to me, because at ten years old, I was already an established Disney fan. The shark had been designed by Robert Mattey, a retired Disney special-effects expert. Mattey, it turned out, was the man behind another very famous mechanical monster, the giant squid from Disney’s 1954 live-action classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
The Tentacled Terror
I wasn’t yet born when 20,000 Leagues came out, but I was pleasantly terrorized by the monster squid on numerous occasions during my childhood. I was taken to a theatrical re-release at an early age (I didn’t follow the story much, but that squid sequence sure got my attention), and I saw the movie on television, on the Sunday night Wonderful World of Disney program. Best of all, my local public library had a selection of 8mm film reels available for check-out, including a reel that featured the entire squid attack, ready for repeat viewing on a home-movie screen or bedroom wall.
I borrowed that reel a lot! It was in full color, but silent. With our family projector, I could examine the monster at length, slow him down, run him in reverse. (Home video was still years off, so this felt like the privilege of a lifetime!) Even repeat exposure to this sequence couldn’t dim its appeal and excitement for me.
That squid played a starring role in many of my childhood nightmares, which meant that, in my waking hours, I was fascinated. (Ah, movie monsters, those things we fear so much, we fall in love with them.) I was captivated by a handful of production photos I found in Disney books, and accounts of how the famous squid sequence was made. Like Bruce, this was a full-sized mechanical menace, not an animated effect added in post-production. As Bruce would later be, the squid was problematic on set. And like Bruce, the squid also had its turn as part of a theme park attraction.
In fact, that was a major reason the squid had such a long-lasting hold on me. (Apart from the sucker-lined tentacles, of course.) I had seen that squid (or its facsimile) up close and in person, thanks to the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Submarine Voyage ride at Walt Disney World. Here, guests could board a Nautilus submarine and view a fantastical, if plainly plastic, undersea world. Near the end of the ride, a giant squid loomed into view of the small portholes. The monster had its tentacles wrapped around another Nautilus-like sub, marked with an unlucky Roman numeral XIII. Just as suddenly, long tentacles appeared at our windows, ready to grapple with our own sub. Flashing white lights and zapping sound effects signaled that the attacking squid had been repelled by an electric charge, installed by the foresighted Captain Nemo. The whole episode took mere seconds, but generated a giddy excitement that made me want to ride again and again. (Too bad the lines for this ride were always long and very slow. I seldom got to ride more than once per visit.)
It was a delectable kind of terror. Even at the age of seven or eight, I knew that it was a cleverly made fake, an illusion. But, it was an illusion on a spectacularly large-scale, the kind of thing you couldn’t go see just anywhere. And, it gave my imagination something tangible on which to build nearly endless dreams and imaginary adventures. I didn’t mind that it was fake. I loved it because it was fake, something that real people had crafted with care, specifically to give kids like me a safe but memorable fright. And boy, did it give me shivers!
(Historical aside: The squids seen on that Florida-based ride (there were two of them, one for each side of the submarine to view) were not original movie props. They were approximate replicas made of fiberglass and vulcanized rubber, designed to undergo hours and hours of daily operation. Visitors to the original Disneyland in Anaheim were able to view the actual Mattey-designed squid from the film at a walk-through of the Nautilus sets. This self-guided tour attraction ran from 1955 through 1966, and displayed the genuine movie-squid on a dry set, not underwater, but with tentacles flailing and flopping about, assisted by overhead cables and motors. My oldest brother got to tour this attraction, and he reports that the sight scared the bejabbers out of him. How I wish I could have seen that!)
The Less Seen, The Better?
A point of similarity between the Mattey-squid and the Mattey-shark is that both of them gave their respective filmmakers plenty of trouble. Bruce the great white shark was designed, built and tested in California, on dry land, then shipped to Martha’s Vineyard, where it was immersed in the cold, salty Atlantic waters and promptly stopped working. The squid, also temperamental, had to be carefully photographed from just the right angles to hide the cables that held its tentacles aloft. In both cases, there were doubts about the believability of the creature effects.
The squid attack for the 1954 film was shot in a giant soundstage, inside an enormous water tank. The sequence was filmed against a painted backdrop portraying a blazing red and orange sunset. When Walt Disney saw the results, he was dismayed at how blatantly phony the squid appeared under the bright lights. He ordered the whole sequence reshot, but this time with a simulated rainstorm effect, against a backdrop of dark clouds, lit as a nighttime scene. (The squid itself was entirely rebuilt, as well.) The solution worked beautifully. The pelting rain and lightning flashes gave the scene a dynamic look, and masked the giant squid’s cables. The scene became the movie’s most celebrated highlight. The lesson – don’t show your monster too much. Less is more. The audience’s imagination will do most of the work.
And what about the shark during that long summer of filming in 1974? Once the JAWS special effects team got the shark to function, they worried about how the huge but decidedly water-logged Bruce would go over on camera. Master editor Verna Fields combined footage of real sharks, the on-set mechanical beasts, and the suggested menace of the ever-present yellow barrels to bring the monster to life in the audience’s mind. Her judicious editing was practically perfect in every way, energizing the shark scares, and allowing the audience to suspend disbelief. The lesson – don’t show your monster too much. Less is more. The audience’s imagination will do most of the work.
In both cases, this lesson was right. Both films are better, and scarier, because of the decision to be careful about not showing too much. And yet, for a kid like me who fell in love with these monsters, watching and re-watching the films made me hungry for more. I wanted to see these hero props out in the open, well-lit and fully revealed. I wanted to see that bright sunset version of the squid attack. I wanted to see footage of Bruce working, or even malfunctioning, on set. I wanted a full reveal of these beastly illusions that had made such a profound impact on my young psyche. In short, I wanted to get behind the curtain. There could be no such thing as seeing too much where either of these creatures was concerned.
All Things Come To Those Who Wait
Over time, my wishes have gradually been met, for the most part. I’ve watched the sunset squid sequence. I’ve seen on-set footage of Bruce in action, along with many behind the scenes photographs. I feel extraordinarily lucky, as I had doubted for years that any of this stuff would ever be made available. Thank the home video revolution, and thank the tireless efforts of dedicated film geeks who worked so hard to track down these rarities and make them publicly accessible. For the patient reader, I’ll list some of the most important releases, nearly all of which are still available in one format or another.
Walt Disney revealed much of the behind-the-scenes story of 20,00 Leagues in a 1954 episode of his Sunday night TV show, Disneyland. “Operation Undersea” was one of the first making-of specials, and it drew great ratings, and an Emmy award. Glimpses of the squid under construction were shown, along with a generous, long clip of the squid sequence, in glorious black and white.
This episode was released on a laserdisc Special Edition of 20,000 Leagues in the 1990s, but in the new millennium, a DVD edition trumped all previous releases by offering the newly-found sunset version of the epic squid battle. In fact, it was 16mm production footage, shot simultaneously with the 35mm scope camera original intended for inclusion in the movie. (As such, it is not technically the true lost sequence, but rather a parallel version, so close as to scarcely matter.) This footage, a true treasure, is in vivid color and looks as if it could have been shot last week. Moreover, it gives the most indulgent views of the initial giant squid in action, complete with the human actors, that one could hope for. It’s cleverly edited together, with the original music score, in an approximation of how that sequence would have played out. It’s a magnificent dream come true for this film fan.
Aside from some snapshots that leaked to the media before JAWS was released, the first really significant Bruce photos were published in Edith Blake’s book "The Making of the Movie JAWS on Location in Martha’s Vineyard." A local photographer, Blake had made herself a sort of unofficial/official set photographer during the production, and she was first out the gate with a behind-the-scenes book, complete with some terrific shark pictures. Screenwriter Carl Gottlieb’s masterful "The Jaws Log" was published soon after, and while the first edition was pretty short on sensational Bruce pics, it was the definitive Hollywood behind-the-scenes story of a notoriously difficult shoot. Reprinted in 2005, it is still widely held as a pinnacle of making-of movie accounts.
In 1995, during the brief laserdisc collectors boom, Universal released a packed special edition laserdisc set of JAWS with the most revealing extras yet seen, including a two and a half hour documentary by Laurent Bouzerou, deleted scenes, galleries of on-set photos, and even Steven Spielberg’s home movies of the filming of the underwater cage attack sequence. In the documentary, we fans got our first look at the building and dry-dock testing of Bruce, glimpses of the shark on set, and even an extended outtake of Bruce’s famous lunge at Roy Scheider. It was a bonanza, but of course, it only stoked an appetite for more.
Most of this material made its way to the eventual DVD release of JAWS, while at the same time, the fan communities that had formed online around the movie began to organize with the idea of meeting in Martha’s Vineyard for a long overdue celebration, Jawsfest. There, fans finally met the islanders who had been part of the making of the film, and heretofore unknown stories and images began to emerge. (No, I wasn't there, darn it.)
From this new trove of JAWS lore, Eric Hollander, Jake Gove, James Gelet and Michael Roddy took up the production of a new documentary, The Shark Is Still Working, which grew in scope until nearly every surviving member of the production had taken part. (Alas, this highly lauded doc remains unreleased on video, and has had only limited screenings in movie theaters.)
Most recently, Matt Taylor and Jim Beller have assembled a deluxe coffee table book, JAWS: Memories From Martha’s Vineyard, an astounding collection of first-hand accounts and long unseen photographs taken by those Vineyard residents who were part of movie history. This is perhaps the most detailed and revealing day to day account of the production that could possibly be assembled, with an emphasis on the unsung ordinary heroes who were there and helped make it happen.
This new book has the most generous supply of Bruce images yet, and plenty of unexpected surprises. Best of all, for me anyway, is a DVD, included only in the limited hardcover release, of about six minutes of home movie footage from islander Carol Fligor, whose children were featured extras back in 1974. The big gem here, Carol got a personal demonstration of Bruce’s operation by Robert Mattey himself. She captured a series of Brue’s mechanical movements that were filmed for the second attack scene in the movie, the death of Alex Kintner. (She actually captured, from a side view, a bit of action that made it into the final edit, though she seems unaware of this fact in her audio narration of the footage.) Here is perhaps the best extended view we’ll ever have of how Bruce really moved, and how he looked when seen full on, at length, without benefit of editing or other Hollywood post-production polish.
So, grateful as I am, there is no question that I would welcome more, though it seems unlikely that there could be anything much left to bring to light. (Maybe I'll be proven wrong whenever either of these films gets a Blu-Ray release. Here's hoping.) Somewhere, I suppose, that 35mm scope sunset attack could exist, buried in the cold Pennsylvania Disney film preserve. Somewhere, all of the unused original camera negatives of all of the unsuccessful Bruce takes could be lurking in a warehouse. (Heaven forbid they may have been lost in the recent Universal backlot fire!) I’d watch it all, repeatedly, because my fascination with these monsters is endless. But this is no time to be an ingrate. I count myself lucky to have had those childhood experiences of delightful terror, and to have lived long enough to enjoy the eventual uncovering of so many secrets. It’s enough to make me feel that I was born at exactly the right time, you know.
Addendum: a few stray thoughts and threads
That concludes my intended article, which used to be even longer. Because I don't plan to revisit this topic, I decided to append some pictures and sidebars that I ended up cutting from the main text. For those of you still reading, I guess you've got the bug too.
I wrote at some length about the electrifying experience of seeing the squid on the 20K ride at Walt Disney World. I didn’t include anything about the theme park JAWS experience. In 1977 or so, Universal Studios Hollywood added a JAWS element to their famous tram tour. This was heavily hyped on television and in print ads, at least in Southern California, as “the REAL shark from JAWS!” Well, not quite. The shark body and head were taken from Bruce’s original mold, but the shark that made its appearance in the original tour stop had one ridiculous cosmetic enhancement, a set of long, floppy, carrot-like teeth. This made the shark something very less than frightening, perhaps on purpose. I had so hotly anticipated visiting Universal and seeing Bruce up close, but the reality fell so far short of my expectations. Eventually, this fish was remodeled and a new head was sculpted, with less ludicrous dental work, thankfully. In later visits, I have been much more amused by this pop-up shark, though he has never struck me as especially formidable. I’m glad he’s around and hope he has a long life.
On the other hand, the opening of Universal Studios Florida, in Orlando, brought the dawning of a much more aggressive JAWS experience. JAWS: The Ride had an even more troubled history than the original movie that inspired it. The ride in its initial incarnation barely worked for a short few weeks, then closed down entirely for nearly two years, reopening in a revised form much later. I got to ride both incarnations, and won’t go into the details or differences here, but suffice to say, if I had been taken on this ride when I was ten years old, it would have been near-traumatic. The ride has occasionally been threatened with shut-downs and extinction, and I guess its possible it may disappear someday, but I would hate to see it go. It isn’t Bruce. (It’s a much larger beast, and different enough in design that I don’t think of it as being a true Bruce at all.) But it’s a giant shark ride. How can I not love it!
(News Flash: One day after I posted this hub, I got an email from Universal Studios Florida that JAWS: The Ride will be making its last tour on January2, 2012. I have an annual pass, so I guess I know where I'll be spending the new year!)
Disney’s 20K ride was closed down in 1996, and sat unused for nearly a decade before being completely destroyed. It is now the site of a Little Mermaid attraction, set to open in 2012. Disneyland has revived its Submarine Voyage attraction by transforming it into a journey with the characters from the Disney/Pixar film Finding Nemo. It seems appropriate that this ride thus features a hulking great white shark named Bruce. Now, if only there was a way to add a giant squid to the Jaws ride?
I have a few small Nautilus models, and want to find more. (The Nautilus is by far my favorite science fiction movie vehicle. And hey, it kinda looks like a shark, in a way.) It is far more rare to find merchandise depicting the giant squid, but i recently got an absolutely adorable one that was just released this October (2011). It’s from the Park Stars Vinylmation series, a new variation on a very successful collectible trend. (This is the first set of Vinylmation releases that is not based around a Mickey Mouse shaped mold.) He looks so shy and modest compared to the fierce, glowing-eyed beast of my childhood memories.
It’s been fun to write out about this particularly tenacious duo of favorite cultural touchstones. I haven't said anything that others haven't already said better elsewhere, but I hope my enduring affection for these classic beasts shows through.
DSPickett - December 1, 2011
taybar on March 19, 2013:
autumnstardust on December 02, 2011: