FEATURE : When the Shark Bites

I recently saw a documentary on the making of the movie Jaws and was captivated by the complex back story to the movie that launched Steven Spielberg’s career. A host of problems plagued the production—personality conflicts, technical problems, budget overruns, and missed deadlines—all of which made me squirm uncomfortably with recognition. In fact, I’m convinced that anyone in educational marketing will empathize and commiserate with Spielberg’s troubles on set.

One of the biggest problems was the shark. Spielberg’s team built three mechanical sharks—a full version for underwater shooting and two partial versions with left and right “mechanical guts” exposed for easy manipulation during shooting. The models were tested in a lake and performed beautifully. However, once immersed in seawater, the hydraulics corroded and the shark never functioned properly despite the efforts of a dozen lever-pulling crew members.

Instead of throwing in the towel, Spielberg threw himself into turning the challenge into a solution. The shark was written out of much of the script and did not appear until the last quarter of the movie. Instead of showing the shark, Spielberg used a number of imaginative techniques to create a sense of dread. He shot low in the water from a shark’s viewpoint while the two-note musical score pounded in the background like a terrified heartbeat. He used visual clues like a dorsal fin or yellow barrels that had been entangled around the shark’s body to create a sense of the animal’s presence. In fact, by not showing the creature, the suspense is even more palpable.

2010 marks the 35th anniversary of the making of Jaws, but the lesson learned is timeless. A good dose of imagination can turn disaster into triumph. May we all meet our problems with Spielberg’s spirit.

Contributed by Domenica

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