Spielberg had worked with cinematographer Bill Butler on his TV films Something Evil (excellent — seek it out) and Savage (okay-ish) before he piped him aboard the good ship Jaws. Unlike Vilmos Zsigmond, the cinematographer of Spielberg’s first feature The Sugarland Express, Butler was perhaps more skilled craftsman than visionary artisan but his ingenuity, knowledge and proficiency went a huge way to solving Jaws’ myriad technical problems. He created a pontoon camera raft with a waterproof housing that achieved those trademark water level shots that gave you a Shark fin POV. To stop water drops hitting the lens, Butler used the Panavision Spray Deflector that saw an optical glass spin at high speed to deflect the drops. Except for the 4th of July beach stampede where the water-lens interface adds to the panic.
Butler originally envisioned the look of Jaws to start in bright summer sunshine and then become more ominous as the shark hunt goes on but shooting at sea put pay to such a controlled palette. The first half remains a riot of vibrant primary colours. In lensing Amity, Butler was inspired by the work of painters such as Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth in their view of an America untainted by urban life.
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Spielberg has described Jaws as “the most expensive handheld movie ever made” but he is mostly referring to the second half. The Amity-set scenes boast a terrific use of some more formal camerawork almost from the get-go. When drunk boy chases hot girl down to the sea, Spielberg follows the pair with an elegant track as she undresses, the sense of speed increased because they are running in front of a broken fence. Critic Nigel Andrews has identified fences as a key motif in Jaws, highlighting the fences both literal (round Brody’s house and Amity’s streets) and more metaphorical (Hooper’s cage) as embodiments of the film’s interest in man’s desire to mark out territory. It doesn’t hurt that fences also resemble shark teeth.
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Spielberg mixes it up with static shots marked by deft blocking. As Brody takes a ferry out to a group of swimmers who may be in danger, he is joined by Mayor Vaughn, Meadows and the Medical Examiner. The latter tells him that he was mistaken about Chrissie’s death — it was a boating accident apparently — and Mayor Vaughn chimes in with a cautionary tale about “panic on the 4th of July. The camera remains static, but Spielberg blocks the scene carefully, undermining Brody’s sense of authority by keeping him on the extreme left of frame. At key points, Spielberg brings the action towards the centre of frame and closer to the camera, breaking the foreground into a three-shot (Brody, Vaughn, Meadows), and then just a two shot (Brody, Vaughn) making it all feel increasingly conspiratorial. That the ferry swings through 180 degrees sees the constantly shifting background heightening Brody’s sense of disorientation that power over the situation is slipping from his hands.
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The Amity scenes also contain scenes of invisible intricacy. Look at the moment where Brody and Ellen say goodbye to each other before the shark hunt begins. It starts with a left to right track following Ellen following Brody as she lists the supplies she’s packed (extra glasses, black socks, zinc oxide, Blistex), then pan rounds to set up a wide shot with Brody and Ellen in the foreground, left of frame, the Orca with Quint atop the bridge in the background. The camera moves a little closer, Brody and Ellen edge a couple of steps and we are in a close-up two shot where the couple start discussing what to tell the children about Brody’s absence (“Tell ‘em I’m going fishing”). They hug and for most directors that would be the end of the shot. But Spielberg keeps it going, Ellen watching Brody board the boat, the focus pulling to get everything into sharp focus for Quint’s Mary Lee limerick. Horrified by Quint’s coarseness, terrified for her husband, Ellen turns and runs, the camera does the opposite of the movement the shot began with as she exits the shot. It’s a shot that lasts under 2 minutes and must have required rigorous acting and technical rehearsal yet it never shows off how clever it is. That is the beauty of Jaws.
When the movie finally gets to sea, the long takes and the tripods pretty much disappear. Key here is the contribution of Michael Chapman. Best known as the DP of Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Chapman was Jaws’ camera operator and his handling of the 34lb Panaflex camera is nothing short of remarkable, whether it is simply keeping things balanced — this is some five years before Steadicam — or energising the action with little moves and adjustments to intensify the drama (ie. the tilt from Hooper’s “That’s a twenty footer” to Quint’s “twenty-five”)
Yet amidst the vérité treatment, Spielberg, Butler and Chapman still craft some memorable, more structured compositions, mostly in attempts to emphasis the mythic qualities of Quint.
And by the time Quint has slugged three barrels into the beast he is sporting a bandana that resembles a hachinaki, the Japanese headband favoured by the kamikaze pilots. Just as this suggests that Quint operates under his own bushido, his slamming of his machete into the side of the boat is captured in an image of Japanese formality — in the centre of the frame is a rising sun.