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Released in 1975 and directed by Steven Spielberg, “Jaws” became the highest grossing film of all time, taking the legendary Star Wars to surpass it. The film was based on the Peter Benchley novel inspired by the Jersey Shore shark attacks, and is set on the small Amity Island, whose residents are terrorised by a Great White Shark. Throughout the movie, Spielberg uses an array of cinematic techniques, such as an effective soundtrack and different camera shots, to create a nerve racking atmosphere which engages the audience from the very beginning.
It is the intention of this essay to explore some of the technical variations used in “Jaws” within three set scenes and analyse their effect on the viewers.
Firstly, in the first set scene, Spielberg introduces the audience to the “Jaws” theme tune and preconditions us to associate that with danger. The film starts with the title screen, where the non-diegetic soundtrack is first heard. This is then accompanied by an underwater camera, moving through weeds and reeds, which create a sense of uncertainty and fear, as we don’t know what is on the other side.
Also, the staccato nature of the soundtrack implies danger straight away, thus preconditioning the audience to feel scared when they next hear the music. This powerful theme tune immediately engages the viewers and sets the mood for the rest of the film.
As the music reaches its crescendo, the title sequence finishes, and the camera cuts to the campfire scene, bring an abrupt end to the unnerving music and lifting the mood.
The audience begin to relax, after hearing the harmonious diegetic sound of a guitar and harmonica, and also by seeing the light, which humans naturally associate with safety. However, a long shot then shows the campfire next to the dark deep ocean, which cannot be penetrated by the light. This scene emphasises the vulnerability of the people sitting around the fire, and shows how small and insignificant they are, in comparison to the mysterious ocean. This notion unsettles the audience, and creates a sense of imminent danger, which we anticipate fearfully.
Thirdly, Spielberg’s use of different camera shots subtly forces the audience to build up a relationship with the two main characters in the first scene. A mid-shot of the boy’s face holds for several seconds, allowing us to memorise his features, then cuts to Chrissie Watkins (the would-be victim), for the same effect. The two are then shown running towards the beach, and because of the handheld camera following them along, the viewers feel as if they are there with the characters, and become personally attached to them. As the drunken boy flops onto the sand, the girl swims merrily towards the water, ignorant of the dangers that lay within. The fact that she has been singled out by Spielberg amongst all the other possible targets, creates a feeling of anxiety within the audience, a feeing which is heightened as we realise that she is helpless and is swimming towards her probable death.
Next, just before Chrissie’s attack, Spielberg builds up the tension effectively, using certain audio techniques. As the girl swims out, the scene becomes completely devoid of non-diegetic sounds, creating a threatening atmosphere. The only thing that can be heard is the gentle lapping of the waves, and the soft ringing of a bell, like a death knell, signifying impending doom. Also, the lack of familiar sound from the campfire emphasises how alone and vulnerable Chrissie is, surrounded by the dark, mysterious ocean. While an underwater shot shows the girl silhouetted against the moonlight, the Jaws theme starts playing, sounding like the audience’s heartbeat, which gets faster and faster as we realise that she is going to be attacked. These auditory techniques that Spielberg uses keep the audience on the edge of their seats, waiting in anticipation for the unknown danger that they know is coming.
Finally, when Chrissie gets attacked by the shark, effective camera techniques are employed to make the audience feel as if they are part of the scene. While the girl thrashes around in pain and agony, the camera filming her stays still, not moving at all. This allows us to realise just how powerful the shark really is, when it jerks the girl from one side of the screen to the other in the blink of an eye. Also, by not moving the camera during this sequence, the viewers are made to feel helpless – they are just spectators, and cannot prevent the tragedy. The audience don’t want to watch their heroine getting mauled by the shark, but are unable to look away, watching in sick fascination, voyeurs to her death.
The sound and camera techniques used by Spielberg in Set Scene 1 have been examined, including the use of the malevolent soundtrack and camera positioning. This essay will now analyse Set Scene 2, where Alex Kintner falls victim to the shark, and will explore the different cinematic techniques used in the scene.
First of all, Spielberg makes excellent use of a continuous tracking shot, which allows the audience to build up a relationship with the victim, and links the three crucial characters in the scene. The camera tracks Alex out of the water to his mother, and, after a few seconds of conversation, goes to a close up of Chief Brody’s concerned face. This ingenious shot links the land to the sea, showing just how close the two really are and making the prospect of another attack even more frightening. It also allows the audience to familiarise themselves with Alex’s features, which adds potency to the tragedy of his death. Finally, the shot focuses on three particular characters so from then on; we are tracking their every moment, knowing that they are significant in some way.
Secondly, as the audience are anticipating an attack, Brody’s view is continuously impaired by insignificant characters walking into his line of sight. These visual wipes go across the screen in alternating directions, each time revealing a closer image of Brody’s face, or random people in the water – multiple targets for the shark. These are very effective in building up tension, as we see Brody as being the only defence against a possible attack. As he becomes nervous and frustrated, so do the audience.
The suspense in the scene is added to even more by an array of red herrings, which are shown hand in hand with the wipes. For example, Brody can see a small dark shape approaching someone in the water, moving as if it were a shark’s fin. Brody makes to get out of his chair, and the audience get excited and unnerved, only to relax again as we realise that it’s just another swimmer with a black cap. Also, several seconds later, a girl starts screaming and is lifted up into the air. Brody thinks, as do the audience, that this is an attack, which just turns out to be a couple messing around. The use of these red herrings creates peaks and troughs of tension, which heightens the suspense, as we know that a shark attack is imminent, and that it’s only a matter of time before it arrives.
Furthermore, just before the attack, the shark is shown as an intelligent menace, rather than a senseless beast. An underwater camera shows a gaggle of children, laughing and splashing. These are easy targets for the shark, and as the camera moves towards them, the audience know that the shark is about to attack. However, the camera then turns, instead going for the single child flapping on a large float further out to sea. When the viewers see this, they realise that the shark doesn’t just eat random things, but that it has a methodical approach, going for the best targets, instead of the easiest ones. This notion intensifies our fear of the shark, making the prospect of the next attack even more terrifying.
Finally, at the end of the sequence, Spielberg uses the rare Simultaneous Track and Zoom shot to show Brody’s face when he sees Alex getting attacked. The background seems to zoom out, while Brody’s face gets closer and closer. This strange effect, combined with the discordant, non-diegetic screech that is heard, suggests to the audience that Brody’s world is crashing around him, makes us realise the sheer power of the shark (to have such an effect on the police chief) and leaves us wanting to know what happens next.
The cinematic techniques used in Set Scene 2 have been investigated, such as the use of red herrings and visual wipes. This essay will now look at the famous Indianapolis Speech, and analyse the cinematography used within the scene.
Set Scene 3 starts off with a long shot of the Orca, surrounded by the vast and perilous ocean. The wonderful positioning of the elements in the shot emphasise to the audience just how vast and potentially deadly the sea is, and that the boat is merely a pinprick in the dangerous landscape. This idea unsettles the viewers and makes us realise that the three men on the ship are alone and helpless, and, should the shark attack, there will be no help coming from the shore. The shot is accompanied by a piece of non-diegetic sound, an eerie and quiet piece, which also adds to the mysteriousness of the moment.
The malevolence of the sea contrasts greatly with the jolliness of the next scene, which shows Quint and Hooper bonding, as their love of the sea merges into one. They show off their scars and bruises, each trying to achieve dominance over the other by showing that they’re tougher. They also discuss sharks, fish and the like, laughing and making jokes. Brody is an outsider in their conversations (as a mid shot of him showing his small wound to himself reveals), which is completely opposite to what there was at the beginning of the film, with Quint being the one left out. The audience are aware of this, and begin to relax, enjoying the light drama, especially when Brody shows off his own bullet wound to himself. This scene of relaxation and laughter lulls the audience into a false sense of security so that the impact of Quint’s speech hits them harder.
This brings us on to the final point of this scene – the Indianapolis Speech. This immensely moving speech is delivered in a monologue by Shaw, while his lamp emits a soft glow, similar to that of an interrogation room. A static camera shows Quint telling his story, with Hooper slightly in focus in the background. Quint’s monotonic voice suggests to the audience that he’s not telling his tale for the benefit of the others, but is reliving the painful moment himself, while the still camera allows us to hang on to his every word. The shocking memories that he recalls tell us why he’s obsessed with killing sharks, and also show how dangerous and menacing sharks really are, a notion that’s intensified by the mysterious and eerie non-diegetic music that comes in when Quint describes their eyes. Arguably the best scene in the film, Spielberg’s clever use of a simplistic set and the right sounds made the Indianapolis Speech even more engaging than it already was.
As a general point, throughout the film, Spielberg makes the audience sub-consciously associate the colour yellow with impending doom. This technique is used to stimulate the build up of tension, as a more menacing atmosphere is created by other effects such as the “Jaws” theme tune. The audience are already waiting in anticipation for the attack that they know is coming and the visual motif ensures the full engagement of the viewers during the build up to a dramatic climax.
Steven Spielberg’s plethora of cinematic techniques has turned “Jaws” into the timeless classic that it is today. This essay has explored and analysed the different technical elements within the film, such as the different camera shots, the positioning of the characters and the infamous “Jaws” theme tune, which audiences worldwide have come to know and love. Along with many other aspects of cinematography and sound, Spielberg has transformed a simple plot into an inspirational creation that has captivated millions across the globe.
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