Shooting Jaws at 30

Chances are good that if you saw jaws when it premiered in 1975, you avoided swimming—or even wading—in the ocean for at least a few years. The film was based on Peter Benchley’s novel about an oversized shark that terrorizes the seaside New England community of Amity Island. About half of the story takes place on a boat, where a local police chief, scientist and sailor (played by Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss, respectively) go to war with the shark. Director Steven Spielberg was only 26 years old, and at the dawn of his career. Thirty years after the making of one of summer’s biggest blockbusters (and the film that invented the term, really), cinematographer Bill Butler, ASC recalls their collaboration as pure serendipity.

“I did some work with director Phil Kaufman on the Universal Studios lot as a writer while I was still trying to get into the Los Angeles camera guild,” Butler recalls. “That’s when I met Steven Spielberg. He had just finished his Night Gallery projects. I shot Savage and Something Evil, a couple of one-hour TV movies with him.”

A few years later, Spielberg and Butler had a chance encounter in the studio parking lot. Butler’s career was shifting into high gear, with The Execution of Private Slovak, a memorable TV movie, and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation to his credit. Butler had heard that Spielberg was preparing to shoot Jaws, mainly at practical locations on Martha’s Vineyard in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. He also knew that the studio wanted Spielberg to hire an east coast cameraman and crew to reduce costs.

Bill Butler, Steven Spielberg and Michael Chapman shoot in the water—and under it—on the Martha’s Vineyard set of Jaws.

“I said, ‘I hear you’re making a movie about a fish,’” Butler recalls. After they joked for a few minutes, Spielberg asked Butler if he was interested.
During their first meeting, Butler suggested using a handheld camera on the boat. “I had used a handheld 16mm camera while shooting deep sea fishing films for friends, so I had an idea about the freedom that would give us,” Butler says. “Panavision had just introduced a lightweight (34-pound), smaller camera. It was also quiet, so you could use it to cover dialogue. Steven thought it would be too shaky; I didn’t try to press the issue. If he hired me, I could show him when we got to Martha’s Vineyard.”

When Spielberg asked if he knew how to shoot day for night on the ocean, Butler tried to look casual when he assured him that it wouldn’t be a problem.
“I did some research and found that Conrad Hall had tested five different methods in Hell in the Pacific,” Butler says “He tried to light the ocean at night, which didn’t work because the water doesn’t reflect light—it goes black. His best scene was filmed with a storm on the horizon. He timed the film down a couple of stops.”

Butler assembled an east coast crew, including Michael Chapman, ASC (Raging Bull, The Fugitive) as camera operator. To put that collaboration into perspective, Butler and Chapman have both received Lifetime Achievement Awards from their peers in the American Society of Cinematographers. (Butler was honored in 2003 and Chapman the following year.)

When they arrived on Martha’s Vineyard, Butler showed Spielberg how he could brace a handheld Panaflex camera and take the roll out of the boat rocking on the waves with his knees instead of using a 400-pound gimbal. Spielberg embraced the idea.

“About 90 percent of the shots on the boat were handheld,” Butler says. “Michael was intrigued by the idea and was very good at it. We did things that we probably wouldn’t have tried without the lightweight camera. Michael even climbed the mast and shot from the top straight down. We also put him in a small boat.”

Butler designed three looks: The opening scenes were to look like an Andrew Wyeth painting; during the Fourth of July celebration, the issues/59/images were festive with bright, hot sunlight; the encounters with the shark were dreary, ominous and foreboding.

There was a storm a few miles out to sea on one of the first days of production. The sky was black with the sun shining on the water in the foreground. Butler whipped the camera around and shot a day for night test. Even the timer at Technicolor labs was amazed by the look. Spielberg was satisfied that Butler knew what he was doing.

When “Bruce,” the 25-foot, mechanical shark, didn’t perform as reliably as anticipated, Spielberg was under enormous pressure. He was on location with a cast and crew and there were times when they couldn’t shoot scenes with the shark.

“A lot of publicity has been given to the fact that the shark didn’t work, but that’s totally untrue and unjust,” Butler says. “Robert Mattey, who made the shark, did an excellent job. But he had to test it while we were shooting the film. It looked great, and when the shark was working it did amazing things. It ran back and forth underwater on a railroad track and could dive out of the water and back in again.”

Butler has warm memories of evenings around the dinner table at Spielberg’s house with the editor, writer and actors discussing how to keep the camera rolling.
“You could feel the creative energy when we spoke about how to make the audience feel the danger without them actually seeing the shark,” he says. “I had Panavision build a waterproof box that allowed us to shoot at water level. I remembered seeing Vilmos Zsigmond (ASC) do that when I shot second unit on Deliverance.”

The box was made of plastic and glass and could float, which made it possible for Butler to shoot scenes with the water visible at the bottom of the frame.
“Psychologically, it got the audience thinking that the shark was just out of sight,” enthuses Butler. “You felt its presence on a subconscious level. We were also able to dip just slightly into the water to show the audience a scene from the shark’s perspective. The dangling legs of swimmers looked like dinner to the shark. Panavision also provided an underwater camera. It was enormous, but very stable underwater and easy to operate.

“Steven, [editor] Verna Fields and I looked at dailies on a flatbed Moviola every evening,” Butler says. “We’d talk about what worked, what didn’t and how we could fake a shark. It isn’t just the director you’re dealing with as a cinematographer. You also need to get inside the editor’s head and find out what they like.”

Of course, there was no video assist in 1975. “Steven was usually right by the camera while we were shooting,” Butler says. “Sometimes he would borrow my spot meter. It had a really nice telephoto lens on it, so he could see faces very clearly.”

Butler describes a scene where the shark hits the bottom of the boat and rocks it. They bolted a line into one side of the boat and brought it underneath the hull. Someone in a speedboat towed the rope until it got to the end of the line and made the ship rock. The actors responded by falling down. It looked like the bottom of the boat had been rammed by something big and powerful. After a couple of takes, a soundman came up on deck yelling that the ship was sinking. The bolt had partially pulled out of the side of the boat and water was flowing in. They had the speedboat tow the ship toward the shore. Fortunately, it sank in shallow water so it could be recovered.

“It would be a different experience making Jaws today,” Butler says. “They’d probably want to shoot it against a green screen with a digital shark. They could make anything happen, and it would be better, technically. But in my opinion, it wouldn’t be as good a movie. There’s a certain feeling of reality that comes through the camera lens that the audience can feel. It’s like an artist painting issues/59/images by hand. CG issues/59/images are harsher and crisper; they lack the mellowness of film. It’s the same with motion control cameras. They’re precise, but Michael Chapman handholding a camera was more artful.”

If he was doing it again today, Butler says his preference would be to shoot with a handheld camera on a boat in the water at a practical location. He notes that today’s cameras are more portable, mentioning the ARRI 235, and lenses are faster. Combined with today’s faster films, he says that it would be possible to shoot night scenes at magic hour and on cloudless evenings, possibly augmented by slowing the shutter speed.

Thirty years after Jaws, Butler is still passionate about moviemaking.

“I still love what I do every second of every day when I’m shooting,” he says. “It’s a creative experience, whether I’m deciding to take a prop that doesn’t look right off a set, talking with the operator about camera movement, discussing lighting with the gaffer, suggesting that an actor move a little slower on a shot or talking with the director or editor. Everyone felt that way on Jaws. That’s part of what made it a great film.” MM

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