Bruce: The Beautiful Terror of a Mechanical Shark

I can say that my history with the jaws franchise has not always been so loving and devoted. When I was first introduced to Jaws was on a new years eve, watching tv instead of fireworks because I was in a food coma (my 11 year old self is wholly to blame). I spent most of that first time searching the screen, yelling ”Where is it?!” every couple of minutes. 

Basically, I had no appreciation for great art. 

But anyway, lets take a look at the magnificent electronic puppets that have fostered so many haunting memories within us all. Some of them extremely lifelike and frightening while others....well, tried their best. I think we should start with good ol’ ”Bruce” from the first Jaws film (a nickname that Spielberg bestowed onto him, because it was just as reliable as his lawyer, or so the rumour has it). 

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Isn’t he a cutie? In fact, I never noticed that he had freckles before. Must be from all that time in the sun. But also, holy shit look at those black, soulless eyes. Do my eyes deceive me, or are they reflective? Shudders 

 

The team that made the first shark for the whole jaws franchise was composed by a team of some of the most prominent special effects specialists in Hollywood at the time, amongst them was Robert A. Mattey, Roy Argobast  and Michael Wood. This explains why and how it was even possible to build a 20ft realistic looking (and moving) shark (remember, this was in 1975, and the most convincing and lifelike monster in a movie we had so far was well….nada. Unless you consider counting in Godzilla or King kong as ”convincing”). 

But most of us remember the stories of how many times the shark did NOT work as intended, and as a result we do not see it that much in the first film – some would argue that it heightens the suspense, which is true – but most of its no-shows was due to malfunctioning issues, and not a creative choice. Well, except for maybe that scene which was cut by Spielberg himself after viewing it in editing and deeming it too ”distasteful”:

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Yep, this was how the scene with the little kid on the water raft was supposed to die – but the scene was ultimately scrapped and re-shot. But lets look at this picture a little closer shall we? Look at this picture and compare it to the previous image above. Now this is a theory, but it seems like this is not the model used for the rest of the film. This sharks features looks highly exaggerated, and the snout is much sharper looking. It almost looks like they have given it some eerily human facial features, as it seems like it has a prominent, protruding jawbone. Do sharks have those in real life? 

Doesn’t matter, because this is still terrifying and now I will possibly also be afraid to take a shower in my own house. Besides how Bruce looked, his movements were also something to behold (when he was in the shot long enough, that is). I mean, we all remember this scene….

How he just ever so gracefully slides his teeth up against this gentleman in passing? (actually my cat does something similar against my legs when she wants to fed but thats another story) It looks like an actual animal-like movement, which only further heightens our fear. I’m not going to put in a picture of when he gobbles up Quint, but I think its fair to say that it is yet another thing from the film that makes it so memorable ( yes Quint is memorable on his own too and I have nothing against hardcore fishermen). 

But lets leave the cinema screen for a moment and look at what Universal parks cooked up in the aftermath. Since the movie became such a huge hit, it was only a matter of tine before an attraction based on the film was incorporated into the theme park universe. In 1976, a scene from the film was included in the studio tour where the guests drove by a lake in a tram car, and a shark would jump out of the water and scare you.

 BOO! LOOK AT MY DANGEROUS MAW!

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”Realism” didn’t seem to be the height of importance for this ride, as we can see from this image. The teeth are long and crooked enough to make me more concerned for the sharks dental plan than anything else. But don’t worry, his...dentures (and the rest of his appearance) was changed a total of three times during the attractions existence). None of them quite lived up to the same quality of Bruce from the first film, but they do have personality…

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My personal favourite is the one from 1984 – there’s just something sad and hopeful in his eyes, like he just wants to be a part of something even greater than what this universe has to offer.

 The ride itself was features in a number of films and tv shows, such as Mallrats, Escape to L.A and in an episode of The A-team (all  the good stuff). But this was apparently not enough to sate our hunger for everything Jaws related. So Universal decided to make it into its own attraction –and production started sometime in the late 80’s, with the attraction having its first grand opening at the universal studios Florida park in 1990. 'Ride and Show Engineering' was responsible for the shark and the design of the ride, founded by previous disney engineers Eduard Feuer and William Watkins. The company later also helped engineer disney theme park rides such as the Disneyland Monorail System and Monsters, Inc. Mike & Sulley to the Rescue!

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You might think that this promotional poster was a little over the top, but the 1990 ride actually delivered on its promise of terrifying and entertaining its guests (when it worked, that is). As can be seen from two different clips on youtube, one from a training video and one when the ride is carrying guests, this version of the shark animatronic has some startling differences compared to the ones seen in the tram tour.

A screenshot from one of these videos show how the shark is ”dragging” the boat, its teeth lodged into its side. The eyes are clear white, just like Quint described how a shark reacts while in a feeding frenzy. ”When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be livin'... until he bites ya. And those black eyes roll over white, and then... oh, then you hear that terrible high-pitch screamin.'”

Seeming to take more inspiration from the film, this version of the shark has been described as the most lifelike of them all. Its eyes do no stay white all the time like seen above, as when it lets go of the boat, its eyes slowly go from white to black before going below the surface of the water again. It also moved its body and fins, something that the tram tour sharks never did. 

And at the end of this ride, instead of the shark getting electrocuted, it was blown up into a bloody mess. 

But alas, it was not meant to be. Shortly after its opening, the ride started to suffer from several technical difficulties, and was forced to close several times for repairs. But soon the ride was closed indefinitely, and would remain so for a period of three years. When the ride re-opened, it looked completely different. The shark no longer thrashed from side to side, and its eyes never changed or altered to white ever again. Which, you know, is kind of a bummer because it was a realistic effect that puts the fear of god in me. 

Nevertheless, the new ride that premiered in 1993 has since been considered a classic – and even now after it is gone, people still have cherished memories of this ride. And if you look at clips taken from the ride on youtube, almost all of the comments speak about the fear of accidentally finding yourself in the water with those mechanical sharks – even though you know its not real, they were  still convincing enough to tickle our survival instincts.

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The evolution of a mechanical shark puppet that affected the history of cinema (and indeed, maybe even theme park engineering)  still continues to fascinate us – and part of the reason may have something to do with the uncanny valley aspect of it all. This knowledge that those puppets aren’t the real deal, even after seeing behind the scenes footage with multiple wires poking out of the shark’s stomach, we can still watch Jaws and be just as terrified and mystified by this gigantic fish, even after 40 + years. 

Guest blog by Vanessa Crispin

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