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What George Lucas failed to learn from Jaws

"We're gonna need a bigger CGI budget."

When faced with a holographic shark from Jaws 19 in Back to the Future II, Marty McFly quips, "The shark still looks fake."

Spoiler alert: there is no Jaws 19, and this scene is mostly a joke about 1987's Jaws: The Revenge, the third sequel to the 1975 smash-hit. Marty's partially right: the shark in Jaws: The Revenge looks fake. The first shark in the original Jaws does not. That's because you barely see it.

Something can't look fake if its presence is mostly implied, right?

If you know anything about the making of Jaws, you're heard this part before: The reason the shark is felt more than seen was an artistic decision made by Steven Spielberg in direct response to the fact that the animatronic, faux-sharks simply didn't work. In short, Spielberg was limited by 1970s special effects, and because of that fact, Jaws became a more creative and downright brilliant piece of cinema.

45 years later, there has never, not once, been any suggestion that a new version of Jaws will be re-released with enhanced digital effects to create a more convincing — and present — shark. That's because Spielberg learned one huge lesson from Jaws that he seemingly failed to pass on to his bestie George Lucas: Sometimes, bad practical effects are a really good thing.

Spielberg used three fake sharks while filming Jaws. Two were intentionally half-completed: a right-side shark that had a left-side that exposed the inner machinery that powered it, a left-side shark that did the same thing. There was also a third mechanized version that was more-or-less the shark head, the jaws of Jaws, if you will. None of these mechanical sharks worked correctly. In nearly every-single behind-the-scenes documentary or interview about Jaws, from 1975 to the present, Spielberg complains about the unreliability of this particular "special effect," which these days, we quaintly refer to as "practical effect."

"It's a much-maligned shark, and I'm responsible for much of the bad-mouthing. But it was frustrating. It really didn't work all the time. It didn't work hardly at all." - Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg on the set of 'Jaws.'Archive Photos/Moviepix/Getty Images

You would never make Jaws with a robot shark today. If you did, it would only be a placeholder, and CGI would be used in post-production to make it look better. The newer Alien films are like this. Full monsters are built and photographed, and the final product is enhanced or outright replaced by CGI.

In 1975, none of that was possible. Whatever you captured in-camera was (mostly) what the audience saw in theaters. Yes, science fiction films used rotoscoping, film splicing, and superimposed effects, but none of that what have helped Jaws. Spielberg needed a 25-foot shark to terrorize the inhabitants of Amity Island, and, eventually the three-man crew of the Orca. This effect was a hard one to "cheat," so full-sized mechanical sharks were the best bet.

Because the various sharks (nicknamed "Bruce") failed to work properly once their machinery hit the ocean, Spielberg was forced to rethink how he sold the story of the movie. How do you make a story about a creature if you can't get a good shot of the creature?

The answer was to covert the problem of filming the shark into a solution: The movie took a Hitchcock-inspired approach, suggesting the danger rather than depicting it outright. When the shark drags the three yellow barrels, it's scary because we can't see it, but its huge size is suggested. And we're all familiar with the image of that single shark fin, a chilling implication of sea-monster murder.

This approach influenced everything about how the film was made, including John Williams' ominous score. Jaws' minimalist style wasn't the original goal, but it became the intended result because Spielberg smartly pivoted to accepting a movie he could make versus the movie in his head that he wanted to make.

Universal Pictures/Moviepix/Getty Images

Because of their collaboration on all of the Indiana Jones movies, we tend to think of Lucas and Spielberg as two sides of the same blockbuster coin, but Jaws — or rather the legacy of Jaws — proves that isn't true. If George Lucas made Jaws, there would be a 2000s Jaws: Special Edition in which a CGI shark replaced the barely-glimpsed beast from the classic movie. We would all hate it, and it would be impossible to find the original edit.

It might not be nice to pull these Jawa skeletons out of the closet again, but the CGI elements of the Star Wars special editions are incongruous with the rest of the films. Even someone who has never seen Star Wars: A New Hope will quickly notice that something is weird about the scene where Luke and Obi-Wan enter Mos Eisley on the landspeeder. The CGI Dewbacks and X-Wing fighters might technically look "better" than in the original film, but they draw too much attention and feel unrealistic.

The direct Jaws analogy here is easily Jabba the Hutt, a character that Lucas didn't include in the original Star Wars, because he, supposedly, couldn't figure out how to make it work. Just the implication of Jabba the Hutt — just the mention of his name — is enough to make the viewer concerned about Han and Chewie's connections to the criminal underworld. That's the fin in the water, and it makes the eventual reveal of Jabba in Return of the Jedi more of a payoff.

We still never needed this.Lucasfilm

But George Lucas threw that out the airlock with the Special Editions. Now, in all canonical versions of A New Hope, Jabba is present in the first film as a fully CGI creature who looks out of place in 1977. You can't imagine Spielberg doing this with Jaws.

Yes, in 2002, Spielberg did oversee a "special edition" of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which bizarrely replaced scenes of people clutching guns with walkie-talkies. This version is currently not something you can readily find, which could indicate Spielberg was embarrassed by his brief dalliance with George Lucas-style revisionism. That said, though there is a CGI alien in that 20th-anniversary special edition, Spielberg never replaced the original puppet outright. And again, you can't even see this version of E.T. now anyway, unless you bought a used DVD on eBay.

Steven Spielberg poses with E.T.Aaron Rapoport/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

The legacy ofJaws is that it feels incomplete and imperfect, which is partially why it earned its status as the first blockbuster. Two years later, in 1977, Star Wars dethroned Jaws in terms of box-office success, which was fine because, by that time, Spielberg and Lucas were already working together.

But the strangest thing about the first two blockbusters is that each was defined by their technological innovations in visual effects. With Jaws, that history — complete with the failings of that tech — is easy to study, and the result is totally apparent. With Star Wars – the history of which effects didn't work has been sloppily erased.

Because Spielberg accepted the flaws of Jaws, we barely worry about if "the shark looks fake." When we watch the original Star Wars on Disney+ we're not sure what we're seeing. Was this a movie made in 1977 or re-made in 1997? Or was it remade in 2004? Or 2019?

At some point, when it comes to less-than-perfect visual effects, it might be best to let broken sharks sink. In The Last Jedi, Yoda said "failure is the greatest teacher." The thing about failure is, you have to accept it to learn from it.

In recognition of the 45th anniversary of the release of Jaws, Inverse is sharing weird-but-true stories about sharks.

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