So Jaws 3 was on television last night. I was just about to go to bed, I changed the channel on a whim and it was literally just starting. Universal logo just vanishing. Timing was perfect. It is only just over 90 minutes long so… well, what are you gonna do? I poured myself another large drink, and settled in to watch it.
This movie had a very interesting, long and tangled route to the big screen. We covered this in some detail in an earlier Retro Review, telling the unlikely story of Richard Matheson’s involvement and earlier, discarded plotlines.
One thing I said in the review, and that I still stand by, is that there is a good film buried in here, trying to get out. Unfortunately it is buried under quite a lot of sheer awfulness.
I was enjoying things pinging off the screen towards me for no apparent reason, even the title sequence, and was settling in for the traditional game of “Spot what was in 3D in the cinema”. Even though I was chuckling at the silliness of it all, I just can’t escape the fact that for a shark movie, having such bad shark effects is a real Achilles heel.
A new dimension in terror? More like plumbing new depths of VFX failure. That is what kills it. One scene in particular is infamous.
Having been deprived of a tasty snack in the form of Mike Brody and and his girlfriend, the thirty-five foot long monster turns its attention on the underwater control room and smashes the glass, flooding the room. This shot is acknowledged as one of the worst special effects shots ever signed off to appear in a major blockbuster.
Surrounded by thick matte lines, the totally immobile shark floats slowly towards the glass and stops, before the glass explodes. Designed as a shock showcase of the 3D, it is simply laughable.
Watching this scene again got me thinking. Not too long ago another image started to circulate online. This showed a far superior looking shark seemingly making the same trip. What was this devilry? Had somebody replaced the VFX? A hobbyist in their spare room trying to improve the experience?
Even though it is just a still, the shark on the left looks mobile. You can see the light through the water reflected on it. Then the truth emerged. This wasn’t a hobbyist, or an interesting VFX exercise. It was an actual deleted scene from Jaws 3. Somewhere a suit compared the two shots and chose the one on the right.
Hollywood, you never fail to disappoint!
So What Went Wrong?
To find out, we had to go French! Seriously. The single best source on the internet for things Jaws 3 related is in French. The things we do for you, our Outposters! Romain Néophyte is the one guy in the world who seems to like this movie even more than me. His collection of information about the movie, built up lovingly over many years, is probably the most complete Jaws 3 information source there is. The whole story can be revealed after reading that, and hammering Google translate far all it is worth.
It turns out that the effects for Jaws 3 were being created by a company called Private Stock Effects. They had invented a brand new process for the movie whereby two shots were composited together to form the 3D effect on video instead of optical.
It was quicker and easier than using optical effects, cheaper and much more effective. However there was a big thing out there, lurking, in the real world that was going to drive a fateful decision.
VCRs had taken off massively. By 1983 they were spreading throughout homes worldwide and the whole rental market was born. Some movies were now making as much on home rental as they were at the box office.
There was one issue that would impact Jaws 3, and the VFX in particular. The quality of VCRs was bad. Really bad. Video had much lower resolution than opticals and the VCR would degrade it even further.
So the producers decided to replace most of the shots from Private Stock Effects. To do this they turned to a company called Praxis. This change happened late in the day and Praxis were under pressure from day one. PSE’s effects work was thrown out, despite the finished articles being far superior to what they eventually got.
Chuck Comisky was uncredited as the VFX producer on Jaws 3D. His filmography includes Terminator 2 3D – Battle Across Time from Universal Studios, Blade, and James Cameron’s Ghosts Of The Abyss and Avatar. This guy knows his way around VFX. So with him on board, what went wrong? He explained the process and the history in a recent interview:
“Basically it works this way: you film the foregrounds, film the backgrounds, and transfer these to videotape, then use what we call the Ultimatte for the actual compositing, then transfer the resultant product back to film. But I think there’s only one Electronic composite left in the final film.
We knew there was going to be virtually no post production time on the film and that the shots were going to require 4 different levels of compositing, consisting of an extreme foreground, a close midground, a midground, and then a background. On top of that we had to contend focal lengths between both the left and right eyes and also colorblindness.
Nothing looks worse than a foreground object that is miscolored, a perfect example is Jaws 3D, where some of the effects look like they were just tacked on to the screen: when they float a bone out into the audience it’s a nice 3-D effect, but it doesn’t look like it’s part of the film. With the video, we were able to look at the 3-d while we were compositing and we could ‘tweek it’ fine tune it, and make all the blends.”
So a much better end result from a much faster process? How would it pan out in reality? Check out this comparison for yourself:
“John Muto our Art Director was able to go down to the lab and make sure all the colors blended and the saturations were matching from element to element. That way we were able to save weeks and bucks by being able to get it done right the first time, and not have to redo it.
Praxis, the other effects house which worked on Jaws 3-D, was handed the problem of taking the electronic stuff and doing it over on film. There was just no way they could get it all done in time. From my viewpoint, it was not a wise decision to go with the film opticals since I don’t think they turned out that good. That may be a terrible thing to say but the people who work for PSE are very talented and I’m very proud of the work they did. They busted their butts and we were all so disappointed.”
Another still from a deleted scene shows of how superior the Private Stock Effects footage actually was.
What about the other side of the story, at Praxis? Spencer Gill worked there at the time the Jaws 3 job came in. He would go on to work on VFX for movies like Robocop and Ghostbusters 2. Here he tells his story:
“The decision to switch over and under formats (from SpaceVision to ArriVision) was done quite late. Virtually all footage was shot before the switch. The executives from Universal decided that they liked the look of the photochemical composites based on their tastes and their taste was … as the expression goes … in their ass. No one, not even at Praxis, told them that the film composites were superior and we (at Praxis) thought they were crazy.”
Ahh, what could have been, but wasn’t! Instead it is just yet more fodder for Hollywood History. See you next time.
A cinema scholar, are ya? Liked some interesting articles on the history of Hollywood? Or a Jaws fan? Last time around, in our regular look back at Hollywood History, we examined the version of Jaws 2 we nearly got.
Before that we have looked at such varied aspects of Hollywood, and its history that we covered the hidden story behind George Lazenby’s decision to only play 007 once. We have looked at the history of stunts, of special effects, of the studio system, and explored Hollywood’s ties to the mob. We have also examined some of the spooky goings-on associated with Tinseltown and we told the story of one of the true giants of Hollywood. We delved into the backstory of one of the best-known names in the history of horror, Hammer. We took a walk through the history of one of cinema’s greatest art forms – the world of miniatures and model-making for movies.
We explored the history of the box that changed so many Outposters lives – the VCR. We even delved into the murky waters of movie money and the hidden world of Hollywood Accounting and we went deep into genre with a history of disaster movies. Uncover the mystery and the horror surrounding a little known on-set incident during the making of Shark!
Do you have an interest in a period of Hollywood History that you want to share with our community of Outposters? If so, reach out at [email protected] and let us know.