Monday, August 11, 2014

Jaws: A Visual Essay on Why Continuity Doesn’t Matter

The first scene of Jaws is, technically, one of the most error-riddled famous sequences ever filmed. The scene is huge. Timeless, iconic, and has been viewed by nearly everyone, including people who haven’t even fully seen Jaws. It’s one of those sequences that is impossible to avoid; embedded in culture (not just pop culture) for, seemingly, ever. But, continuity wise, specifically lighting continuity, the scene doesn’t make a bit of sense. When I rewatched the film last night, I was stunned to see how erratic the lighting of the sequence is. Literally, none of the coverage in the scene matches. At all. And the beauty is: it doesn’t matter. Why? I’ll explain in a bit, but let’s first dive into the lighting continuity issues of the scene itself.

Here’s the sequence’s opening shot. It’s clearly pitch black outside.

If you look at the ocean in the sequence’s first wide shot, we can see that it’s getting a little lighter outside. (This helps cement my theory that this scene actually takes place at dawn as opposed to dusk, which is what is consistently reported).

The next series of shots are of Cassidy (Jonathan Filley) playfully, drunkenly chasing Chrissie (Susan Backlinie) toward the ocean. The gray sky appears as if the sun is just about to crest on the horizon.

The shot that ends the chase sequence begins with Cassidy at the top of a dune (note the gray sky)…

…to him falling and rolling down the dune. The camera pans left to reveal a gorgeous sunrise, blocked by some clouds. Continuity wise, everything is perfect so far.

This next shot, of Chrissie running and jumping into the water, contains our first problem. This was clearly shot during the day but made to look like nighttime, a technique referred to as day-for-night. You can tell by the way the white light glistens over a large portion of the ocean’s surface, which is not something that happens during a sunrise or sunset. Furthermore, given the reflection of the light on the water, the sun is directly above Chrissie (so this was likely shot in late morning), not off to the far right, as it is clearly seen in the next shot.

Before we go on, a few words on day-for-night. This is a common shooting technique that has been used for as long as films have been around. All of the outdoor, island night scenes in Cast Away were shot this way, as well as key scenes in Deliverance, The Proposition, Hell on the Pacific, and, of course François Truffaut’s Day for Night. Generally, there are two ways to achieve the effect. Most filmmakers do it in editing by playing with exposure, color curves, and any number of tools. The other, more complex way to capture day-for-night is in-camera.

Jaws was shot by Bill Butler, whose additional credits include The Conversation, Demon Seed and Grease, as well as second unit work on The Godfather, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Deliverance. For this opening sequence in Jaws, Butler said that because the clouds were so heavy on this particular day, all he had to do was underexpose the camera (which makes everything naturally darker). He then sent the film to the processing lab, with instructions to underexpose the film further and give it a colder, bluer tone. Simple, and very effective.

Back to the sequence, in the shot following Chrissie jumping in the water, we see Cassidy undressing on the shore, with the sun rising to his right.

The next shot is another day-for-night shot. Again, notice how the entire surface of the ocean glistens with light.

In the next shot, when Chrissie springs up for air, the sun now matches the sun in Cassidy’s shore coverage (minus the large clouds in Cassidy’s shots). Two things to notice: the ocean surface only glistens in one narrow stretch, and the sky is multiple colors (as opposed to just dark blue in the previous shot).

The most iconic shot in the sequence is from the shark’s point of view, pointing up to Chrissie who is gently swimming above. It’s also the most egregious lighting error in the whole scene. The giant white light above is either the sun itself (high in the sky during mid-day), or a massive light in a studio. Most of the underwater sequences in Jaws were shot in a giant MGM water tank in Los Angeles, so my guess would be that this famous shot was captured from within a giant tank.

After another day-for-night shot of Chrissie swimming...

...we cut to the first close-up of Chrissie, which, to me, looks too perfect to be shot anywhere other than in MGM’s water tank. Look at the soft light on the left side of Chrissie’s face. That could only (or rather, most easily) be achieved in a very controlled setting, like an indoor water tank.

During Chrissie’s attack, the movie cuts between close-ups and medium shots of Chrissie being dragged around the water. The lighting rarely matches in any two consecutive shots. For example, look at the position of the white light in this medium shot (notice the placement of the buoy)...

...to the light (or absence thereof) in this close-up, with Chrissie clinging to the same buoy:

As Chrissie is dragged toward the camera, we can see a light source on the right side of her face, which again leads me to believe that this particular shot was captured in the tank.

The sequence ends with two still shots, first of Cassidy drunk on the beach, the pink sun slowly rising off camera to his far right…

…and a final day-for-night shot of the now-restless ocean.

Explaining why these continuity errors don’t matter is easy: because the sequence is just that good. Every shot is perfectly composed. Just look at all those still frames above – they’re flawless. So, while the lighting has clearly been drawn from a number of different sources, every specific shot looks great. If this were not the case, then the sequence would fail. And, of course, cinematography is just one aspect of the scene. The sequence is so iconic for several reasons – John Williams’ music, Susan Backlinie’s believable acting (and dedicated stunt work), Verna Fields’ rapid editing, and, most notably, Spielberg’s decision to not include shots of the shark itself (which, rather infamously, was not his intentional intention).

The opening scene of Jaws acts as a perfect lesson for young filmmakers. As a director, it’s your job to sell the audience. And if you do that – through strong story and confident execution – then they will forgive most everything else. Almost every film I’ve ever seen has some sort of error in it, continuity or otherwise. In bad films, we tend to call these errors out, usually because the story was weak and we had a reason to pick apart the film’s faults. In great films, continuity errors are rarely discussed, if they’re even noticed at all. Why? Because the movie didn’t give us a reason to notice them. We were too busy watching the film.


32 comments:

  1. Continuity at times, is overrated. It's all about performance and how affective it could be for the film as well as the art of editing and suspense. Sometimes, it can be quite jarring if it's noticeable but if the scene and set-up is good. Continuity can be dismissed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Exactly - it's completely dependent on strength of story, performance, and execution. The last time I watched The Godfather, I was stunned by how many continuity errors were in (Sonny air punching Carlo...). But, again, it's... The Godfather, so who cares?

      Delete
  2. Great post, and I've never heard of the day-for-night technique before so I've learnt something new!
    - Allie

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! Pretty groovy technique isn't it? Used a lot actually, but the pros are just really good at hiding it!

      Delete
  3. I agree with Steven's comment above, that it can be unpleasant if it can be noticed, but if the film is good enough, it can be overlooked. Great essay, and I love the fact you chose Jaws as an example!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! Yep, that was essentially the point of my post, so I'm glad you and Steven agree. If the story is strong, damn near all else will be forgiven.

      Delete
  4. Great post! Jaws is one of my favorites (which, I know, makes me super unique).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! Hey man, we like what we like. Jaws is a great, great film, and if that notion is shared by many other people, then so be it!

      Delete
  5. I like your post on Jaws a lot and I didn't know about the day-for-night technique at all. Thank you for educating me on something I didn't know about films.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My pleasure, James. Always love hearing that one of my posts can inform readers of a filmmaking technique. And hey, maybe you'll notice day-for-night shots in the future now. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting.

      Delete
  6. This really makes me want to go back and watch Jaws again. Lord knows I haven't seen it in at least 10 years if not longer. I probably would never have noticed these things without reading this article. I can only imagine how many times you paused the tv/computer to analyze these shots.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You know, funny thing is, I actually didn't have to pause and analyze the shots at all. Just stopped to capture some screencaps. Like you, I hadn't seen this film in many years, definitely not since I started taking myself seriously as a filmmaker. And, as a result of that, now I just notice stuff like this more. You will too, in time ;)

      Delete
  7. I love your last paragraph because that is something I often say. If I have time enough to notice stupid errors in any film, that is because I didn't care for that film. If I was into that film, I wouldn't give a shit if buoy wasn't positioned right in two consecutive shots.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yep, exactly. Give us a reason to pick apart your film, and we will. But reel us in with story and execution, and we're sold.

      Delete
  8. Great post, man! And thevoid99 is damn right for saying that continuity can be dismissed if a scene works so much. It really is all about execution. And "Jaws" is not surprisingly among the most influential films of all time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks buddy! So happy so many of you understood the overall point I was driving out. If the execution is there, continuity is moot.

      Delete
  9. Having watched Jaws four to six times a year for the past twenty years, I feel like I have your back on this conclusion pretty easily. I've noticed the lighting issue repeatedly, and if the sequence is supposed to take place at dusk or early evening, why is the Sun setting in the East? It has to be set at dusk for the story to make any sense since Cassidy is passed out for a few hours and Brody is just rising when he gets the call. Also it would take a while for the crabs to start to gather on Chrissie's carcass so that also suggests an event that took place late night rather than at dawn. The inconsistency on the lighting matters not because we are transfixed in each separate scene by something that the lighting of that scene helps even if it is not in continuity. The moonlight as Chrissie is pulling off her clothes helps eroticize the moment, the sun behind the boy as he falls back on the sand lets us see his failure of energy, the shimmering day for night may be practical for shooting a stunt, but it is also magical to see the water sparkling like that supposedly at night. The overhead light from under her swimming on the surface of the water evokes a moon, even if the lighting on land would be different. Continuity matters less than the mood and atmosphere that a film maker is trying to project. All of your points about the lack of continuity in this scene are right, but for my money the most egregious continuity issue from Spielberg has nothing to do with lighting and everything to do with making a story or sequence work. In Jurassic Park, where the hell did that cliff come from in the Tyrannosaur paddock? Most people did not notice that until the tenth or twelfth time they see the movie. For the exact same reason, if the story is well told and we are caught up in it, it won't matter.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Four to six times a year?! Richard, you're a beast. That's awesome man. I have a few films that I watch several times a year - I'm so indebted to them and what they do for me, but I suppose that's cause for another essay.

      Back to Jaws, I loved your explanation of this scene. You have such a clear and informed insight into the sequence, and I just love that stuff. I did want to make mention of that Jurassic Park scene, but I couldn't find room for it. But that too is another great example. And you're right, I don't think I noticed that Jurassic Park error until at least my tenth viewing of that film.

      Delete
  10. Bravo, good sir. This is truly an amazing post. It's been years since I've watched Jaws even though I own it on DVD. Now I'll definitely be popping it in soon. As for the day for night technique, I'd heard of it, but didn't have any idea how it was achieved. Thanks for the education! Finally, I'm with you and others who say continuity is irrelevant if the story telling is good. Jaws...and Jurrasic Park are just two examples.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks man! So glad you liked it. Also very thrilled to hear that I could educate you on the day-for-night stuff, always fun to fuse some technique into the posts. And I honestly hadn't watched Jaws in years before this post. But I just decided to pop in my DVD, and it flew on by. That one never gets old.

      Delete
  11. I think you're right here. Continuity is still important (my opinion), but it's hardly critical or the most important part of a scene.

    One of my favorite classics is Inherit the Wind. So much of that film hinges on the courtroom battle, and specifically the verbal exchange between the Fredric March and Spencer Tracy characters toward the end. It wasn't until the fourth or fifth time I watched that I noticed the fossil Spencer Tracy brings in as evidence jumps between his hands and the judge's desk at pivotal moments. I was too busy focusing on the dialogue and the performances to care about the placement of a prop. It wasn't until I knew the scene so well that I noticed that issue.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh continuity is so very important, no question. I can think of no great filmmaker who freely says, "Ah, fuck continuity. Do anything!" But if it does slip through in great films, it's so easily forgivable.

      I haven't seen Inherit the Wind in years, but I definitely never noticed the jumping around of the fossil. So funny how that works. And I really need to give that one another watch. Thanks so much for the comment.

      Delete
  12. I have to admit, sometimes continuity drives me nuts (like when people's hair are in different positions when they cut from one shot to the other) but you're right about it not mattering in this instance. Honestly, I never even noticed this before. Great post!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! It definitely drives me crazy sometimes too. Especially when it's so obvious. But yeah, in great films, we're hopefully too invested in the story to care.

      Delete
  13. Awesome work here man! Glaring continuity errors drive me crazy, but it works so well in this case for all the reasons you mentioned. I should rewatch this now!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks buddy! Glaring ones definitely drive me bonkers too, but Spielberg is usually pretty good at getting away with it. I don't think I'd have the stones to shoot something that so obviously doesn't match!

      Delete
  14. I agree with what thevoid99 said, "Continuity at times, is overrated"
    Jaws is one of my all time favourite films, and I think that whole opening scene is incredible despite the continuity issues.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yep, exactly. That's just what I was getting at - if done well, continuity is really a non issue. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Delete
  15. Just wanted to point out that none of the early screenplays have the shark appear in this sequence. And from everything I've read, the shark was not going to be used in this opening shot at all. Spielberg has said in an interview that he could have had the shark appear, but ultimately that wouldn't have been as frightening. It seems that from the beginning it was decided no shark would be seen attacking Chrissie. The shark wasn't even on set when they filmed this, so it was not a question of it not working correctly, either. Spielberg's intention, then, seemed to be that he never wanted to show the shark here.

    Also, Backlinie states in Jaws: Memories from Martha's Vineyard: "The only shot we actually filmed at night was the one of me swimming out toward the buoy. That was the only time I was in the water alone, without the crew, and I hate that! Ironically, I've never liked being in the water on a dark beach."

    So, take that for what it's worth.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yep, makes sense. Mostly all day for night photography. Loved reading that quote - thanks!

      Delete
  16. Also, excellent visual essay. The continuity of light and ocean on the Orca in the final third of the film is almost worse somehow, but, again, your conclusion is right: the shots, narrative, editing and music work together and give us a story so compelling visually and otherwise, it doesn't matter. In fact, some of the discontinuity is even weirdly right—like the shot of Quint impaling his machete into the gunwale of the Orca, with a totally placid ocean behind it. It's like a different time and space, that moment. I think it works, especially considering what Quint will do with that machete before he dies.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! Wow, that is such a good point you make about that Quint/machete moment. I never looked at it like that before. Very interesting.

      Delete