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Why the Jaws beach scene is one of the best in movie history

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

It takes a lot of work to make something look so effortless.

That's the takeaway from Julian Palmer, the creative director for 1848 Media, a video production company. Palmer explains in a video breakdown how director Steven Spielberg uses things like the color yellow, staging, scale, and camera angles to tell a story. It's all there in the beach scene in Jaws.

Story-wise, the beach scene is simple. There's a shark in the water, and someone is going to be eaten. But the techniques and thoughtfulness Spielberg uses are anything but. They're something we don't often think about when we're enjoying the movie.

Here are some of Palmer's main points about Spielberg's style:

  • There are elements like the repeated use of yellows — on a mother's hat, on a boogie board, on a buoy — that instill a sinking feeling in an audience.
  • The boy's shorts are red, making you think of blood.
  • There's a shot of the film's hero, Sheriff Brody, with the crowd moving toward the water behind him. It's meant to symbolize the lack of control he has over what's about to happen.
  • One of the longest-running shots of the sequence is through the eyes of the shark, making it impossible for a viewer to look away.
  • The composition — Brody being front and center— of the sheriff's realization shot makes you realize it's his responsibility to protect these people.

All these elements work in unison to create the feeling of fear that dominates the scene.

In a sense, Palmer's insight gives a whole new appreciation to that specific scene. It's fascinating to see how things like camera angles, colors, and composition make us feel the feelings we do when watching them. And it also will make you appreciate, and perhaps want to dissect, the rest of Jaws.

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