Book Review: Joe Alves: Designing Jaws by Dennis Prince

Special make-up effects artist and The Walking Dead executive producer Greg Nicotero, who cites Steven Spielberg’s Jaws as an inspiration for his becoming a filmmaker, states in the foreword to Joe Alves: Designing Jaws, “a production designer[ is] tasked with determining the howwhat, and why of the look of the film and subsequently how the production is laid out.” The book then proceeds to show readers the work on the landmark blockbuster by production designer Alves, who had previously worked as an art director with Spielberg on his feature-film debut, Sugarland Express, and who would receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Art Direction for Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

After stating that “Jaws would do for the oceans what Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho would do for the shower” in his introduction, author Dennis L. Prince serves as our guide to the film, starting with how early galley sheets of Peter Benchley’s yet-to-be-published novel made their way into the hands of producer David Brown in 1973. Brown then contacted “Alves to illustrate the key action sequences for use as a pitch” to Universal, revealing Alves was integral in getting Jaws made.

Prince gives a brief history of Alves’ early film career, which started as an In-Betweener animator at Walt Disney Studios in 1955, before the book showcases his charcoal drawings, The story’s thrills and chills are evoked with scenes of the shark on its own and through encounters with Chrissie; with Alex, although much more graphic as we see Alex in the shark’s mouth; and with the three main characters, suggesting different fates than seen on the screen.

Readers then get to learn the reactions of different folks to the pitch. Universal’s head of production Marshall Green had the vision to see that “Jaws could be a bigger than Earthquake of The Hindenburg,” which proved to be quite an understatement. On the other hand, head of special effects ‘Punky’ Chineque, who would be overseeing the shark’s execution, was understandably skeptical.

The book tracks the efforts in creating the mechanical shark. Alves assembled a team that included special effects artist Robert A. Mattey, who had a notable sea creature on his resume: the giant squid from Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. There are Frank Wurmser’s blueprints of the shark and ways to move it along with pre-production photos of the shark at various stages of completion. Also from Alves’ archives are his script breakdown, location scouting notes and photos, and storyboards.

There is a brief chapter covering the production’s difficulties shooting with the shark, which has been covered in other books, and Alves’ time shooting with the second unit. The book closes with an afterword by him.

For those who like to go deep into the making of films and especially for fans of the film, Joe Alves: Designing Jaws does a marvelous job demonstrating the work done by the unsung hero that is the production designer. It’s great to see him getting his due with this book thanks to Prince and Titan Books.

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Gordon S. Miller

Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of this site. "I'm making this up as I go" - Indiana Jones

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