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How Malfunctioning Sharks Transformed the Movie Business

Before Steven Spielberg became Hollywood royalty, he was just another young director with a giant shark problem.

It was July 1974, and 27-year-old Steven Spielberg was sure his career was over. He’d been on location in Martha’s Vineyard for three months, waiting for the overdue star of his new movie Jaws. And now, as he watched the first lunges of the $250,000 mechanical shark in action, Spielberg’s heart sank. The beast was anything but menacing. His eyes crossed. His teeth were too white. His jaws didn’t close properly. And he had a big dimple that made him look like Kirk Douglas.

The shark was just the latest of Spielberg’s setbacks.

Before Jaws, movies weren't shot on the ocean. Hollywood studios simply tossed a boat in a tank and projected moving scenery behind it. But Spielberg wanted realism. And he paid for it. Boating mishaps and near drownings had almost killed several cast and crew members.

Rough waters and drifting tides made for chaotic filming. Most days, once the crew had anchored the 12 tons of rigging into place and waited out unwanted boats on the horizon, Spielberg was left with just two hours of afternoon light to shoot. As Spielberg burned through his $4 million budget and 55-day shooting schedule, the cast and crew turned mutinous. Angry locals left dead sharks on the production office’s porch. Studio execs worried the film wouldn’t deliver. And Spielberg lived in constant fear of having the plug pulled. Word in Hollywood was that the young director was finished. But Spielberg, who felt “like Captain Bligh” on a sinking ship, was determined to complete his movie, shark or no shark.

A Picture Book of Fears

When a Long Island fisherman caught a 4,500-pound great white in 1964, author Peter Benchley took notice. “What would happen if one of those things came around and wouldn’t go away?” he asked. Ten years later he turned the idea into the bestselling novel Jaws. Benchley’s book sparked an immediate bidding war in Hollywood, with Universal coming out on top—all before it even hit shelves.

Spielberg wasn’t the studio’s first choice as director. Universal initially approached Dick Richards, but when Richards kept referring to the story’s predator as a "whale,” the producers lost patience. Enter the young and ambitious Steven Spielberg. His résumé included more TV movies and episodes of Columbo than feature films. And his one stab at the big screen, The Sugarland Express, had drawn critical raves but tanked at the box office. Still, the suits were impressed by his confidence. Spielberg’s vision for Jaws was part high adventure, part horror: “a picture book of fears, phobias and anxieties.”

Spielberg had his own doubts about the project. As a new director, he had art-house aspirations and dreamed of making critically acclaimed films. But he knew that one more flop would torpedo his career. He had to make Jaws a blockbuster.

To do that, he needed a truly terrifying shark. Producers wanted Spielberg to hire someone to train a great white—an impossibility. The director toyed with rubber props before ultimately deciding the only real answer was to build a remote-controlled mega-shark—a 25-footer that could swim, leap in the air, and munch on human prey. Every special effects company in Hollywood called the task impossible. Undeterred, Spielberg lured effects guru Bob Mattey out of retirement. Famous for designing the giant squid in the 1954 film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Mattey assured the director he could build the perfect monster.

With three sharks in production (collectively nicknamed Bruce, after Spielberg’s lawyer), Spielberg focused on the screenplay, which had gone through four writers and five drafts. The script was still unfinished as shooting began, so Spielberg hired his friend Carl Gottlieb to do the final polishing on set. Though it made the studio nervous to use a sitcom writer whose credits included The Odd Couple and All in the Family, Gottlieb proved to be one of the movie’s secret weapons.

Each night he sat with stars Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw, taking notes as they improvised unfinished scenes. In Gottlieb’s hands, a straight monster flick became a character-driven film. And many of the flick’s most memorable lines—including “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”—came out of his process.

During the first three months of production, Spielberg focused on bringing fictional Amity Island to life. Whether orchestrating hundreds of extras through a beach panic scene or refereeing an off-screen battle of egos between Shaw and Dreyfuss, the director remained calm and confident. But as he prepared to take his cameras onto the high seas, one question remained: Where was the shark?

What Would Hitchcock Do?

When Mattey finally delivered Bruce, Spielberg began to panic. On its first day on the job, the shark promptly sank to the bottom of Nantucket Sound. Within a week, saltwater had eroded Bruce’s electric motor, and he had to be refitted with a system of pneumatic hoses. Every night, Bruce also had to be drained, scrubbed, and repainted. Even by diva standards, Bruce was high-maintenance.

“I had no choice but to figure out how to tell the story without the shark,” Spielberg said. “So I just went back to Alfred Hitchcock: ‘What would Hitchcock do in a situation like this?’ ... It’s what we don’t see which is truly frightening.”

The idea of the unseen enemy completely changed the film’s direction. It shapes the opening scene where a girl goes for a midnight swim and becomes the shark’s first victim. We see her legs underwater. We hear the ominous notes of John Williams’s score. And then we watch as she’s yanked down and dragged violently through the sea. The crew achieved this terrifying effect by tying ropes around actress Susan Backlinie, then playing a game of aquatic tug-of-war.

The sidelined shark also prompted Spielberg’s creative use of the ocean itself. He wanted the water lapping at the lens to make the audience feel like they were not only “in the ocean, but about to drown.” Cameraman Bill Butler invented a “water box” with glass windows that allowed cameras to be submerged. Gottlieb deepened the constant state of anxiety by stirring humor into the horror. Almost every appearance of the shark comes directly on the heels of a joke—the careful orchestration of screams, laughs, and foreboding silence keeps the audience emotionally off balance.

An exhausted Spielberg finally returned to Hollywood 159 days and nearly $8 million later. But his work wasn’t over. With the help of veteran editor Verna “Mother Cutter” Fields, he pieced the movie together. The New England weather haunted him—the wildly varying light and changing skies made for endless headaches as they matched footage. Massive reels of Bruce had to be cobbled into cohesive bursts of terror. To add an extra scare, Spielberg reshot part of one scene in Fields’s backyard pool, dumping powdered milk in the water to approximate the murky ocean. But even after finalizing the film, Spielberg doubted the results. Would his shark movie scare audiences, or would it be the “laugh riot of ’75”?

Legacy

Spielberg didn’t know it, but his malfunctioning sharks were about to radically alter Hollywood’s business model. All the shooting delays meant that Jaws couldn’t hit its planned release date, right in the heart of 1974’s lucrative Christmas season. Instead, Universal made the gutsy call to hold the film until summer, a season that had traditionally been the dumping ground for cinematic afterthoughts.

Then something unbelievable happened. Test screenings that spring drew such positive reactions that MCA/Universal’s stock price shot up by several points. Certain that it had a hit, Universal seized the momentum with a marketing blitz. Studios had always shied away from using expensive television spots to market films, but Universal dropped an unheard-of $700,000 to saturate prime-time programming with 30-second trailers.

The opening strategy was equally aggressive. Traditionally, high-profile movies opened in New York City or Los Angeles before slowly spreading to other cities and then trickling into small towns months later. Wide releases were generally reserved for duds; studios would cast a wide net to maximize ticket sales before negative word of mouth killed a film. But after the ad campaign made Jaws the summer’s can’t-miss flick, Universal went all-in on the release, and the movie opened in an unprecedented 465 theaters on June 20, 1975.

The gambles paid off—Jaws grossed $60 million in its first month. It went on to become the first film to top $100 million, eventually hauling in an astonishing $260 million. Critics were just as enthusiastic. The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael dubbed it “the most cheerfully perverse scare movie ever made.” The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and it won three other Oscars.

Spielberg would later say, “Jaws should never have been made—it was an impossible effort.” Yet all those frustrating days at sea and short-circuiting sharks got the young director exactly what he had always wanted. By creating the prototype for every summer blockbuster that followed, Spielberg earned the freedom to make artier films like The Color Purple and Schindler’s List. He went into his next project, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, armed with a bigger budget, more creative control, and the knowledge that sometimes the biggest obstacles were actually his biggest assets.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

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Food
Hate Red M&M's? You Need a Candy Color-Sorting Machine
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iStock

You don’t have to be a demanding rock star to live a life without brown M&M's or purple Skittles—all you need is some engineering know-how and a little bit of free time.

Mechanical engineering student Willem Pennings created a machine that can take small pieces of candy—like M&M's, Skittles, Reese’s Pieces, etc.—and sort them by color into individual piles. All Pennings needs to do is pour the candy into the top funnel; from there, the machine separates the candy—around two pieces per second—and dispenses all of it into smaller bowls at the bottom designated for each variety.

The color identification is performed with an RGB sensor that takes “optical measurements” of candy pieces of equal dimensions. There are limitations, though, as Pennings revealed in a Reddit Q&A: “I wouldn't be able to use this machine for peanut M&M's, since the sizes vary so much.”

The entire building process lasted from May through December 2016, and included the actual conceptualization, 3D printing (which was outsourced), and construction. The entire project was detailed on Pennings’s website and Reddit's DIY page.

With all of the motors, circuitry, and hardware that went into it, Pennings’s machine is likely too ambitious of a task for the average candy aficionado. So until a machine like this hits the open market, you're probably stuck buying bags of single-colored M&M’s in bulk online or sorting all of the candy out yourself the old fashioned way.

To see Pennings’s machine in action, check out the video below:

[h/t Refinery 29]

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Pop Culture
The Strange Hidden Link Between Silent Hill and Kindergarten Cop
Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

by Ryan Lambie

At first glance, Kindergarten Cop and Silent Hill don't seem to have much in common—aside from both being products of the 1990s. At the beginning of the decade came Kindergarten Cop, the hit comedy directed by Ivan Reitman and starring larger-than-life action star Arnold Schwarzenegger. At the decade’s end came Silent Hill, Konami’s best-selling survival horror game that sent shivers down PlayStation owners’ spines.

As pop culture artifacts go, they’re as different as oil and water. Yet eagle-eyed players may have noticed a strange hidden link between the video game and the goofy family comedy.

In Silent Hill, you control Harry Mason, a father hunting for his daughter Cheryl in the eerily deserted town of the title. Needless to say, the things Mason uncovers are strange and very, very gruesome. Early on in the game, Harry stumbles on a school—Midwich Elementary School, to be precise—which might spark a hint of déjà vu as soon as you approach its stone steps. The building’s double doors and distinctive archway appear to have been taken directly from Kindergarten Cop’s Astoria Elementary School.

Could it be a coincidence?

Well, further clues can be found as you venture inside. As well as encountering creepy gray children and other horrors, you’ll notice that its walls are decorated with numerous posters. Some of those posters—including a particularly distinctive one with a dog on it—also decorated the halls of the school in Kindergarten Cop.

Do a bit more hunting, and you’ll eventually find a medicine cabinet clearly modeled on one glimpsed in the movie. Most creepily of all, you’ll even encounter a yellow school bus that looks remarkably similar to the one in the film (though this one has clearly seen better days).

Silent Hill's references to the movie are subtle—certainly subtle enough for them to pass the majority of players by—but far too numerous to be a coincidence. When word of the link between game and film began to emerge in 2012, some even joked that Konami’s Silent Hill was a sequel to Kindergarten Cop. So what’s really going on?

When Silent Hill was in early development back in 1996, director Keiichiro Toyama set out to make a game that was infused with influences from some of his favorite American films and TV shows. “What I am a fan of is occult stuff and UFO stories and so on; that and I had watched a lot of David Lynch films," he told Polygon in 2013. "So it was really a matter of me taking what was on my shelves and taking the more horror-oriented aspects of what I found.”

A scene from 'Silent Hill'
Divine Tokyoska, Flickr

In an interview with IGN much further back, in 2001, a member of Silent Hill’s staff also stated, “We draw our influences from all over—fiction, movies, manga, new and old.”

So while Kindergarten Cop is perhaps the most outlandish movie reference in Silent Hill, it’s by no means the only one. Cafe5to2, another prominent location in the game, is taken straight from Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.

Elsewhere, you might spot a newspaper headline which references The Silence Of The Lambs (“Bill Skins Fifth”). Look carefully, and you'll also find nods to such films as The Shining, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho, and 12 Monkeys.

Similarly, the town’s streets are all named after respected sci-fi and horror novelists, with Robert Bloch, Dean Koontz, Ray Bradbury, and Richard Matheson among the most obvious. Oh, and Midwich, the name of the school? That’s taken from the classic 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, twice adapted for the screen as The Village Of The Damned in 1960 and 1995.

Arnold Schwarzenegger in 'Kindergarten Cop'
Universal Pictures

The reference to Kindergarten Cop could, therefore, have been a sly joke on the part of Silent Hill’s creators—because what could be stranger than modeling something in a horror game on a family-friendly comedy? But there could be an even more innocent explanation: that Kindergarten Cop spends so long inside an ordinary American school simply gave Toyama and his team plenty of material to reference when building their game.

Whatever the reasons, the Kindergarten Cop reference ranks highly among the most strange and unexpected film connections in the history of the video game medium. Incidentally, the original movie's exteriors used a real school, John Jacob Astor Elementary in Astoria, Oregon. According to a 1991 article in People Magazine, the school's 400 fourth grade students were paid $35 per day to appear in Kindergarten Cop as extras.

It’s worth pointing out that the school is far less scary a place than the video game location it unwittingly inspired, and to the best of our knowledge, doesn't have an undercover cop named John Kimble serving as a teacher there, either.

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