Filmmakers love to exploit our deepest, darkest fears, and no fear is more prominent and timeless than our fear of sharks. Who can blame anyone for being afraid of a shark? Sharks are near the top of the ocean food chain, while humans are left defenseless as they try to survive in the water.

There is something suspenseful and terrifying about a large group of people at the beach as a shark lurks below the surface and this fear created a plethora of shark movies from classics like Jaws to cult favorites like Sharknado.

The trick to creating a good shark movie is by creating the perfect shark. How this aquatic villain is acquired will determine how effective the shark movie will be. When making a shark movie, there are only three ways to go about it: wrangling a real shark in the ocean, by using practical effects, or using a CGI shark to terrorize beach-goers.

 Atomic Abe Productions considers the pros and cons of each method while also finding other creative ways to showcase a shark film’s main villain. Check out the full video here: 

Using a Real Shark

In the early days of filmmaking, camera technicians found a way to capture footage of aquatic life. This invention allowed filmmakers to start incorporating images of sea creatures into their stories.

This innovation led to actors like Edward G. Robinson seemingly interacting with a tiger shark in the 1932 film Tiger Shark. When an audience sees a dangerous stunt like a man getting hit with a car or someone swimming freely in the ocean, a true terror builds. Using real sharks provides excitement and authenticity, but it comes with real danger.

When Steven Spielberg tried using a real shark in Jaws, a shark got its head stuck in the cage and began thrashing around. Eventually, the shark's tail got into the boat and ripped out all of the hydraulic cables.

Many independent films outside of the U.S. didn’t get the memo that dealing with real sharks could be dangerous, nor did they prioritize the safety of the animals or the crew. Instead, these filmmakers welcomed the idea of real danger in their films. Most of these films showed animal cruelty as well as their on-screen deaths in the finished product.

Sometimes, people were injured or killed during filming. In the 1969 film Shark stunt performer Jose Marco was attacked and disemboweled by an improperly sedated shark while the cameras captured the horrific scene. His death was used as a selling point for the film. 

The best way to capture live humans and live sharks is to edit two different takes together. Many actors will be filmed in a large diving tank while underwater cameras capture footage of sharks just being sharks. Creating the illusion of a human and shark sharing the same space can be very effective, but the scene can feel outdated and corny if the edit is done poorly. 

Shark_-_shark'Shark!'Credit: Excelsior Pictures

Using a Practical Shark  

Practical effects allow for a real interaction between the shark and the actor. Giving actors something physical to work with can create genuine reactions and make the performance feel real. Practical sharks can be anything from an underwater prop to a large, complex animatronic shark. These sharks are super safe, but the downside is that they look fake. 

Most mechanic sharks look bad. Their robotic movements and thousand-yard stares give it away very quickly. Another major con of using an artificial shark is that the shark could have technical issues. The shark from Jaws was notorious for breaking down constantly. It malfunctioned due to the salt water, waves, currents...

Even though a practical shark can look bad, there are a few ways to work around this issue; one way to solve this problem of how fake the shark looks is by not showing it. The golden rule of cinema is “show, don’t tell,” and the same can be said for the underwater menace. Keep the action underwater, away from the audience’s eyes, and let the audience fill in the horrors of the scene for themselves.

You could also meet the dummy shark with a dummy actor, making the scene bizarre and aware of its phoniness. There is no film rule saying that a shark movie has to be serious. Have fun with it, and lean into the campiness of the gag shark that makes a brief appearance throughout the film. People appreciate films that are self-aware and don’t try to hide the obvious shortcomings.

What is Sibilance? Definition and Examples for Writers'Jaws'Credit: Universal Pictures

Using a CGI Shark

Some of the best uses of a CGI shark have been in The Shallows, 47 Meters Down, and The Meg. These films use scientific research and handcrafted artistry to create a villainous shark that feels as true as can be.

Like the real sharks, a perfectly rendered CGI shark can elicit terror from an audience as it lurks just beneath the surface while keeping the cast and crew safe at all times. The best part about a CGI shark is that it can do things that no trained animal can do, like taking down an airplane, taking a bite out of the Golden Gate Bridge, or devouring a man falling overboard.

Not every CGI shark can be perfect. Rendering a terrifying shark like the megalodon in The Meg is an expense that some films can't afford. A bad CGI shark is easy to spot. Many low-budget movies use these types of sharks with full seriousness, and it is almost a laughable offense.

Realism seems to slip into a forgotten abyss when it comes to CGI sharks, and filmmakers lean into this idea of taking the audience into a reality far removed from our understanding. An absurd premise that goes on for an hour and a half can be a fun form of creature feature blended with science fiction. Most films that use a bad CGI shark are doing so intentionally and are just here for a good time. 

Sharks_-_cgi'Ozark Sharks'Credit: Syfy

No matter how you go about using a shark, make sure you’re using the shark in a way that benefits your film. There is no need to exploit the shark’s death or cause actual harm to the creature when practical and CGI sharks exist. So lean into what works for you and your creature feature. 

What are some of your favorite shark moments in film? Let us know in the comments below! 

Source: Atomic Abe Productions