What Do ‘Jaws’ and ‘Blackfish’ Have In Common – Apart From the Ocean?

Media aesthetics is a process of examining media elements such as lighting, picture composition, and sound—by themselves or jointly—and a study of their roles in manipulating our perceptual reactions, communicating messages artistically, and synthesizing effective media productions (Nack Dorai Venketesh, 2001)

I remember the first time I saw Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster movie Jaws at the cinema in 1975, I was with a friend from school and my mother. I still recall the fear that rose in my stomach whenever the ocean came into view, already established as a dark and menacing place, home to dangerous creatures of the deep. This feeling of suspense was heightened by the incredibly terrifying music score written  by John Williams (according to a 2005 survey by the American Film Institute, [it is] among the 10 most memorable scores in movie history). Whenever that music started or you saw the ocean, or both, you just knew it was going to be bad or that someone would be hurt or killed. In the scene where the shark was devouring Quint (Robert Shaw), everyone in the audience was screaming and I had to defend myself from my supposed friend Tracey, who was hitting me vigorously with the rolled up poster she had purchased before the movie. The message one gets from Jaws is very simplistic. Shark equals bad, man equals good, and of course don’t ever go swimming again.

John Williams has made our movie more adventurous and gripping than I ever thought possible.
— Steven Spielberg, writing about Jaws in 1975

“Blackfish”, the First Nation’s name for Orca, is a documentary released in 2013, about the capture and confinement of orca also known as killer whales by marine parks predominantly in the United States. The themes running through Blackfish are simple and powerfully presented – free the Orca. However, the issues are complex and surrounded by the marine park propaganda. The first time I watched ‘Blackfish’ I found it emotionally disturbing and I had a sense that what I was seeing was wrong on many levels. From the beginning I built an emotional bond with these magnificent mammals, the treatment of which could only be described as torturous and barbaric. I also connected and empathised with the orca trainers who were portrayed as having developed deep and complex relationships with their partnered orcas involving trust, understanding and friendship. Of course, this is exactly how I was supposed to feel.

Computational Media Aesthetics: Finding Meaning Beautiful  takes a look at the methods of accessing and analysing the ‘tried and true’ cinematic techniques including visual, aural, and emotional impact within the traditional structure/framework of the film industry. Basically the stuff that makes us laugh or cry, scream or just be thoughtful when watching something. This data is then used to create computer algorithmic systems and ‘computational analysis of the [cinematic] principles that have emerged underlying their manipulation in the creative art of clarifying, intensifying, and interpreting an event for an audience'(Nack Dorai Venketesh, 2001). In other words it is an easily accessible database of cinematic techniques which is loaded to the hilt with everything known about film making and can categorise and analyse and come up with scenarios as well. My layman’s understanding is that you enter something you want like “Happy audience” and the program presents you with any number of cinematic procedures that will help you achieve the desired result.

So what do Jaws and Blackfish have in common – apart from the ocean? There was something about Blackfish that triggered my memory of Jaws. The fishing boat used to hunt the shark was named ORCA but that was not something I had even remembered. Jaws is of the horror/thriller genre and Blackfish, a documentary. But yet there is a similar sense of danger, that something is wrong and that someone is going to be hurt or even killed. Both Jaws and Blackfish target our senses and our emotions in order to create a desired effect. Jaws was made as a money-making venture ($191,741,308 in the year of release US alone) whilst Blackfish endeavours, with a large degree of success, to produce an emotional response in the audience igniting their empathy for a specific purpose – to put an end to Orcas being captured and held in captivity. In order to do this they have used a number of established, successful cinematic techniques. However, will this  be enough to ‘change the way a corporate icon[such as Seaworld] does business?




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