The Jaws movie poster – and its image of a lone swimmer being approached from below by a giant great white shark – is one of the most famous in all of cinema. This is the story of how the poster was created and its impact on Hollywood.

Written by , 16th April 2023

Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is a timeless classic. Based on Peter Benchley’s best-selling novel, it is regarded as the first ever summer blockbuster. It was also a box office smash hit on its release in 1975, and changed the landscape of Hollywood movies forever. One of the most recognizable aspects of the film is its poster, the image of a giant shark looming over a lone swimmer. The poster is a masterclass in minimalism, conveying the unseen terror of the film in a simple design. But how was it created? In this article, we’ll take a look at the history of the Jaws movie poster and how it was made.

The Jaws poster was designed by graphic artist Roger Kastel. Kastel was a prolific illustrator who had previously created posters for British horror Doctor Faustus (1967). And he would later go on to design the poster for another hit in The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Kastel was hired by Universal Pictures (specifically, the Jaws producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown) to create the poster for Jaws.

Doctor Faustus and The Empire Strikes Back

Roger Kastel’s poster artwork for Doctor Faustus and The Empire Strikes Back

The Brief

Kastel was briefed by Zanuck and Brown, who outlined the basic elements that needed to feature on the poster. This included a shark (obviously), a swimmer, and some indication of the location – the fictional town of Amity Island. The producers also Kastel the cover of Benchley’s book (designed by Paul Bacon) as a good source of inspiration. Finally, Kastel was given access to some early stills from the film and was able to watch a rough cut of the movie. This gave the artist a sense of the film’s tone, visual style and themes.

Peter Benchley's Jaws

The cover for Benchley’s novel, designed by Paul Bacon

Absorbing all of this information, Kastel began by sketching out some concepts. He tried various compositions, including one in which the shark was seen from below, with its mouth open, and another in which the shark was chasing a group of swimmers.

Jaws poster alterrnative concept

One of Kastel’s first concepts

Kastel then hit on the more minamilst composition of a horizontal water line separating the swimmer and shark. Kastel did a pencil drawing and, once happy, began to add color. He airbrushed the image, using a small spray gun to add paint. This allowed him to create smooth, graduated tones. It also allowed for finer details such as the ripples in the water and the texture of the shark’s skin.

“I just think it’s a great visual” – Roger Kastel, designer of the Jaws movie poster

Creating the Poster

To create the final image, Kastel used a combination of photography and illustration , giving the poster a photo-realistic feel. He hired a model – 24 year-old Allison Maher – to pose as the swimmer. Kastel drew sketches while Maher lay on a chair and mimed swimming and paid her $35 for the work. Kastel also took some reference photos of a taxidermy shark in order to get the shape and texture of the animal just right. And he took inspiration from a number of sources including photos of sharks and illustrations from National Geographic.

Kastel used only three colors: black, white, and blue. The black and white were used for the shark, while the blue was used for the shark, water and sky. Instead of using a specific color for the swimmer, Kastel added shading and highlights to create the illusion of depth. The swimmer’s pose was also carefully crafted to create a sense of tension and danger.

Roger Kastel's Jaws sketch

Kastel’s pencil drawing of the poster concept

The Reception

Once Kastel’s work was done, the poster was printed and distributed to cinemas across the country. The response was overwhelmingly positive, many praising its simple but effective (and terrifying) design. The poster instantly became an integral part of Universal’s marketing campaign.

Movie theatres were adorned with huge prints of the poster, and TV, newspaper and magazine ads all featured the image of the shark’s gaping mouth. And, since the first VHS release of Jaws in 1980, the famous image has invariably been used as artwork for case covers and inserts. The poster is as synonymous with the film as any artwork ever created for a motion picture.

Jaws poster marquee

Kastel’s design was seen by millions of movie-goers in 1975

The Influence

Today, the Jaws movie poster is considered one of the most iconic movie posters of all time. It has been reproduced countless times, and its influence seen in countless other movie posters, which have tried to capture the same sense of terror and suspense that Kastel did in 1975.

The poster for Steven Spielberg’s other monster smash hit, Jurassic Park (1993), bears similarities to that of Jaws poster, being very minimalist in terms of its composition and use of colour. And other shark or terror-in-water movies since have made clear visual nods to Jaws, from Deep Blue Sea (1999), through Piranha 3D (2010), to The Meg (2018).

Movie posters influenced by Jaws

Movie posters influenced by Jaws

The Legacy

The Jaws movie poster is testament to the power of simple design. Roger Kastel was, of course, an incredibly talented artist with a great eye for composition and color, and he was able to distill the essence of the film into a single image, conveying the terror of a giant predator with a few strokes and colors.

When the film itself was a critical and commercial success, becoming the highest-grossing film ever made at the time, Kastel’s creation became a cultural touchston and collector’s item for film fans worldwide. Original copies of the poster can sell for thousands of dollars, depending on their condition and rarity. Reproductions of the poster are still widely available, and the image is still used on everything from t-shirts to coffee mugs.

Capitalising on the movie’s success, Universal toured the original poster toured U.S. bookstores and movie theatres. The last time Kastel set eyes on it was at an American Museum of Natural History show in the late 1970s. From there it seems to have vanished, Kastel saying years later: “I don’t know if it was stolen or thrown out but someone has it.”

In conclusion, the Jaws movie poster is a true masterpiece of film marketing. With its simple but powerful imagery, the poster captures the terror and excitement of the film in a way that few other posters have ever managed. Over the years, the poster has become an iconic image, instantly recognizable around the world. And while its influence can be seen in countless other movie posters, the Jaws poster remains a singular achievement by a talented artist that continues to captivate audiences today.

Jaws movie poster

The Jaws movie poster in all its glory