Dear Lazy Directors,
It’s time to stop ripping off Saving Private Ryan‘s simulation of tinnitus. If you don’t know what tinnitus is, it’s that ringing sound in the ear often encountered in the aftermath of a loud bang or explosion. There were a few films that simulated this before Saving Private Ryan. The sound drowned out and was replaced by a very high-pitched ringing. The idea is to immerse the audience in the subjective experience of a person caught in an explosion. It’s a cool idea, and Saving Private Ryan used it extremely effectively.
Unfortunately, since Private Ryan, the technique has been used over an over and over and over and over and over again. It shows up so often that these days I expect it every single time something explodes really close to the main character. It has gone from unique and effective sound effect in the premiere of Lost and the opening of Children of Men, to completely predictable and annoying.
It’s bad enough that the shaky camera, high contrast and variable shutter speeds techniques from Saving Private Ryan have become inescapable in modern cinema, do we really need to be repeating the same damn reaction to explosions?
It’s quite sad that Steven Spielberg and his engineers employed a breakthrough way of immersing the audience in the horrors of violence and nobody has come up with anything better or different to replace it. The job of a director is to tell a story in a captivating way, but a great director is one who finds unique methods of conveying that story. It’s disappointing to see methods like simulated tinnitus still used as shorthand.
And if you don’t believe that it’s a widespread problem, last night I went to see two very different movies—The Raid and The Hunger Games—both of which had explosions followed by drowned out sound and a high-pitched ringing. That’s two movies in one night that used the same trick. We get it. It’s obvious. Why is it still being done?
I do see the value in employing shorthand tricks in cinema. In fact, cinema is full of shorthand tricks that audiences either understand naturally or have come to identify through watching lots of films. It how cinema works. The problem is that some shorthand tricks eventually do stick out and begin to feel cheap. Simulated tinnitus is one of those. Another is when we see a flat shot of a driver from inside the car on the passenger side. These days the second I see that shot my brain start predicting when another vehicle will suddenly come ramming into the side of the car. It’s a trick that worked a few times but has become overused to the point of annoyance and is practically a parody of itself any time it’s used.
So please, directors, stop being lazy. Stop using the tinnitus trick. Stop ripping off a revolutionary Spielberg film from 1998. Make your own revolutionary films with your own revolutionary tricks.
(And for heaven’s sake, stop making movies with senseless shaky cam.)