Open Letter: Stop Ripping Off Saving Private Ryan

March 23, 2012 — 17 Comments


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.)

Yours explosively,
Corey Atad


17 responses to Open Letter: Stop Ripping Off Saving Private Ryan


    There is little innovative in Saving Private Ryan. Part of its appeal is in being so bland and ordinary that every piece of it is recognizable. Like a two hour pop song. And war movies are pretty vanilla to begin with.


      I think you’re letting you hatred of the film get in the way of reality here. Private Ryan is a landmark film in terms of modern action cinema. The methods it used weren’t all new, but things like the simulated tinnitus, the bleach bypass and the variable shutter were employed in new and defining ways. The battle scenes in that film were both extremely innovative and highly influential. Almost every action movie since Private Ryan has employed one or more of its techniques to create a sense of immersion. There would be now Bourne Ultimatum or The Hunger Games as they are without Private Ryan.


    Wait, is this a Saving Private Ryan thing? I’m sure it made it popular, but I find it hard to believe someone hadn’t used it before.

    But yes, the getting super quiet before getting super loud sound technique has been done to death now in action/war films.


      As with most things cinematic, I think the Russians did it first. There’s some Soviet war film from the 80s that did some crazy long on. Lasted for 30 minutes. There may have been a couple other minor films before and after that, but generally the technique wasn’t used. What Private Ryan did was really cement the technique alongside several others to basically become the definitive depiction of immersive war scenes. Nobody is ripping off that obscure Soviet film. They’re all thinking their scene will be as effective as Private Ryan, and it’s really annoying.


    Yes, we can hope for theatrical innovation, but so long as humans still get tinnitus from loud noises, it makes sense for directors to include that in their sound-editing post-exposion in a film that is heavily centered on a single character (and thus it makes sense to hear what they hear). I thought the use was more than reasonable in The Hunger Games.


      Your argument would make more sense if it wasn’t such a newly common technique. Movies pre-SPR apparently didn’t need to use it. But I agree that it was used well in Hunger Games. In fact, it’s almost always used well, because it’s an effective technique. Picking out individual films is almost useless. My problem comes not from the technique or it’s use, but from its overuse. It’s simply used too often. It’s kind of lost its power. Instead of feeling the shock, I just expect the ringing and then it happens and then it’s over.


      Wow! Talk about a posting knicokng my socks off!


      That’s an apt answer to an interesting question


    Although I generally agree about certain techniques being overused; I don’t mind this one being overused–mostly, because I can’t think of a better way to convey tinnitus.


    LOL, I have the same feeling with the shot of a driver from the passenger seat. I always get myself ready for the sudden thunderous crash that will erupt through the speaker of the theatre room.


    Lucky McKee’s The Woman used it pretty well (I was actually deafened, and I was watching a streaming screener on my laptop; in a theater it must have been overwhelming), but in general I hate it too. It’s a nifty thing but, like shakycam, has been overused as a shorthand, not a serious method of filmic communication.


    I had a very similar experience this very week. On a Wednesday, I saw the effect used in the concluding episode of the HATFIELDS AND MCCOYS miniseries. The next night I noticed it in THE RAID as you did. I’m so fed up with the tinnitus effect that I ended up here for some misery-loves-company validation.


    Can you list any more films that use the tinnitus effect? Cheers 🙂

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