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Cinematography Techniques in Film Saving Private Ryan

Cinematography Techniques in Opening Battle Sequence of Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan is a war film with a difference directed by Steven Speilberg depicting the world war battles of Normandy. It was made in 1998 and was based on a true story, the main character playing the part of ‘Sgt. Frederick (Fritz) Niland’. However, some details were amended when making the film; for example the real mother of Sgt. Frederick was not a widow, nor did she receive all letters confirming the death of her sons at once.

On top of this, one of the brothers presumed dead was actually found later on as a prisoner and was returned home.

Saving Private Ryan, on the other hand follows the mission of a band of 8 soldiers sent to save a lowly Private to console his mother’s grief over the deaths of her other 3 children. The slight change in the plot, although not exactly true, helps to personalise the war by focusing on a group of main characters and putting us more in the position of soldiers, feeling the sense of loss and disheartenment when they lose a man, and seeing everything through their eyes, particularly those of the main protagonist ‘Captain Miller’.

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Unlike most traditional war films, which can often ‘glamorise’ war, Saving Private Ryan breaks the concept and instead focuses on the sheer carnage and the mental, physical and emotional damage war causes. Speilberg says ‘The last thing I wanted to do in this picture was use the war simply as a springboard for action-adventure.

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I was looking for realism all the time’. Most noticeably, the plot revolves around a group of eight soldiers who don’t actually believe in their mission, continually questioning-and making the audience question- the sense of it all.

This technique makes it much easier for a modern day audience to put into perspective, helping us to relate to the soldiers’ actual view of events, and unveils a much more personal side of the personality of war. Although everything in the scene looks completely chaotic and unscripted, Stielberg has actually carefully analysed every last detail: ‘What I tried to do was in this film was approximate the look and sounds and even the smells of what combat is really like. For example, the faded (de-saturated) colour, the jerky camera-work, the men running everywhere, all have been chosen for authenticity, and all are part of the term ‘Mise en Scene’. Mise en Scene is used from the very beginning, with the patriotic American flag taking centre screen, immediately introducing the film as a serious, nostalgic look at American history, and provides the sombre atmosphere you would experience in a graveyard.

A bugle plays in the background as the camera sweeps over the hundreds of thousands of gravestones, providing an overwhelming idea of the sheer number of people involved in the war, the people we are about to follow in the film. The day is dry and clear but the sky is gray which adds to the atmosphere of quiet mourning. Colours aren’t bold or offensive, just respectful and ‘clean’. One main character is introduced straight away; a war veteran, though we are not told his name. The old man is shown to be visiting the graves, presumably of is fellow soldiers, and is clearly finding it upsetting. The camera follows him walking through the graves until he finds the one and breaks down. This is an introduction to the introduction in effect, a snippet of present life, showing the ‘peace before the storm’. However, the plot picks up quickly, transporting the audience straight from the graveyard to the actual battle scene, land marking it as a place in history by using the graphics ‘Omaha Beach June 1944’ and making it believable to the audience because of the documentary feel.

By using this, Steilberg has given the audience the idea that what they are watching is going to be the truth, which makes the battle shots even more shocking to watch and witness. The first noticeable change in the scene switch is the whole atmosphere in general, but mainly the change in colour. De-saturated colour of greys is used to provide a grim atmosphere of a battle, and to age the film, again giving it a historical feel. This also means that when action picks up and explosions and gunfire are everywhere, the bright, and firey flashes of colour stand out even more against the gloomy background sky, sea and sand.

The costumes Stielberg uses are simple but authentic, plain enough so as not to distract audience from the action onscreen but fitting to real army outfits. He has chosen to personalise some characters though, for example, one protagonist stand out because of his religious cross necklace he wears around his neck, kissing before battle. Another- Captain Miler- carries a flask of water with hi, which he withdraws from his back with a shaking hand. Although at the time the audience believe this only shows fear, it becomes a recurring motif in the film, and makes him stand out as a character to follow in the battle.

However, there are always swarms of soldiers running on and off screen, stopping dead in their tracks and being blasted away, and various characters slip in and out of the main camera This is the way the main characters are established, the camera focusing on their performance right before the battle is starting to show their personality and facial expressions. By doing this, it is easier to relate by knowing they are real men with emotions- not just heroic fighting machines as many war films can make them out to be.

Personalising the men this way does make the following shots more shocking, because of the abruptness of the way they are killed. Overall, Steilberg uses the mise-en-scene successfully by capturing horrific images and getting us closer to all the men before showing their honestly brutal deaths. About the opening battle sequence, he says ‘Omaha Beach was a slaughter. It was a complete foul-up: from the expeditionary forces, to the reconnaissance forces, to the saturation bombing that missed most of its primary targets.

Given that, I didn’t want to glamorize it, so I tried to be as brutally honest as I could. ‘ Sound plays a huge part in the atmosphere of the film, and is primarily reliant upon diagetic sound: there is little dialogue and mostly noise from the battle itself. This is to represent how it was like for the soldiers; there wasn’t exactly much time for conversations when fighting in the war, despite what some films show, so by concentrating mainly on the sounds of explosions and gunfire there is more credibility and realism to the film. Saving Private Ryan’ begins with the non-diagetic sound of a military bugle, playing in the background of an American flag, Sound like this introduces the film as a patriotic, nostalgic and serious film, and also introduces the first scene of the graveyard ( this is use the of a sound bridge to blend scenes together). The sudden switch from this scene to the battle scene also links the two together, suggesting that many of the men involved in the battle were perhaps buried there in that graveyard, evoking respect and sombreness in the audience.

This is use of a sound bridge as well, as the camera zooms into an elderly Private Ryan’s eyes the sound of the bugle fades to the crashing of waves , to take us straight to the setting of the battle. The diagetic sound of the noisy waves contrasts to the peace of the graveyard, and the shouts of the men contrast to the respectful silence in the previous scene. As the men are waiting nervously for the battle to start and the boat door to open, instructions are shouted, though it is unclear what exactly these are.

This is completely deliberate-though annoying for the audience- as it puts you in the place of the soldiers and builds up the growing atmosphere of mystery and uncertainty. As soon as the doors of the Higgins boats open, there is an immediate explosion of gunfire noise, and bullets hitting flesh. Steilberg tried to make everything as real as possible and so shot bullets at pigs carcasses to really recreate the familiar but terrifying sounds of a battle.

He doesn’t just use constant gunfire though; as the men dive off the boats into the water, the sound and camera follows them, and the sound becomes muffled and muted under the water, except for the bubbling of it, which shows the desperation of the men drowing under the impact of their heavy gear. Even underwater though, the bullets still zap through to the men, which makes the audience realise that in a battle, there is nowhere they can hide to be safe. Throughout, the diagetic sound of gunfire dominates scenes, though there are other intervals in which Steilberg ceases it to enable the audience to concentrate on other things.

For example; halfway through, the Captain is shell-shocked as an Image 2: soldiers shouting to Captain Miller for help Show the desperation of the situation as even the Man in charge is helpless. explosion occurs right near him, and the sound is again muted as if to get inside his persona and experience it through his eyes. At this point the audience get a chance to look round at various, individual snapshots of the battle: men crying, screaming, explosions. A man shouts out to him ‘What now Sir?? ‘ which we only know from lip reading, but Captain Miller stays shocked and confused.

It is times like this in the scene that makes the viewers realise how chaotic everything was, the fact that the man who was supposedly in charge can’t give out instructions, let alone hear others. This is shocking for the audience because they see how helpless the soldiers were in combat like this. Towards the end of the scene, the relentless gunshots and bullets go quieter for a moment, as a sniper waits to take his shots. There is a moment of quiet, and we hear him muttering prayers and bible quotes. This keeps the audience alert to everything, shows the different parts people had to play.

Camera techniques are extremely effective in the film, being jerky and with the characters all the time. Steilberg quotes ‘I wanted to hit the sets much like a newsreel cameraman following soldiers in to war’ and this was certainly achieved. Everything is always jerky, like the viewpoint of one of the running, uncertain soldiers, to make the audience relate the film to a news documentary and this is achieved with the use of unsteady, handheld cameras. By linking the two in viewer’s minds, the plot seems realistic, like it actually would have been featured on the news at one point.

This is good use of intertextual reference, to make things easier to understand and grasp the concept of to a modern day audience; to make it easier to put events into context by comparing them to something as serious and solemn as the modern day news . Steilberg therefore makes the opening sequence shocking and realistic because of the familiarity of the newsreel type cameras, and the horrific images of men dying in agony are even more disturbing. Steilberg uses many different camera angles, each being used at different times to gain full impact of the scene.

For example, the scene starts with a long shot of the men on the boat, and occasionally switches to close-ups of individual men’s faces to personalise it slightly, otherwise looking like the men are so uniform and similar, we can’t relate to them. The close ups of the men’s faces gives us an idea of the fear and individual emotion they are experiencing: some are praying, some are being sick, some are kissing religious necklaces- all make the men stick in our mind’s one way or another. The action starts suddenly and shockingly, the blunt gunshots killing men so simply and easily it sees unreal.

Blood is splattered unsympathetically onto the screen, which makes the audience again feel like they are there in action with them. There is instant chaos. We are shown where the chaos is coming from as well, as a high-over shoulder shot of the Germans is used. It seems unreal to think that those single men with the machine guns can cause such a commotion and such loss of life to the poor American soldiers down on the beach. In comparison to the Americans, the Germans have it incredibly easy, and the long shot makes the beach seem much smaller than when we are down there with the Americans.

Speilberg makes it look almost as if the Germans are simply playing a violent game, shooting at the desperate soldiers without hesitation or mercy. This is all deliberately done, as Spielberg wants us to see the obvious power advantage the Germans had. We, in turn, become anxious for the chance the Americans have. As the men move to the water, the cameras follow them and focuses on close-up shots of men dying, not even in action, but drowning with the weight of their heavy army gear.

This is done to show the fear and desperation in their faces, as they cry out but only bubbling water coming out. Luckily, Captain Miller emerges and a tracking shot follows his action so we are always in the same position as him, always with him. For example, when he is shell shocked, the camera slows down, everything in slow motion, and instead of focusing just on his facial expressions and eyes(always the eyes) we are shown a number of different scenes of the battle we hadn’t had a chance to mull over before then.

Horrific images of men injured, helpless and groaning are shown, explosions we can see but the victims can’t, making us want to snap out of it and help them, but the Captain stays in shock. These are all also mostly close-up shots of the faces to, to make it again more personal. As there is another shaking explosion, the camera shakes with it, and the Captain is finally awoken from his dream like (nightmare) state. There is another over the shoulder shot used towards the end of the scene, when the American soldiers eventually start to gain an upper hand.

They are right beneath the German machine guns, but although they are closer than they’d ever been before, the over shoulder shot shows the audience how much further they still had to go, and therefore how much more horror they would still have to endure. It also doesn’t give a full view of what they’re looking at, but uses a small mirror which is irritating and uncertain, but again puts us in the position of the unknowing soldiers. Whilst all this is happening, the sniper is down on the rocks, carefully aiming a shot at the germans, a shot that could end the battle for everyone.

Jump cuts are used again from the sniper and his cool, calm air and the chaos and screaming at the beach. Shots of men crying and screaming and writhing are shown, to emphasise the sniper’s importance and how this character could be the only hope for the American soldiers. This technique builds up tension, but makes us immensely relieved when he aims successfully, knowing that the end is almost here. The last notable camera technique used is at the end of the battle, when the soldiers have gained the upper hand and taken control of the beach.

The men are shocked at themselves, captain Miller’s hand is shaking again- a sign the battle is over, linking it to the start and making you think how much has happened in that short period of time. The Jewish soldier breaks down crying, a close up being used to portray his emotion and how soldiers still felt emotions too: they had just killed a group of Hitler’s Youths, boys that could have been the same age as their own children. With this in our minds, one of the soldiers speaks out loud, both to himself and Captain Miller the ironic line “That’s quite a view.. and we are given a chance to reflect over everything that has gone on in the rushed, but so drawn out battle of Omaha beach. The camera sweeps down over the beach, slow motion, calm and steady, with just the sound of a military bugle (again) and the now peaceful waves. The bugle reminds the audience of the graveyard scene, how these men were probably buried there right now. This period of time gives us a chance to get an idea of the overall carnage and reflect things.

On the beach there are shots of people crying, the waves calmly washing over dead bodies, everything so calm and peaceful its almost like nothing ever happened. The final shot of the scene and carnage of the battle lingers on the backpack of a specific soldier, with the words ‘S. Ryan’ printed on his back. This creates mystery as the audience are reminded of the films title, and wonder what his significance is, a way to keep their attention, if the harrowing action packed battle hasn’t already managed to do that.

There isn’t much editing used in the starting scene, and Stielberg prefers mainly to use just a continuous shot of the beach, with only occasional jump cuts between Captain Miller, the sniper, and individual and different shots of various atrocities happening. These jump cuts between the german’s and American’s enable the audience to witness the battle from both points of view, to prevent any biased views given that Speilberg is American.

It also enables the audience to put themselves in the same position as the troops and see themselves what they were having to deal with. Again, the words ‘Omaha Beach June 1944’ are edited, and this is for the newsreel/documented event effect, which makes everything more shocking for an audience. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the film, despite its not so endearing theme and horrific content. Speilberg started the film with a violent, shocking scene so as to surprise the audience, particularly with the contrast of the peaceful scene before it.

Although I don’t think anything could prepare you for scenes like the one this film held, the Omaha Beach battle certainly gave me an idea of the awfulness and terror of war and therefore the following events in the plot. In response to the main question, I did find the opening scene-and whole film- shocking, but I am not sure how realistic it was, and I don’t think anyone can judge it unless they have been in that situation themselves. Speilberg makes it as realistic as possible though, particularly with the use of the hand held cameras, and throughout the audience will have felt extremely close to all the action.

It is an excellent introduction to the film because of the action, not just Captain Miller’s, but other soldiers who the audience are later introduced to. Speilberg always had chaos on screen and there was never a dull moment; as dull as a moment can be in a battle. This film was a great award winner, and stood out from other films because of the emotions it could provoke in people, and the highly effective directing skills of Steven Speilberg. A fantastically, depressingly, shocking and realistic war film.

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Cinematography Techniques in Film Saving Private Ryan. (2020, Jun 01). Retrieved from

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