To give 'Saving Private Ryan''s opening battle scene its guts and glory, Steven Spielberg drafted a crack artistic team
Boot camp for the audience,” Steven Spielberg has called it. And like a drill instructor gut-punching a raw recruit, the director opens Saving Private Ryan with a 25-minute D-Day invasion sequence that works over audiences with brass knuckles. More ferocious than any stretch of any other war movie ever made, the sequence brilliantly accomplishes a shrewd dramatic objective — to dress up a fictional story in utterly believable, documentary-real guise.
Of course, the 51-year-old Spielberg wasn’t the sole tactician. Hollywood’s supreme commander relied on three first-rate allies to help him diagram this bleak vision: cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, 38 (whose first collaboration with Spielberg, Schindler’s List, brought him an Oscar); picture editor Michael Kahn, 63, who’s pieced together every Spielberg film since 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and won two Oscars doing it; and sound designer Gary Rydstrom, 39, who’s created such varied aural landscapes as the jungles of Jurassic Park and the watery corridors of the Titanic (Oscar tally so far: five). Below, each discusses his role in shaping one of the most powerful scenes in film history.
Starting a War
While poring over mounds of historical research in tandem with Spielberg, lensman Kaminski decided ”the goal was to shoot like a bunch of actual combat cameramen,” he says. He found particular inspiration in the photographs of Robert Capa (see next page), whose D-Day images haunted Kaminski because ”you feel that these people are already dead.”
To evoke Capa’s aura, Kaminski’s team hit the beach with shaky, handheld cameras, letting their focus go fuzzy and mixing up exposure levels and lighting conditions ”so there wasn’t any optical continuity. We wanted viewers to feel completely disjointed from image to image … like the camera is one of the soldiers, going up and down, hiding, afraid it’s going to get shot.”
Kaminski and Spielberg briefly considered filming the entire movie in black and white, but realized monochrome would blunt the impact of all the blood. Instead, they mimicked the bleached look of color combat footage shot during WWII. Stripping the lenses of protective coatings flattened the dark-to-light range, turning blacks gray and blue skies white; then, to further stifle any bright Technicolor tones, release prints went through a chemical process (used on other movies, including Amistad, but rarely to such extreme degrees) that drained almost all of the color present in the original negative.
Some of the movie’s most appalling images of bodies blown apart in midair required both computer graphics and on-set stunts. The severed leg coming off one soldier, for instance, involved an animated spray of gore laid over footage of a real-life amputee stuntman. According to Kaminski, the bulk of the CG work done by George Lucas’ ILM effects shop was to enhance gun-muzzle flares and to digitally create dozens of ships and barrage balloons for long shots of the Allied forces massing at the shoreline. ”Of course it’s possible to assemble real ships,” says Kaminski. ”But that would be a James Cameron movie.” (Ryan cost $65 million; Titanic weighed in at $200 million.)