Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Nevers and Maybes of Making Trailers

*Note: This is a post about trailers, not films per se. Do not take the following trailers as film recommendations, please, (unless I've done a positive review) since I haven't even seen some of these movies, so... yeah. Thanks :)*

I'm sorry, trailers have been on my mind recently, so here's a wonderfully random post on making trailers. Er, yes, well, enjoy.....?

Beware. This is a long and somewhat dizzying post. Proceed at your own risk.

For the movie my neighborhood made, Pirates in the Suburbs, we made a total of 3 trailers.

I discovered I liked making trailers.

If my plans for being a famous director never happen, I'll get a job making trailers.

Is it weird that I like to watch trailers? That I memorize trailers? That I try and figure out the storyline of an upcoming movie by watching the trailers?

(Oh, and as a sidenote: I sometimes make text-only trailers accompanied by epica music based on whatever screenplay/novel I'm writing to help me fill in holes in the story and get the creative storytelling juices flowing. It definitely helps sometimes, let me tell you! Make a trailer that includes several vital points of the story, stuff you already have figured out, and if you have a brain like mine, you'll try and fill in the rest of the story. That's what I do when I watch trailers anyway. Try it sometime! Of course, you may find it beneficial to read the rest of this post before making a trailer.)

From a "normal" standpoint, I think it is weird.

But looking at it from a moviemaker's point of view, I'm going to make the dangerous assumption that it's fairly normal. (Any professional filmmakers may correct me if there is a correction in order.)

A trailer is a short video that advertises the movie, essentially. It's made to make people want to see the movie.

That means that a trailer has to be engaging but not entirely satisfying. As far as length goes, between 30 seconds and 2 1/2 minutes, or somewhere thereabouts.

Throughout the course of making trailers and watching many many trailers, I've discovered that there is a list of maybes and nevers when it comes to trailers. So anyone that likes to make film trailers, this is for you, really.

Of course, the following may apply to book trailers as well, in general, but I'm not a big fan of book trailers and have not seen very many, so I can't really discuss them with much authority. However, a few of these things are good do's and dont's for trailers in general.

The following is with advertising the movie (and/or book) in mind:

Hold it. A couple things you should do, firstly.

Give a general feel or mood to the actual film. If it's a trailer for a thriller, don't make the it look like a warm, fuzzy comedy. (This is something that really annoys my mom. If a trailer is misleading, especially if it's an icky film that looks like a nice, warm fuzzy one, then people like my mother are really not very happy, and for a good reason. They'll go to see the movie expecting something that the trailer advertised, and end up watching/ seeing things that are really icky, or something that they didn't want their kids to see. Please do you best not to be deceptive as to the nature of the film.)
Hint at things, perhaps the climax, perhaps a neat sequence, or in some cases, really cool effects. But hint at things, give the viewers something to chew on, something to look forward to.
Make a good trailer. And have fun with it. Seriously. I know that sounds really, really cliched, but I really mean it: Have. Fun. 'Cause making trailers is pretty darn fun. 

Now, onto to the don'ts:

Never give away more than one  and a half major plot points. Generally, the inciting incident and/or the overarching problem. You give too much away in a trailer, then no one's going to want to watch the movie. 'Cause after all, they know what happens now.

Never use an entire clip. Let's say there's a shot that, in the final cut of your movie, is 7 seconds long. If you wanted to use it in a trailer, don't use the whole 7 seconds. It slows down the pacing of the trailer, even if the entire clip is short, using the whole thing somehow messes up the feel of the trailer. (Unless it's a dialog sequence, I'm thinking. But still do your best to not use the whole clip.)

And, showing an entire clip somehow ruins the shot when you se it in the movie, in some cases. Take Despicable Me, for example. Watch this trailer:

**Alert: My apologies, I've encountered multiple technicalities since this post was published, and most of the videos will not play. I'm so sorry! I'm working on it....**

Did you see that shot of the old guy riding 0.00001 mph and the little yellow minions ran ahead of him, then came back and stood there waiting for him? When we watched the film, that shot was in there. And I, having seen the trailers too many times, was expecting to see more of that shot than what I saw in the trailer. I was waiting to see more.

And you know what? They stuck the entire clip in the trailer.

And even if someone doesn't consciously register that they saw the exact same shot in both a trailer and film, I still think it has the same letdown effect. Just a theory. So, in short, don't play all your cards in the trailer. Maybe half a card..... um, well, anyway....

As a general rule, please don't use a shot in a trailer that you know for sure won't make it to the final cut of the film. 'Tis extremely disappointing for more people than I. Take this National Treasure 2 trailer, for instance:

Almost none of Riley's great lines make the cut. His "death and despair" speech is nowhere to be found. They used a lot of "spare" footage, as it were, in the trailers. There was a lot of coverage that they didn't use. And people that hang on every shot of a trailer, look forward to the movie, and then never see those shots in the film can be very dissatisfied.

Of course, if you're very confident in the fact the movie is good enough to make people forgive you, extra shots that won't be in the movie can work  in a trailer. Tangled, for instance.

The shot with Flynn Rider getting thrown out the tower window? *shrug* It was great for the trailer, but wasn't in the film. Meh, nobody missed it. The movie was good enough, and engaging enough, that nobody noticed or even cared. Make sense???

Do your best to keep the music appropriate: to the genre and to the level of "epicness." Music that is "too big" for a film/trailer will make the film/trailer appear cheesy and/or unprofessional. I couldn't find a really good example of this, but if shots seem to shrink below the weight of the music accompanying it, then the music is too big. Trailer-makers: You can take it down a notch. It's okay. It's a good idea to keep everything in perspective when adding the score; for the trailers and the film.

Almost never use the shots in order. Seriously? That's almost as bad as giving the whole story away.
Keep the viewers guessing! Always. Use a shot from right before the climax near the beginning of the trailer; use a shot from the opening sequence right near the end of the trailer; it goes on and on. Scramble the sequences. Mix it up, please! Just don't go crazy. Everything in moderation, all right?

Take this trailer for Seabiscuit:

Having seen the movie, I can guarantee you that those shots are from all over the film, out of sequence. Shots from the beginnings sequences are smack dab in the middle of that trailer. Did you see how engaging it was? How rich it felt? The intrigue? It made you curious.

There was still a general backbone to the trailer, so it wasn't just a mad scramble of shots, but you definitely get.... a collage. That's right. A collage of shots that enhance whatever narrative form is being used in the trailer (those being text or voiceovers or certain concrete, "narrative" clips).

Well, maybe you were not as moved as I could wish.... there are, after all, longer, and better trailers for this particular film. But do you get my point? Yes? No?

However, juxtapose that trailer to this one: the first 1:30 minutes of this trailer for Night at the Museum basically gives away the first half hour of the film.

Not a good idea.

Or is it??

Because this film is so... unusual, without that kind of introduction, a "regular" trailer with disconnected shots from the get-go would look like mayhem. In this case, those first 90 seconds were vital to the rest of the trailer, because it would not have made sense otherwise. And there were plenty of things that they didn't give away. But that opening 1:30 min. was what they used to draw you in and acquaint you with the story.

That doesn't work for every film, though, Most of the time, you would want to avoid giving away that much in sequence. But if your film (or book) is as whacky as Night at the Museum, then it's definitely a good idea to make sure that you don't lose people in the trailer.

That to say, sometimes, a trailer like Seabiscuit is more how you should go, though the rest of the time, a Night at the Museum approach is a very good idea. It all just comes through trial-and-error, thought, and experience. And your own opinion, frankly.

There's also the use of a "narrator" (voiceover) in a trailer which you have seen in some of the above trailers, and it's in this one right below. It's never a bad thing. Just make sure it enhances, and not distracts. 

Now, this is a wonderful trailer. About 2 1/2 minutes long, this trailer makes me want to cry.
It's for Billy Elliot. (Which I have not seen. I am aware of all the reasons that this film is rated R, but I assure you, the trailer is completely clean.)

The music choices made me want to weep, especially once the piano starts, near the middle. *sigh*

It's a beautiful trailer.

Now, you may notice the several sequences of dialog in that Billy Elliot trailer, and come to the conclusion that you should not use whole sequences of dialog (or otherwise), as it ruins it when the audience sees the whole film.

Well.... if it's a pivotal section of dialog, then yeah, you probably shouldn't let it out of the bag. But something like the dad asking why Billy's doing ballet, that's a revealing (in a good way) and useful sequence to stick in a trailer. And I'm sure they just used little sections from the whole conversation.

So... it just takes practice and thought and experience to figure out when it works and when it doesn't. And don't worry, I'm still learning!

And then, of course, there's the use of text (which is the equivalent of using a voiceover, sort of). Observe this trailer for The Patriot. (Also which I have not seen, but plan to in a few years.) The text section is at the end. (Warning: there are two kisses in the trailer. :P)

The section with text was a small part of the whole trailer, but using the text told a story there.

That's the other thing I realized today:

Forget advertising whatever movie/book you're making the trailer for. Just for a second.

Trailers are a whole 'nother form of motion picture art. You experience some things in trailers that you can't in the actual film. You can build up suspense, drama, and emotion in a way that you just can't do in a 2-hour film. And trailers tell stories of their own, really.

Trailers are really neat, people.
But how do I know what shots to use? You may end up fretting. How do I put them in the right order so they're dynamic enough? Which shots evoke the best emotions? Which sequences will work?

And here's the answer that I've come up with:

You'll know. And the story knows. And it'll tell you.

It's different from film to film, from person to person. There's no real guidebook to say, "Use this shot, and then use a shot like this, and then stick in a shot like that," so on and so forth. Sorry, nobody's here to tell you that. It's up to you. You choose. It's your call. But like books, and films, and stories in general: they'll tell you what they need. 

Something to help you out? Simple.
Go watch trailers. A lot of 'em. You can learn much by mere observance, young grasshopper. But, you must observe... study! Sit there like a couch potato you should not! Learn nothing will you that way!


*gets out of Yoda mode*

Anyway, don't forget: in a queer way, trailers are art, too. Really, really awesome art.


Wow. If you're reading this, congratulations! Thank you for enduring this very, very long post. You deserve an award. Hope it was helpful/beneficial, somehow... oh yeah, and have a great day!



Jake said...

Twas extremely interesting. I look forward to more posts like this in the future. :)

The Director said...

Really Jake?? Thank you! :D

Eldra said...

I agree with Jake, that was very interesting. I don't really have any intentions of making a movie/trailer, but this was a highly intriguing post. You did a good job explaining all the different points of a trailer.

Lainie said...

Good job babe... I agree and still love you... even though you have ruined, er, I mean changed the way I watch trailers and movies FOREVER.

Actually, you've taught me a whole bunch about movie making. Especially in the last two years (since PITS). You are one smart cookie, I must say :D

And no, you still cannot watch The Patriot, Saving Private Ryan, or the other three million movies on that crazy list inside your head!

The Director said...

Thanks, Eldra and Mom <3

Mom.... "I've got to get my hands on this watch list..."

Lainie said...


Everyone's Favorite Composer said...


Princess of Endor said...

This was an awesome post! I really enjoyed it!
I cannot stand the trailers where they give away the whole plot of the movie. It makes my mom and I not want to watch the movie in question.

Leia Skywalker Organa said...

I agree with Endor. I hate when they give away plot and tons of spoilers!!!

-Leia <3

Alexandra said...

What a great post! I just discovered your blog and love it. My brother is really into filmmaking, I just enjoy making fan vids...I was actually in the process of making a fan trailer and this has been invaluable! Thanks!

The Director said...

You're welcome Alexandra! I'm SO glad it helped you! That's what I wrote it for, anyway! *is very happy*

Hey, does your filmmaking brother have a blog? I would love to follow it..... :D