The art of the trailer ☛
I’ve always been a sucker for trailers. They invite you to experience all the excitement of a feature film in a couple of minutes, and you get to fill in the gaps with your imagination. As a kid I often found them more fulfilling than the film I’d come to watch. Some trailers even turned out to be better than the feature they were advertising.
Nowadays, is it just me, or have trailers got a bit samey? Most trailers are created by dedicated trailer production companies, and they often think well inside the box. The slow rise in self-distribution, however, means that independent filmmakers are starting to cut their own trailers, sometimes before the main shoot of the feature, in an attempt to lure investors and create buzz. But even they are rarely experimenting with the form.
So, how do you go about making a trailer for your film? Well, what sort of trailer are you making? Different forms of trailers are appropriate for different stages of the film’s life. The four kinds I can think of are, in order:
- The investment trailer
- The market trailer
- The teaser
- The theatrical trailer
Each of these is of a different length and takes a different form. Not every film needs all four, but few trailers work for more than one of these purposes.
These are what most people think of when they think of a movie trailer: 2-3 minutes of ‘good bits’ all chopped together to give you a sense of the movie, the result being shown in cinemas, on TV and online just as the film is coming out to inspire a trip to that place where popcorn is sold.
Structurally most trailers follow the shape of the film they’re advertising. They often start with a slow set-up of the first act of the story, followed by a faster and more general introduction to the second act and conclude with a flurry of images and moments hinting at how the tale plays out. This means we come away with a sense of the premise of the film, who the key players are and what they’re setting out to achieve. In this respect, a trailer is structured pretty much the same way as a movie pitch or a one-pager.
The first thing when working out what material to include, is deciding how much to reveal. The trailer is a sort of negative art-form: its job is to get you wanting to see what’s not there, rather than enjoying what you have been given. If it doesn’t leave you wanting more, it’s not working. According to a recent study, 49% of moviegoers believe that trailers reveal too much. If they come away feeling like they’ve now seen the best of the film, they’re less likely to come back for more. Remember to withhold.
It’s also possible to be too oblique. I remember a trailer for the Russian film The Return which played in art house cinemas around London for months. No matter how many times I saw it, I couldn’t for the life of me work out what the film was meant to be about. Intriguing an audience does require the disclosing of some information, just not too much.
But explaining plot is not the chief role of a trailer – they are advertising for stories, not stories in themselves. They must set-up a seductive world: a setting, both geographical and social – “In a world where…”. Cinema transports us to another time and place; your job is to convince the audience that they want to spend an hour and half there.
An effective trailer also obeys Wheeler’s first law of advertising: don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle. For Hollywood, this means selling star names. We’ve all seen trailers where the captions
have loomed larger than the title of the film itself. Rightly or wrongly, star power is considered to be the most important factor in getting the audience through the doors.
Selling the sizzle also means selling sex, the slightest promise of which within the film is always put front and centre in the trailer. But not just sex: any visceral excitement that we can enjoy on the big screen – explosions (but of course), choreography of dance or combat, velocity, epic grandeur. Anything that dazzles and overwhelms.
Of course, smaller independent films have less obvious sizzle than Hollywood movies. With little star-power and no explosions, these films need either to have an intriguing high-concept premise or they must rely on the one thing that distinguishes them: tone.
The tone is the personality of a movie – something individual, which will make the audience feel “that looks like fun” or “that looks a bit different”. Getting this across in a trailer is not always easy, but it is usually free. It can be established through comedy: the style of humour tells us a lot about the voice of the storyteller. But tone is most strongly signalled through the choice of music. There was a trend a year or two back to cut spoof trailers where the tone was wildly at odds with the original movie. My favourite was a trailer for The Shining, in the style of a Cameron Crowe comedy-drama. Kubrick’s images instantly lost their menace and became cloyingly heart-warming when set to Peter Gabriel’s ‘Solsbury Hill’.
As I said earlier, there’s currently too little willingness to play with the trailer format, but earlier generations of filmmakers were a lot more inventive when it came to selling their films.
That great showman Orson Welles made no reference to the story in his trailer for Citizen Kane, He merely introduced us to the cast, even though they were largely unknown, and the personality of the protagonist. Needless to say, the towering personality of Welles himself looms large, even though he, too, was new to movies. Hitchcock’s trailer for Psycho also sells the storyteller, rather than the tale. It sees the director himself giving a six minute-long guided tour of the set; narrative details slip out, but we’re left with no sense of who might be the protagonist – we just know that it doesn’t end well.
Of course both these examples are very dated in various ways, but at least they were having fun with the form.
Teaser trailers are usually shorter that the full theatrical trailer, perhaps 60-90 seconds. They tend to be a bit more imaginative in form, and sometimes quite oblique. This is often because they are made before the film has completed production, so there’s a limited amount of material available from the feature.
For this reason, teasers these days are often text driven. This summer, they tell us, one man will pursue his dream / make a stand / challenge an empire. Very decent of him. Text, by the way, is currently the dominant way of communicating directly with the audience in all forms of trailers. The gravel-tongued voice-over artists of Lake Bell’s charming movie In a World… are very much out of fashion.
If voice is used to tell the story, it’s much more likely to be dialogue drawn from the film itself. When Gavin Boyter and I tried a voiceover on the original cut of the trailer we made for our project Nitrate I have to say it felt a little dated – text on screen seemed to work better.
Teasers also often feature purpose-shot material, perhaps giving us a close-up tour of the superhero’s costume – have you guessed who it is yet? One of the more inventive teasers of recent times was a viral for Prometheus and took the form of a corporate film by the fictional Weyland Industries, promoting the android David. Another bizarre, but memorable, teaser – that for Trainspotting – featured a scene not in the movie with Ewan McGregor’s character tied to the train tracks and chatting to camera as a train approached. This bore no direct relationship to the story of the film, but said a lot about its left-field approach and dark humour.
Simplicity is often the teaser’s best weapon. The trailer for The Shining (the real one) is a good example: text telling us who’s in the film and who made it plays over a static shot of lift doors. Unnerving stillness, anticipation. Sinister music rises. A tidal wave of blood is unleashed which eventually drowns the camera. Simple but effective.
Next time I’ll cover those trailers that are made before the film is presented to the public: the market and investment trailers. Meanwhile, if you can think of trailers that really hooked you, or really lost you, I’d be interested to hear…
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2014
Edited by Dr Sara Lodge
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