The Art of the Trailer Edit

Admit it…you love to watch the trailers before a feature film in the theater. I know I look forward to seeing what’s new at the movies, and the more exciting and compelling, the better. We used to call them “coming attractions.” When they are at their best, they make you want to go see the movie they are promoting; if they don’t work, there will most certainly be repercussions at the box office.

For me (in the screening room), it’s about a great sound design. Tracks that stick in your gut, and make you jump when it’s not expected. But when you cut great sonic style (which obviously includes music) against compelling imagery, dialogue, and maybe some star power, then I’m in. And if it works on me, it will probably work on you too.

I certainly don’t mean to overlook the work of the writer/producer in the overall scheme – they are crucial to the process, but that’s not the point.

The picture editing may be the first thing that pulls you in. Having been a film editor for many years in my early career, I understand this better than most, but as I progressed in the world of production and post production, and as the equipment got better and easier to use, the things an editor can do early in the process increased: visual effects, multi-track sound mixing, graphic design and more. Now, what leaves the cutter’s machine is often closer to the final concept than ever before, and it will inform the people in the chain as to what they need to do…from Foley to ADR, mix to pix and so on.  (The power of a great editor is undeniable.)

The editor, working in a dimly lit room, sometimes alone, screens and logs the raw footage, and starts the process of creating the message. As a producer and a director now, I would, of course, work closely with the trailer team to tell them what I want, (that’s the way it usually works) but a top trailer team will almost surely take that ball and move it toward the goal in a way that is best for the marketing objective. (And it’s still got to be fun, and cool, and persuasive.)

After all, it’s about entertainment.

Trailers and promos are little pieces of art that often can stand-alone. That’s why so many great trailers tease a movie that may not be as good as the promotion. (That is the first goal of the trailer…to get you in the tent. It’s the job of the movies’ quality to keep you there.)

In the TV world, we call them promos. They must do the same thing: engage the audience, excite them, and hopefully, they will change the viewer’s behavior…namely, watch that show, on that channel, at that time, on that day…not some other drivel.

So, the next time you watch a great trailer or promo, think of it as art, albeit art with a very distinct message…to watch what it’s promoting.

At this year’s SCAD Savannah Film Festival (October 27-November 3rd), I will be on stage with one of the best trailer creators in Hollywood: Skip Chaisson. He has worked on more than 400 Film and TV campaigns, and he can tell you how to make them work, what to avoid, and what you need to know to make them sell the product. Please join us as we screen some of his great work and ask the questions that are on your mind about “The Art of the Trailer Edit.” This is a one-time chance to pick the brain of a true legend.