Behind the scenes: The making of a trailer

Arriving in time for the trailers is all part of the ritual of cinema. Picture: Jon Savage
Arriving in time for the trailers is all part of the ritual of cinema. Picture: Jon Savage
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THERE’S a ritual to going the cinema which extends far beyond watching the feature itself. The selecting of snacks, the choosing of seats, the sense immersion in the quiet darkness. And of course, arriving in time for the trailers.

They’re just advertisements of course, but they’re the only kind we go out of our way to enjoy, looking them up on the internet and watching them on our mobile phones when sitting on the bus.

There are websites devoted to the appreciation of new trailers and fans who will make their own versions and post them on YouTube.

Trailers are so important to the film industry that they have their own awards show in Los Angeles; the 14th annual Golden Trailers will take place on 3 May and the inaugural World Trailer Awards will be launched at the Cannes Film Festival later in the month.

“I look at it like you’re opening a box of chocolates and you’re offering somebody one,” says Monica Brady, the co-founder of both ceremonies. “Basically you’re giving somebody something free out of something unique that you’ve made, something they haven’t tried before. You’re giving them a sample.”

There are around 40 agencies across the globe who are in the business of creating these free samples, with just a handful based in the UK. The most prominent of those is The Creative Partnership, a London-based agency founded in 1979 which creates film advertising – including posters and trailers – for everyone from Disney and Fox to Sony and Paramount. They have worked on hundreds of films including Being John Malkovich, Pulp Fiction and more recently Zero Dark Thirty and Anna Karenina.

They were also the only agency outside the US to work on Avatar ahead of its release, under incredibly tight security to ensure that James Cameron’s 2009 epic stayed under wraps.

As usual The Creative Partnership have submitted entries to this year’s Golden Trailer Awards, and they have won in the past. Their offices are stacked high in a skinny building in Soho with a rabbit warren of rooms housing 45 creatives, each of whom works on a specific element of trailer-making; from sound to graphics.

Tucked away in the basement is a man whose job it is to turn two hours of film into just two compelling minutes. In a dark editing suite, senior editor Nick Cavander cherrypicks all the juiciest bits of a film in the hope that his chopped-up version will persuade audiences to spend the best part of £10 to see the whole thing.

“It’s a little bit like writing a pop song,” he says. “Short, sweet and really hooky. In no other industry would you be allowed to take the best part and give it away.”

Cavander starts the process by watching the whole film before marking out moments he thinks will be useful: good lines of dialogue, head turns, love scenes, close-ups. He’s left with 20 minutes of film which he then needs to distil further, while staying on-message.

“The film is going to get a certain audience anyway, just from being out there so the idea is to try to reinforce to that audience that it’s going to be worth their time, that they’re going to enjoy it,” he explains. “But what everyone’s hoping to do is to grab an extra audience that normally wouldn’t go to see the film. If you’re working on a film that has a lot of action and violence, you want to encourage people who like those kind of films to come but what you really want to do is see if you can hook in some of those audiences who wouldn’t normally go.”

Studios think about this while they’re making the film and they throw in key contrasting moments and scenes for the trailer-maker to pick out. “They’re always there,” says Cavander. “They’re not pervasive, they don’t completely change the flavour but they’re just peppered in so that they catch people’s attention.”

Back above ground, I peer over shoulders in the motion graphics department, where – as with the rest of the building – film posters line the walls. These are the guys who insert the all important chunks of teasing text between scenes and the film’s title and “coming soon” in the final frames. They show me some recent work they did for the trailer for 3096, the film about the abduction of Natascha Kampusch.

“A big section of this trailer was just graphics,” explains Adam Oosthuizen, head of motion graphics, showing me the links featuring days scored off in a bare, concrete wall. “That can be quite effective. Part of the challenge is trying to fit the graphics in to whatever the theme of the movie is. On some jobs we’ll come up with 12 to 15 ideas.”

A focus on motion graphics is a particularly popular choice with “teasers”; a trailer for the trailer if you will. They are released far in advance of the film itself, are shorter and more abstract, offering a tiny glimpse of a big, hotly-anticipated release. It is now fairly standard practice for a big film to have a number of trailers as well as teasers, thanks in part to the popularity of watching them online.

Managing creative director of audio visual Mike Devery and a founder of The Creative Partnership has seen film advertising change dramatically over more than 30 years in the business. “When we started we were a specialist outfit and the film editors worked with 35mm,” he says. “The handling of celluloid and multiple magnetic tracks was a really cumbersome process and you can see it in the trailers that were made at that time; very basic. Most trailers then were made by the feature film editors and they’d run three to four minutes long, with entire sequences from the film.”

“When I was first working there was no such thing as a multiplex cinema,” adds Mia Matson, a partner and managing creative director of print, who joined the company in 1989. “It’s changed vastly. We saw the birth of video and the internet so its been quite a journey. YouTube can reach people who aren’t regular cinema-goers so the internet is a bit of a double-edged sword; it has eroded the revenues of the film industry but it also creates access.”

Despite technical advances, however, the fundamentals of trailer making have remained the same. Someone once asked Picasso how, when creating his horse sculptures, he could look at a big lump of rock and know how he was going to turn it into a horse. He responded that he simply knocks off the bits that don’t look like a horse.

Devery cites this anecdote when describing the process of making trailers: “It’s similar: you look at the two-hour edifice and in collusion with the marketing directors decide on the story you want to tell – often it’s about concealing elements rather than revealing everything – and then you just knock off the bits that don’t contribute to that.”

The bits that are left behind have to leave the viewer wanting more, but they also have to conceal twists and avoid giving away key plot points. The Creative Partnership is currently working on a trailer for foreign audiences for the recent thriller Side Effects, which is presenting numerous challenges.

“It’s a very twisty, turny thriller but there are certain plot specifics that you need to communicate in order to understand what’s going on,” says Devery. “The trick we’re having to pull off is to give enough information to understand the mechanics of the plot without giving away any of the twists. In [the American trailer] they played it so safe that it just came over as a generic thriller.”

It is thought that the first trailer was shown at an amusement park in New York in 1912. One of the concessions showed a serial called The Adventures of Kathlyn and at the end of it included a piece of film previewing the next instalment.

In the Thirties and Forties films were often previewed via an after-dinner speech at some black-tie event, generally delivered by the director or one of the stars, Sometimes they’d even outline the main plot points of the film on a blackboard.

The 1946 preview for It’s a Wonderful Life was a little closer to what we know today and went with repetition to pull viewers in: “A Wonderful Film” “About Wonderful People”, doing “Wonderful Things” while Hitchcock’s 1960 trailer for Psycho featured the director himself, giving viewers a tour of the Bates Motel, interspersed with clips from the film.

Today, trailers play a key role in the marketing strategy for a film and the internet has given them even more exposure. Last year the trailer for Skyfall was viewed 17.5 million times on YouTube while the one for The Dark Knight Rises got nearly 27 million views.

“Trailers are a core marketing tool within the film distribution business,” says Ross Cunningham, the head of marketing at Lionsgate. “The trailer is one of the first forms of communication that the consumer will engage with – it needs to tell the story and themes of the movie in the most absorbing manner possible, ensuring that a buzz is created, and that consumers are hooked and left wanting to see more.”

Sometimes a good trailer can surpass a bad film and there is a category at the Golden Trailers – the Golden Fleece – for the best trailer for the worst film. “Sometimes trailer cuts are better than the ones in the movie,” says Monica Brady. “There’s the classic example of [2005 film] Jarhead where the trailer maker cut a scene so tightly and beautifully but in the movie you’re waiting for that beat and it’s just not there.”

So what makes for a great trailer? Once it was fast cuts of explosions and love scenes with a booming voiceover, usually from Don LaFontaine whose instantly-recognisable drawl graced more than 5,000 trailers over the course of his career.

A helicopter flies low over the New York skyline, perhaps. Our heroes walk away from an explosion without looking back, trees are viewed through the window of a moving car, an oil tanker jack-knifes on a busy road. All film clichés magnified through the prism of trailers, and all looking a little tired in 2013.

Like anything, of course, there are trends. Voiceovers have all but disappeared, in part because they’re expensive. Trailers are getting shorter, music is being used more sparingly and sometimes hardly at all. Captions are sparse but carefully-considered. The old clichés are often avoided.

A trailer isn’t supposed to be great art; it’s supposed to put bums on seats. But, says Cavander, a really good trailer can do a bit of both: “its about creating something that’s entertaining and engaging in that time frame and it has to have a language of its own.”

Since a trailer does present such a tightly-edited version of a film, there are numerous approaches open to the people making it. This is why a trailer intended for American audiences can look very different to one – for the same film – made for British audiences.

“The two things are humour and intelligence, explains Cavander. “Americans go for a much simpler, less intellectual storyline and their sense of humour is much more about physical comedy, more obvious jokes. Here you have to be more clever, to have a little bit more style and grace. And you can do some darker stuff.”

He shows me a trailer he created for the cockle-warming 2011 Brit-flick The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It outlines just the bare bones of the plot, focusing instead on the film’s tone: warm, funny, uplifting. After two minutes I know a little of what the film’s about, but much more of how I’ll feel when I’m watching it.

Cavander says: “A lot of the dialogue moments were chosen to sound almost like the characters were talking about the film; ‘wonderful’ or ‘amazing’. The trailer doesn’t really tell the story – it’s all little vignettes or moments to make you feel good or make you laugh.”

More than that however, it plays an important role in the financial success of a project: “Some people say that while the trailer doesn’t make or break the film, it adds or takes away about 10 per cent of the revenue.” Monica Brady thinks that number – which is very difficult to quantify - could be as much as 40 per cent.

Money is what it all comes back to. In the end, says Brady, a good trailer is one that makes people buy cinema tickets. It’s done its job, regardless of how good the film itself is.

We know movies are nothing like real life. They’re a shinier, edited hyper-real version of the world we live in. And trailers are, in turn, a glossy, edited version of the films they promote. Life isn’t quite like the movies and often the movies aren’t quite like the trailers.