How to Edit a Movie Trailer
For me, watching the trailers at the movies is one of the best parts of a trip to the cinema. And if you’ve ever thought – that looks like fun – then the free training, interviews and tips in this post will help you along on your journey to becoming a trailer editor.
If you watch the Men In Black trailer below, which was accidentally posted to YouTube without music, you’ll get to hear just how ‘frankenbite’ like some of the lines of dialogue are, as well as understand what to look for when breaking down a film ready to promote.
If you watch the tutorials and free training from Film Editing Pro, you’ll learn a valuable system for breaking down a film, line by line and shot by shot. And if you watch the interview with David Yocum and David James Rosen, you’ll see that this level of preparation is essential to navigating a trailer through the long-haul through the studio system to the silver screen.
Other delights ahead include me breaking down a trailer US Poet Billy Collin’s course from Masterclass.com and a few thoughts on two very different trailers for Hobbs and Shaw and The Joker.
Understanding Trailer Structure
At the heart of understanding how to cut a film trailer is the knowledge of how to structure a film trailer to deliver the right the pacing, information delivery and final crescendo for maximum effect.
In this useful breakdown from trailer editor Derek Lieu you can learn how to construct a 3-act structured trailer and what each section is supposed to do.
In this breakdown, and most modern trailers, that’s:
- A Cold Open
- Act 1 – Introduction
- Act 2 – Escalation
- Act 3 – The Climax
- The Button
In this follow up trailer breakdown from Derek you can discover how to ask and answer (or not answer) the right questions in a trailer to keep your audience engaged and leave them feeling like they want to see the film and they haven’t seen the whole film.
As always, there is a huge amount to learn from knowing what not to do, as much as there is from knowing what to do.
For a bit of lateral design thinking and how to either align your film to or avoid trends in movie marketing, here is a really interesting video from Vanity Fair, featuring movie post designer James Verdesoto, from Indika Entertainment.
It’s worth checking out their site too see a collection of posters for documentary films, broadcast and even live events, as these have similar trends too.
Trailer Editing Tutorials and Free Training
A couple of years ago I put together this post on How to Edit a Film Trailer, which features some excellent trailer breakdowns, sizzle reels and tips for anyone looking to learn how to cut film trailers.
Now that I’m putting together this new post on editing trailers two years later, the free training from Film Editing Pro’s The Art of Trailer Editing is still the best I’ve seen on the topic.
This includes a free 3 part training course that gives you an excellent taste of what they have to offer in the full course.
Just drop in your email address here to get access to the free training to see what I’m talking about!
In just 45 minutes you’ll learn plenty, including some great insights on structure, music editing and especially sound design, which is so crucial to the impact of a successful trailer.
There are three free lessons totalling about 45 minutes of free training, which cover:
- Trailer Editing 101: The Secrets of the Craft
- Trailer Sound Design and Music Techniques
- Trailer Editing Behind the Scenes: Deconstructing the Cut
Check it out in more detail here and learn more about the course in my interview with it’s creators.
Film Editing Pro have also been much more active with their YouTube channel, which includes some great snippets of training from their full length courses.
I’ve pulled out four of the tutorials that most related to our current topic – trailer editing – but there are over 20 to be enjoyed right here.
For more info on Film Editing Pro’s full length courses check out these previous posts:
- The Art of Action Editing (Cutting fight sequences)
- The Art of Trailer Editing
- The Secrets of Creative Editing (with a strong focus on sound design)
In this first video you can get a sense of how much prep work goes into breaking down the original film into the potentially usable parts that might make it into the final trailer.
If you watch and listen to this trailer for the new Men In Black: International, which was accidentally uploaded to YouTube without any music, you’ll get an instructive lesson how both the content and pacing of dialogue within a trailer.
You’ll also get a sense of how bitty and composite the dialogue can be and still get away with it, when hidden under music and effects.
What’s worth noting is how spaced out the dialogue is, and the order in which the story info, jokes and action sequences are laid out.
This short tutorial helpfully explains some of the other key components in a trailer that you’ll need to work into your edit, such as studio logos, date and pedigree cards as well as copy-cards which help communicate the film’s story. You’ll also get a good explanation of what a ‘button’ is.
In this tutorial on improving the sound of your dialogue you can get a good overview of the things you should be utilising.
But for a lot more tips and tricks on better editing through sound design, check out this post which includes some great tutorials on things like creating reverb ring outs, audio compression settings, an in-depth case study on the sound design for A Quiet Place and a whole lot more.
Staying on top of what is in your edit and what is not is crucial to staying on top of both your structure and your content. In this short tutorial you’ll get a couple of helpful tips on doing just that.
For example, if you’ve colour coded your shots by actor in a trailer, and the feedback is to include more of a certain actor, you’ll easily be able to see a before and after comparison of how many more shots (in their colour) you’ve added to the timeline.
Similarly if you’ve ever wondered how ‘Hollywood editors’ layout their timelines, then this seven minute track-by-track breakdown in this post stuffed with screen-grabs of major film and TV editing timelines, will guide you through it.
If you need to deliver a trailer for DCP authoring and also need to include a two-pop and tail pop as part of that, this short tutorial from Cinematiq will guide you through it.
To learn a whole lot more about creating DCPs check out this previous post: How to Make a DCP for Film Festival Projection.
Interviews with Trailer Editors
I really enjoyed watching these two videos from a recent LACPUG evening on trailer editing.
The first features veteran trailer editor David Yocum, who demonstrates how he edited the trailer for Bohemian Rhapsody – among many, many other films, and composer David James Rosen who also worked on the same trailer.
You’ll learn a huge amount about both the intricacies of cutting studio trailers and the real-life experience of working in the trailer editing industry as well. Well worth a watch to the very end.
We are marketers more than editors or storytellers. The job is to put asses in the seats. – David Yocum
The second presentation is from Ric Thomas, who delivers an entertaining education on what happens to trailers when they need to be delivered for international markets, or when international films (non-US) need to be promoted in the good ol’ US of A.
Watch and learn!
Trailer Editing Timelines
Trailer editor Paul Cartlich shares some insights on his film trailer editing process, in this official Avid Timeline Tuesday blog post, along with some screenshots of his Avid Media Composer timelines, which visually depict the process and progress of his edit.
As a movie trailer editor, my timelines are probably slightly simpler than that of a lot of long form editors.
Short form is a very different process, and everyone works differently in the trailer world.
But I always like to know what music I’m using before I start cutting. It helps me determine a tone for the trailer and where my turning points will be.
It’s worth taking the time to visually un-pick, along with Paul’s comments, what’s happening in his timeline as the trailer at each stage.
Here is another trailer timeline from @ashleylynch, which also reveals how important detailed audio work is to making a trailer function correctly.
Editor Thomas Grove Carter, who you can learn A LOT from in this previous round up of some of his best talks and tutorials, cut a teaser trailer for Game of Thrones Season 6, a couple of years back and shared his FCPX timeline of the edit in this post on, probably the best FCPX site around, FCP.co.
Building up a rich sound bed was key to selling the mood of the film.
I know many people have reservations about audio in Final Cut Pro X, but I love it.
The speed of building up sound design is unmatched. I love the built in filters, the waveforms, the lack of track/collisions and the ability to time-stretch audio.
Thomas also shared a couple of helpful tips for working more effectively with audio in FCPX, including audio ring outs and maximising the power of connected clips, so be sure to pop over to read them, and watch the teaser in question.
Filmmaker Noam Kroll shared some really valuable insights for anyone cutting a short teaser designed for social media, in this article on editing his own promotional material for his independent feature film, Shadows on the Road.
For our social trailer, I decided to open it with some aggressive flashback shots, rather than easing into slowly as I would have with a theatrical style trailer.
And since we would inevitably be using title cards, I made sure to drop one in before the 5 second mark as well, to orient the viewer right away.
Text is a huge consideration with social media trailers, since the majority of people watching them will have their sound off.
Whether you do subtitles or tease the story with a series of title cards, you have to make that trailer fully watchable, even on mute… Especially on mute!
I think that Noam makes a great point about working in a 1:1 frame – most people won’t care or notice – how cropped your image is, and you need to think creatively about how to make the most of the opportunity, and constraints, presented by working within social media requirements.
As a quick aside, it’s worth mentioning that Noam’s LUT collections are some of the best I’ve worked with and his colour grading training course is also well worth taking, for anyone looking to learn a straight-forward and effective process.
Breaking Down Modern Film Trailers
In this entertaining and informative video from VICE News, you can hear from some of the leading voices in trailer production on the latest trends, procedures and composite elements that go into making modern trailers.
Well worth a watch, especially if you’re trying to create an original looking trailer that isn’t like everything else.
Something that’s a must read is Tony Zhou’s (from Every Frame a Painting fame) comparison of the US vs UK trailer for the all-female Ghostbuster’s reboot.
More specifically of the editing of the opening joke, and how a subtle change can heighten or diminish the comedy.
Editing really can make a joke funnier, or not and Tony’s article is packed with really helpful observations on why the two trailers differ – frame for frame – and the impact that has on the audience.
It’s an essential read for anyone who is cutting trailers, and especially those with jokes in.
The Editor is Responsible for the Jokes
My overall point in comparing these two examples is to bring up something that we never acknowledge: the editor of a comedy is as responsible for the jokes as any actor in the scene.
These two trailers were carved from the same footage, and yet the British one is substantially funnier than the American one. That’s talent.
In his great book “On Film-Making,” Alexander Mackendrick remarked: “Comedy is hard. Comic structure is simply dramatic structure but MORE SO: neater, shorter, faster.”
I would say something similar of good trailers; even though trailers are often full of clichés, the good ones have to be able to do everything that the movie does, except neater, shorter and faster.
The U.K. trailer managed to quickly establish the dire circumstances of the ghosts, the military and the city, only to deliver a well-timed joke, all pulled off in about 17 and a half seconds. Bravo.
Having put together a couple of posts recently on the superb Masterclass.com All-Access Pass – I can’t recommend it more highly! – I ended up watching a lot of trailers for their courses, which all use the same techniques we’ve been looking at in this post.
I wanted to take a closer look at this trailer for poet Billy Collin’s Masterclass on Reading and Writing Poetry because it’s a class about reading and writing poetry. How will they make that look enticing?!
But enticing they do make it look.
A few initial observations.
Pacing – The pace from the start is very quick. Fast, percussive music, quick cuts and a snappy rhythm all make it feel dynamic and exciting. The shot length is largely kept to a second or two, even if that’s just to jump cut within the same shot. The animation of the book titles is a great example of taking a showcase of the authors work, and presenting it in a snappy fashion.
Humour – There’s actually a fair few times that they cut the track out to emphasise a joke or a point of surprise. These breaks also allow the music to either kick in again, or change track to help add progression to the trailer as it delves into a more emotional and poignant realm later in the piece.
Titles – They bring in each of the titles (and cuts to black) with a cymbal riser, a slam or whoosh each time, which also adds another layer of energy through the sound design.
Cutaways – The creators do a great job of adding in a lot of macro close ups of his writing, doodles, notes etc, so allow there to be something to cut away to. Masterclasses do often have ‘activity’ (performing actions, teaching students, cutting to real life footage etc) but in this case the visual challenge is to present poetry reading and writing as a visceral experience.
If you watch through this trailer a few times, you’ll not only see the same kind of 3 Act structure, but you’ll learn a fistful of techniques to make, what could be a dull subject, highly engaging.
Check out more of the trailers and my reviews of Masterclass.com in these posts:
Here is the excellent trailer for the equally excellent class on Space Exploration from Commander Chris Hadfield.
Trailer Comparison – Hobbs & Shaw vs Joker
I’m not sure why but I thought it would be a good idea to compare these two trailers. I loved one (Joker), and I laughed (H&S) at the other, but I thought there might be some instructional things to pull out of both of them.
Granted, they are two very different films, targeting two very different audiences – remember it’s all about the marketing – but I thought that there were still some salient points to be made in the comparison.
First of all there is the length.
Hobbs & Shaw is a second trailer weighing in at a lengthy 3:35, whilst the Joker is labelled as a teaser but still runs for 2:25 – which feels more like a trailer to me!
To be honest Hobbs & Shaw feels like it’s showing everything there is to see – I’m sure there is more – but it’s possible that the first trailer was a little more restrained, and if you’re still not convinced they may as well throw all they’ve got at you in the second trailer.
The emotional impact of the Joker trailer is far more effective, although I suppose a Fast and the Furious franchise movie isn’t supposed to be selling me on the emotional arcs of the characters (will there be any?), but the end result of the overload of H&S doesn’t make me need to see the rest of the film.
Joker has artfully sold me on the world of the film, the arc of the central character and where it fits into the current throng of superhero/comic book movies and the kind of emotional anti-hero ride it’s likely to take me on. It’s less explicit on the plot than H&S, which spells out the plot word for word.
Music – The trailerisation (see the VICE video) of Smile Though Your Heart is Breaking makes for an excellent backing track for the Joker teaser.
What I love about this choice, is that they’ve not recorded a grimy modern cover of it (a well-worn path), but rather taken the original, juxtaposed it with disturbing imagery and then warped it as the trailer progresses. Adding in hits, strings and more to build to the climax of the trailer.
Structure – Both largely follow the cold open, act 1, act 2, act 3, button structure, but the cold open is much shorter in Joker. 9 seconds with a question and look, where as in Hobbs & Shaw it runs for nearly 45 odd seconds of jokes and punches.
Joker doesn’t really have a button, as there isn’t much ‘after title’ action, except the final line of the song and the smirk in the closing elevator. But still an effective final impression.
Interestingly Hobbs & Shaw doesn’t have a post title button, seemingly the whole helicopter sequence is enough.
Sound Design – Hobbs & Shaw heavily relies on the added hits (even on the face hits for the ‘Access Denied’ joke) as well a throwing in a few extra random sounds to make the cuts to the rhythm work with greater impact.
Joker is much more subtle (by trailer standards), sometimes even leaving room for silence or juxtaposed music – such as with the Arkham elevator shot with the guy screaming his head off but we can’t hear anything. But it does also make use of a lot of risers, drones, bell hits and the custom music track. Just watch both trailers with your eyes closed to hear what I mean.
Anyway, there are a few brief thoughts, but take a look and and your own observations in the comments below!