Movie Trailer Editing: Tips, Best Practices and Links

Editing

One of my close friends is currently enrolled in Video Symphony‘s 14 month editing program, so I’ve been absorbing editing theory and technique every time we’re together, and reminding myself of the subtlety, complexity and sheer artistry involved. Thus inspired and challenged, this post is dedicated to the key creatives of the trailer making industry, but intended for those who aren’t [yet?] editors, who want to know the conventions and formulae of trailer editing, better understand how it differs from feature editing, and appreciate the niche it occupies in the ecology of the film business.

A trailer editor is expected to provide information about the movie, emphasizing those aspects most likely to appeal to audiences as determined by the marketing department of the distributor. As does a feature editor, a trailer editor tells a story (or stories) eliciting and channeling emotion using images, sound, dialogue, music, voice over and graphic design. But this story telling is not always, necessarily or especially linear or narrative in presentation.

Moreover, while audiences are to be relied on as partners in the communicational exchange– since they are themselves “experts” on the subject by dint of having watched countless trailers and tv spots during their viewing lives– they must typically be corralled and guided through the dense, layered content typical of trailers. How exactly that happens is, of course, the $64,000 question. Practice, certainly. Trial and error, no doubt. But here are some articles and posts that offer an introduction to the trade as well as some tips to follow or appreciate, depending on your desire to become a trailer editor or merely to understand better what they do.

Emphasizing functionality, editor Mike Flanagan asks in his article “How to Edit a Trailer that will get your film noticed, “can you put forth something that represents not only the production value, the quality of the actors, the structure of your story, but also the TONE of your film as well, all in less time than you’ll find in a network commercial break block?”

He prefaces his review of representational fidelity, acting, structure, tone and vision, by reminding readers that the director/editor of the film is often the least well-qualified person to produce/cut the trailer, for the simple reason that they are too close to the material and too invested in its film artistry rather than its commercial potential.

The other takeaway from this article is the examination of the conventional three-act structure of a trailer, understood not as a criticism of formula but rather as an appreciation.

On Chris Jones blog, Chris interviews trailer editor Ross Evison who shares the following tips and advice:

• Choose the story through line and stick to it.
• Don’t introduce too many motifs or characters choose whose journey it is – if you’re fortunate to have a known performer, albeit in a minor role, utilise that fact.
• Don’t name check people who nobody knows.
• Know the end, the theme and feeling you want to leave the viewer with.
• The trailer doesn’t have to be as linear as the film – often better if it isn’t.
• Don’t have random moments that come out of nowhere – sounds contradictory to the above point but you can put scenes in any order as long a the through story is being followed, don’t be afraid of mixing it up.
• Writing copy (the voice over or captions) is tough, unless you have a way with words, don’t try and be too smart, serve the film rather than attempting to be clever with you words. The copy should encapsulate your through line story and can be helpful to skip through this. However, if you don’t need copy, don’t use it. If the film is strong enough let it do the talking.
• Stick with simple graphic captions – often the best way if you’re not graphically skilled.
• Voice over is not a must, and bad VO can alienate the viewer (don’t cheapen it with a fake American accent, if you’re a Brit and can read the lines, be a Brit, just be confident. Failing that, stick with captions)
• Don’t let shots and moments out stay their welcome. The perfectly constructed moment you created in your film CAN be trimmed right down in the trailer, don’t worry it doesn’t ruin your film. It will always be perfect in the film.
• Say something once, for example you may have two characters saying pretty much the same point in two different ways, cut one out you don’t need the other. Move on.

My last shout out goes to David Malki, a retired trailer editor now working as a cartoonist, who describes the trailer making ecology, breaking into the business, the daily grind of an editor and practical (and quite sensible, too) career advice for would be editors of trailers and features alike. See his “Breaking into Trailers” post on the website davidmalki.com

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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