Trailer Editing: A lot like feature film editing, only more so


With the exception of the “Grid,” described below, which is exclusive to trailer editing, the approaches, techniques or principles described below are used by feature film editors and trailers editors alike. In this post, I wanted to highlight some of the more salient methods whereby trailer editors convey story information, elicit emotion, engage understanding and arouse interest in their audiences.

(Thanks to James Monaco’s HOW TO READ FILM: Movies, Media and Beyond, Oxford Univ. Press, for his definitions and explanations.)

In Monaco’s discussion of Contemporary Hollywood editing style, he describes these familiar styles of montage:
• Parallel montage – which allows filmmaker to alternate between two stories or scenes or sequences that may not be related spatially or temporally, cross-cutting between them and thereby producing a third meaning from the combination of these two.
• Accelerated Montage –a special type of parallel montage in which interest in a scene is heightened and brought to a climax through progressively shorter alternations of shots between two subjects (often in chase scenes). In accelerated montage, the pace of shot presentation is understood to imply excitement, suspense and energy. (See: The Grid, below)
• Involuted montage – a montage that does not respect chronology (e.g. the narrative elements do not necessarily occur in diegetic order or temporal sequence.) Repetition, flashback, or flashforward are all storytelling possibilities in this kind of montage.

[Don’t forget Monaco’s admonition that: “Each of these extensions of the montage codes looks toward the creation of something other than simple chronology in the montage itself, a factor very little emphasized in classic découpage continuity cutting.”]

• Match cut: A match cut links two disparate scenes by the repetition of an action, gesture, graphic pattern, or duplication of the mise en scene. One of the most famous examples comes from 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which a bone tossed into the air by our hominid ancestors is matched, in shape and rotation, to the traveling space station. According to Monaco this cut “unites human prehistory with the future,” insofar as both bone and space station represent human tools, or extensions of human capabilities.

Match cuts are especially useful in trailers insofar as they establish pattern, connection and thematic unity among shots that may be pulled from opposite ends of the film and different aspects of the story, but which are combined in the trailer to produce a coherent marketing message. See, in particular, the trailer for WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE.


The Kuleshov Effect (named after Lev Kuleshov, a Soviet era director and founder of the world’s first Film School) describes a critical discovery about audience psychology, whereby any series of shots presented in the absence of an establishing shot prompts the spectator to infer a spatial or psychological whole on the basis of seeing only portions of the space. (Ex: If we see an actor looking, then an object shown, we presume that the actor is looking at and reacting to the object. If we see an actor’s face and then a shot of something else, we assume emotional connection or relationship between them.) Almost every film as indeed, almost every trailer, relies on this effect, especially since establishing shots are often dispensed with in trailer editing.


The Grid is an essential editing approach used within trailers since at least the 1960’s. Essentially, the Grid is a kind of parallel montage used to compress and accelerate the presentation of story information, emotion and excitement. The Grid results from intercutting one scene with scenes and/or dialogue that are not continuous with it, relying on the Kuleshov effect to establish a kind of counterpoint to the first story line, or an elaboration of it in the mind of the viewer. In literary terms, the grid is a kind of a metaphor or metonymy, establishing relationships between different things on the basis of comparison or contiguity. The power of the grid is in its conveyance of substantial amounts of plot and detail in a brief, visually dynamic fashion.

See the trailer from NIGHT OF THE IGUANA (1964) above, in particular, the scenes where Richard Burton is recklessly driving a school bus.

BRACKET or ‘ALTERNATING’ SYNTAGMA (i.e. a unit of narrative meaning)

Defined by film theorist Christian Metz as “a series of very brief scenes representing occurrences that the film gives as typical examples of a same order or reality, without in any way chronologically locating them in relation to each other.” [Film Language: A semiotics of the Cinema, p. 126] the bracket syntagma is a handy definition of trailer editing generally. (Thanks to trailer scholar Lisa Kernan for this insight.) My only qualification is that in trailers, the “chronological location” of one scene in relation to an other is implied by the marketing message and trailer formula, rather than imposed by the film texts selected.


The French word for what we in the US and England call “editing,” montage is the critical technique in film editing in which a series of short shots are edited into a sequence to condense space, time, and information. It is usually used to suggest the passage of time, rather than to create symbolic meaning as it does in Soviet montage theory.
• The combination of shots and/or scenes makes a third or “nth +1” meaning from the original meanings of the “n” pieces of film combined.
• Russian director and film theorist Vsevolod Pudovkin categorized the various kinds of montage according to their structure and the interpretive meaning: contrast, parallelism, symbolism, simultaneity, and leitmotif. We can see examples of all of the above in films and in trailers.
• The first dedicated trailer editors were the studio “montage editors” of the 1920’s, who, when not busy with a given film, were enlisted to work with outtakes (rather than the print) from which they created movie marketing materials.

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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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