TRAILER EDITING: Toward a formal definition


This was “editing” week in seminar and as I re-read the materials dealing with feature film and trailer “shot coordination,” certain correspondences and connections struck me with the force of recognition.   My blog seemed like the ideal place to develop my formal understanding of trailer editing and its impact on audiences. Admittedly, this is an “essay” or “try-out,” and I welcome corrections, objections, and complications of what I hope are useful insights.

In considering alternatives to continuity editing (or, as the French call it, decoupage classique), David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson in their standard reference, Film Art: An Introduction, describe the ideas and practice of Sergei Eisenstein (pioneering Russian filmmaker and film theorist).  As in previous readings, I was especially intrigued by Eisenstein’s belief in the “active understanding” of audiences, an aesthetic and a demand for interpretive work on the part of viewers corresponding to the synthetic work of the filmmaker, whereby meaning is constructed from the collision of shots.

In an interview from late in life about her exceptional career, trailer editor Esther Harris, who worked on many of the most significant films of the era (1945-1975), describes her work in similar terms.  As she explains in a Daily Telegraph interview from 1999, “I’d take bits that might seem totally meaningless on their own…A flicker of someone’s eyes, a shot of feet walking, an outstretched hand. What I looked for was something to create the appropriate mood – mystery, humour or romance. It was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.”

Trailer historians Lisa Kernan and Vinzenz Hediger describe a trailer editing technique called “the grid” that they learned of from interviews with trailer making legend Andy Kuehn. Basically a mode of story presentation produced by inter-cutting one scene with scenes/dialogue that are not continuous with it but establish a kind of counterpoint to it—or elaboration of it–the grid delivers great amounts of film information quickly, without requiring it to be related temporally, spatially or logically.   (I’ve long thought of the grid as metonymy become metaphor—associated and adjacent units of meaning corralled into relationships of comparison and identity. This seems the very essence of a conceptual collision.)

And while film theorist and historian James Monaco deploys a more analytical language when discussing “montage”– in particular, Christian’s Metz’ grand scheme of the various theories of montage—his understanding of that key component of trailer editing evokes Eisenstein’s aesthetic, Harris’ mid-century technique, and what I’ve heard from working editors about their contemporary practice of making trailers, bumpers, promos, etc.

(To her credit, it was Professor Kernan who made the connection between the Grid and Metz’s notion of the bracket syntagma – “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” [Metz, p. 126])

Is it possible, then, that one of the reasons for audiences enduring pleasure in trailers is the demand they make on them, audiences so often and scornfully dismissed as lazy, mindless, couch-surfing consumers?   The demand trailers make are implicit in their dense delivery of copious quantities of information without clear and explicit instructions for how to process it.  Audiences are pressed to “actively understand” the bombardment of shots, scenes, words, and extra-diegetic inserts by performing a hasty, provisional interpretation.  They are obliged to recognize genre, decipher meaning on the basis of familiar yet ever-evolving formulae, and determine the non-verbal character of a film based on a rapid fire, discontinuous sampling of mise-en-scene and cinematography.  

We (fellow audience members) are often wrong before about movies based on what we learn from their trailers. We know that marketer’s goals might not be congruent with our own entertainment desires, and yet we return to take the challenge, test our skill and play movie roulette by betting on these inherently unrepresentative short films that promote and herald their associated features.

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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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2 Responses to TRAILER EDITING: Toward a formal definition

  1. Pingback: DISCONTINUITY EDITING: Emotional Experience vs. Interpretive Challenge–a reader replies | REVIEWS OF PREVIEWS

  2. Pingback: Academic synergies, or how the internet helps you spread the word « spaceofattraction

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