The art of the trailer is still going strong, arguably now more than ever. Here are some tips for getting the most out of the trailer for your next project.

Top Image via Shutterstock.

Trailers are extremely valuable tools, whether they’re for a short film, a feature film, a TV series, or even a music video. Creating a trailer or a trailer-style promo will always be a great way to build hype for an upcoming release. They’re short, shareable, and generally their entire purpose is to quickly show an audience why your project is cool. How can you go wrong?

At one point in my career, I had a job editing trailers. For five years or so, I edited somewhere in the ballpark of 100 of them. Every genre, from action to romance and comedy: I edited a trailer for them all. For a video editor, trailers are basically just a giant sandbox of fun with endless possibilities. At the end of the day, making a trailer is simply taking some assets and making something cool, which is obviously quite a bit of fun most of the time. In my time editing trailers, however, I realized that there are quite a few good tricks and deceptions that allow you to make something that isn’t necessarily good actually look great.

This is the job of the trailer editor. No matter what the source material is, you have to take all of it and make a short video that will make everyone think “Yeah, I’d watch that”. You will eventually get a difficult trailer — one where there just doesn’t seem to be any way to thread the needle and create something that will build enough hype or interest to engage the audience. However, trust me: no matter what it is, as long as you have an open mind, there is a way.

These tips and tricks will help you get there.


Study All of The Source Material — Then Do It Again

Tips For Editing a Compelling and Effective Trailers for Your Next Project — Study Source Material

If you’re editing a trailer for a short film or other short project, this should definitely not be an issue. However, for features (narrative or documentary) or TV-series style trailers, you must become extremely familiar with the content you’re working with.

Most of the trailers that I edited were for TV-series — usually 15-20-episode season releases. For these trailers, I would watch the entire series once just as a viewer, and then I’d watch most of it again as a trailer editor (depending on how much time I had). Needless to say, I wasn’t always a huge fan of the content I was editing, so this could become tedious at times. However,  during that second viewing I would start making some cuts and taking notes and laying down markers on key scenes that I knew I would want to use.

One thing that I always found interesting about cutting trailers is that, most of time, the more time I spent watching the source material, the quicker the whole process would go. In some cases, while watching the content, I could already visualize the trailer. You’ll see a certain shot or hear a certain line of dialogue that you instantly know you can frame an entire trailer around.

If you watch the material, at some point the idea will click into place.

The first Pacific Rim trailer made great use of sound-bites from throughout the entire film (via Warner Brothers).

That’s the thing about cutting trailers: there’s almost always that one shot or line of dialogue that makes the entire thing work. You’ll just be sitting there banging your head against the desk wondering where to go next, and then, there it is — the one missing piece that makes it all work. If you don’t become extremely familiar with the material, you might miss that one element.

Start The Edit with Sound

Tips For Editing a Compelling and Effective Trailers for Your Next Project — Start with Sound

If you think back through all of your favorite trailers, chances are, there was an interesting or memorable element of sound to them. Whether it was the booming swell of John Williams’s legendary Star Wars theme when the Millennium Falcon made it’s first re-appearance in the first Star Wars: The Force Awakens teaser, or the Run The Jewels beats behind the trailer for the upcoming Black Panther movie, the sound was probably a big reason why the trailer was memorable. That takes some planning.

Black Panther trailer (via Marvel Studios).

Everyone has different ways of editing trailers, but it’s important to get your approach to sound laid out before you start laying in your cuts. I always have the music tracks laid into the timeline in roughly the way that I want them to go before I lay any video clips on the timeline. If you’ve watched your source material enough, you’ll probably know how your trailer will flow (i.e. I’ll use a bit of this scene in the beginning, and a bit of this scene here, and then we’ll cut to black with this line here — that sort of thing). It’s really easy to extend the music or alter the flow as you go, but deciding on music is always a great first brushstroke.

The trailer for The Killing Of a Sacred Deer is a great example of killer use of sound  (via A24).

On a functional level, this also helps you define the length of the trailer before you start. Often, there will be a certain time requirement for a trailer, whether it’s a 90-second or 120-second cut. If you get your audio laid down, you can time roughly how much space you need to fill.

On a more creative level, trailer edits that go along with sound in some way are the only way to go. Cutting on beats, swelling the music during significant actions, finding interesting places to slide some dialogue into the musical lulls: this is all part of making a really exciting trailer.

It’s much harder to accomplish all of this if you’ve decided on your music after the fact.

For a curated playlist of great music tracks to use in your trailers, check out this post at PremiumBeat.

Here are some FREE SFX elements that you can use in your trailer edits:

Use Text Slates Strategically, and Sparingly

Tips For Editing a Compelling and Effective Trailers for Your Next Project — Use Slates Sparingly

Suicide Squad text Slate (viaWarner Brothers).

Text slates have become a given in trailers. They give insights about the story, they convey information about the pedigree of the people behind the film (directed by etc.), and they build hype based on reviews.

If you have your music laid down ahead of time, it’s a good opportunity to drop in some slate placeholders on your timeline that coincide with various parts of the music track. If a drum beat hits hard, throw a slate there. If the music drops out entirely for a moment, that’s a great spot for a slate.

At the end of the day, slates are just an excuse to throw a neat-looking graphic up and keep audiences’ attention, but always remember that the majority of the time people don’t actually read or remember what slates say. In a trailer, things are always happening so fast and loud that slates just kind of wash over the viewer. So don’t overuse them.

Though they were used sparingly, the slates in this Suicide Squad trailer are some of my favorite from 2016 (via Warner Brothers).

Having said that, slates are usually necessary to the edit from a functional standpoint. They give you a place to cut from one thread to another without throwing the flow of the edit off track. So, if you’re going to use slates, I suggest that you make them really, really good. Stray away from cheesy overused lines (i.e. “In a world …,” “A mission unlike any other …) or formulaic approaches. Also, people generally tend to remember pedigree style slates and review quotes more often. If Quentin Tarantino said something is good, I’ll remember that. If this is directed by the same guy who made Interstellar, I’ll remember that too. General story-driven slates are usually little more than edit tools that you can use to break up the monotony or change the pace.

Slates with really cool design are also more likely to grab attention and be memorable.

For some help with that, here are some Great Motion GFX assets that you can use to punch up your text slate design:

If You Get Stuck, Skip to The End

Tips For Editing a Compelling and Effective Trailers for Your Next Project — Skip to the End

In all trailers, there’s kind of a flow to the editing process. Usually the first 30 seconds or so is a bit of exposition or setting up the story, the middle is just kind of building that out and making it a little bit more exciting, and in most cases the last 30 seconds are a montage thrill-ride with heart-pounding intensity that really tries to get the most visceral reaction from the audience.

As such, it can be easy to get stuck in the middle. The middle of a trailer can be hard to fill sometimes due to the standard trailer structure. The beginning is always pretty easy and fun to cut because you’ve usually had some really neat idea for how you want to start it. Same goes for the end, because it’s where you can put a lot of the coolest shots or lines and where you really get to flex your editing muscles. This is a problem because you need the whole trailer to be effective, including the middle.

So, one practice that I find very useful is that if you get stuck at any point, just skip to the end and work your way backwards. If the end is a lot of fun to edit, then when you need a little hit of adrenaline, go ahead and spend some time editing the really cool montage at the end of the trailer. At some point, you’ll play that part back and think “Hey, this is actually turning out pretty good,” and you’ll have a much clearer understanding of how the middle needs to be finished out.

Find Ways To Break The Mold

Tips For Editing a Compelling and Effective Trailers for Your Next Project — Break the Mold
Ballast (via Alluvial Film Company).

It’s important to always remember the true purpose of a trailer. It’s not to tell the entire story. It’s not to tell all the good jokes. The purpose of a trailer is to show a potential audience something that’s short and effective so that when it’s over they think, “Hey, I think I’ll watch that when it’s available.” It just needs to be cool. The only true requirements of a trailer is that it needs to be emotionally engaging and memorable.

As a result, there are infinite ways to handle a trailer.

This trailer for Ballast is one of my all time favorites — and a good example of taking a different approach (via Alluvial Film Company).

Again, think of the most memorable trailers that you’ve seen. Chances are, they didn’t follow the same model that you’re used to seeing for your average summer blockbuster trailer. One of the more memorable ones I can think of was the first trailer for Kill Bill Vol. 2, which mostly consisted of Uma Thurman (in character) breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience. Another good example was the first teaser trailer for Wall-E that started with Andrew Stanton speaking to the camera in a documentary style interview talking about the days when Pixar started out and the idea for Wall-E was born. Both of those examples succeeded at creating hype.

With trailers, creativity generally gets rewarded with memorability and effectiveness. So, get creative and try to find a new ways to get the audience interested.

The legendary trailer for Jaws (via Universal Pictures).