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2:10 pm
Sun January 15, 2012

The Art Of The Modern Movie Trailer

Originally published on Tue January 17, 2012 9:45 am

Check out the 1:21 mark of this trailer for The Artist, the silent film up for six Golden Globes tonight.

Recognize that music?

You can hear it here, in a trailer for this year's The Iron Lady, here in one for Stephen Spielberg's Munich, and here in one for Gus Van Sant's Milk.

"I think the point is — it works every time," says John Long, co-founder of Buddha Jones, an LA-based trailer production house that did not produce the above trailers.

The music is from a 2003 film, The Life of David Gale, which wasn't all that successful. But the soundtrack pushes just the right emotional buttons in a way that makes it irresistible to trailer producers.

"Sometimes in the back of your mind you know, 'I'm not going to use that cue. That cue's been used to death,'" says Lee Harry, Long's partner at Buddha Jones. "But I want to evoke a feeling. And this piece does it perfectly."

All the music you hear in the theater but can't quite place? Trailer producers can ID off the bat. Tracks from Aliens are pretty popular these days. Carmina Burana is such an overused standby, it really only works ironically anymore.

The David Gale piece is just one of many tools modern trailer producers use to play emotional whack-a-mole with your soul — to make you feel inspired or heartbroken, to make you laugh or shriek, to make you root for a protagonist or hate a villain or wonder what happens next.

Where else could someone do all that — and convince you to spend $11 — in a minute and 30 seconds?

Shorter And Shorter And Shorter

Arguably, there was a time when that was easier to do.

This trailer for the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol features the actor Lionel Barrymore (Drew's great-uncle), speaking directly into the camera about this charming new film.

Leatherbound book? Check. Pipe? Check. Armchair by the fire? Check. The whole thing is so clearly not the savvy, heavily focus-grouped work of a modern trailer house that it's hard to imagine it ever worked.

Early trailers, says film historian Wheeler Winston Dixon, were all like this. Very comfortable — and often full of over-the-top superlatives, like this trailer for Gone With the Wind.

"'Never so tremendous!'" Dixon says by way of example. "'The screen's greatest achievement!' One critic at the time said it was the supreme example of writing so as never to be believed."

Compare that with something like last year's trailer for The Dark Knight Rises, which set a record for downloads in 2011.

"The shots are shorter and shorter and shorter, and more fragmented," Dixon says. "There have been a number of studies that demonstrate that the average length of a shot in a film have been shrinking every single year, because audiences absorb information faster — and there's also a sense that you don't want to bore them."

Know Your Trailer Vocab

Quick edits aren't the only tool sure to transfix an audience, says Harry of Buddha Jones. Here are a few other tricks he knows:

  • THE TURN LINE: That moment in a trailer where the music drops out for a single line of dialogue. Trailer producers call that The Turn Line, Harry says, "because at this point the trailer usually makes a hard turn into action or comedy or big music." (This Moneyball trailer makes liberal use of them.)

  • THE RISE: The big, crescendo finale most trailers ultimately build toward. The Rise often follows a Turn Line.

  • HITS: Those pounding, dramatic drum booms that punctuate so many trailers are called Hits.
  • THE BUTTON: The scare or joke that comes immediately after the Main Title Reveal and ends the trailer with a bang or laugh."

"That's all part of the vocabulary of trailer making," Long says.

The Internet is making it easier for anyone to learn that vocabulary. We might not be surprised if any day now, some 23-year-old with a laptop made even the most rote presidential candidate appear to have stepped out of a sweeping, epic Michael Bay film.

Oh, wait. They have.

"It's actually kind of fascinating and daunting and scary at the same time," Long says. "The audience is so sophisticated. The vocabulary has become so well known. We try to stay one step ahead if we can."

Art or Craft?

Of course, if any precocious editor can churn out Hollywood-ready thrills, there's the question of whether trailer producers are artists or craftsman. Whether they're merely trafficking in candy — assembling the best parts from a movie into a flashy clip reel — or doing something more creative.

"Watching trailers in the theater, for me, is always a frustration," says Rob Myers, co-president of LA-based trailer house Workshop Creative. "Either I feel like I could have done a much better job or I'm depressed because someone did something great that I never would have thought of."

Sounds more composer than carpenter, doesn't he?

Of all the trailers I spoke to professional houses about, nothing inspired more envy and admiration than last year's trailer for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

It's 1:39 with cuts on every beat of an updated version of Led Zepplin's "Immigrant Song" — some 170 fugue state-inducing edits.

It's all the more impressive when you know it might have started as a four-hour version of the unfinished movie, replete with visible green screens and director David Fincher yelling cues from off-screen — often what trailer producers first start out with.

And it's not something anyone knocked out in a week.

"I was assigned two new projects just before Christmas," Rob Myers says. "One of them comes out in 2013."

During that time, a trailer producer gets to know the film as well as anyone who made it. "We break it down scene by scene, line by line, shot by shot," Harry says.

Each idea is heavily focused-grouped by studios, which deliver feedback to the trailer house. "There are all kinds of people around the studios," Long says. "There are managers and agents of some of the stars that may have to look at something and approve it."

One time Harry got a call: "This is not working. Start over. I want you guys to go back, come up with something new, different, out of the box, something that's never been seen before. Call me back in 15 minutes."

Even then, once they have something that works, there are several other trailer houses working on the same film. Studios take a whatever-sticks approach — sometimes assigning TV spots to one house and Internet trailers to another. Sometimes a producer might see his trailer in a theater, cut together with someone else's work.

All that — so you can turn to your seatmate in that green glow before the next trailer starts and murmur, "Yeah. I guess I'd see that."

"They're a completely different art form," Dixon, the historian, says. "They're an advertising art form, but they want to emotionally involve you."

Long offers no argument. "Oh, yeah. We're trying to seduce you. On our best days, we do that."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUM ROLL)

GUY RAZ, HOST:

The Golden Globe Awards are on tonight, but we're going to turn now to a part of Hollywood that doesn't get a lot of attention or flashy award shows, the modern movie trailer. Here's our producer Brent Baughman.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRENT BAUGHMAN, BYLINE: This music you're hearing is one of the most common music cues in trailers today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BAUGHMAN: This audio right here is from a trailer for the Golden Globe nominated film "The Artist," which is a silent movie, so no dialogue. But here it is again in a trailer for Steven Spielberg's "Munich."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE TRAILER, "MUNICH")

CIARAN HINDS: (as Carl) You think you can outrun your fears, your doubts...

BAUGHMAN: And again in one for Gus Vanzant's "Milk."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE TRAILER, "MILK")

SEAN PENN: (As Harvey Milk) You get the first bullet the minute you stand at the microphone.

BAUGHMAN: And again...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE TRAILER, "THE IRON LADY")

MERYL STREEP: (As Margaret Thatcher) I have done battle every single day of my life.

BAUGHMAN: That's Meryl Streep in "The Iron Lady" also from this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOHN LONG: I think the point is it works every time.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BAUGHMAN: That's John Long. He and his business partner, Lee - go ahead, Lee...

LEE HARRY: I'm Lee Harry.

BAUGHMAN: ...did the trailers for "The Muppets" last year. They run a trailer production company in L.A. called Buddha Jones. And why is it called Buddha Jones again?

LONG: This is a question we get from everybody. And it was - it's our version of Pink Floyd.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BAUGHMAN: Anyway, back to that music. It's actually from the soundtrack of a not very successful 2003 film "The Life of David Gale." But it's so good at punching just the right emotional buttons Lee Harry says it's almost irresistible.

HARRY: Sometimes in the back of your mind, you know, I'm not going to use that cue. That cue's been used to death. But I want to evoke a feeling, and this piece does it perfectly.

BAUGHMAN: Aside from using reliable music cues, how do trailer producers do it? Where else can someone make you feel inspired or heartbroken, make you laugh or shriek, make you root for a protagonist or against a villain, do all that and convince you to spend $11 in a minute and 30 seconds? It wasn't always so complicated. It used to be getting an audience's attention was a lot easier.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE TRAILER, "A CHRISTMAS CAROL")

BAUGHMAN: This 1938 trailer for "A Christmas Carol" begins with a shot of the actor Lionel Barrymore, Drew Barrymore's great-uncle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE TRAILER, "A CHRISTMAS CAROL")

LIONEL BARRYMORE: Hello, ladies and gentlemen.

BAUGHMAN: Fireplace? Check. Armchair? Check. Leather-bound book, pipe? Check, check. And he basically looks into the camera and recommends the movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE TRAILER, "A CHRISTMAS CAROL")

BARRYMORE: I'm going to introduce to you a character I've loved for many years.

BAUGHMAN: Et cetera, et cetera. So, you know, early trailers were very comfortable. Wheeler Winston Dixon is a film professor at the University of Nebraska. Compare this, he says, to a modern movie trailer like...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE TRAILER, "THE DARK KNIGHT RISES")

BAUGHMAN: ...maybe the most buzzed-about trailer this past year for "The Dark Knight Rises." It set a record for online downloads.

WHEELER WINSTON DIXON: The shots are shorter and shorter and shorter and more and more fragmented. And in fact, there have been a number of studies that demonstrate that the average length of a shot in a film has been shrinking every single year because audiences absorb information faster and there's also this sense that you don't want to bore them.

BAUGHMAN: So that's one way to keep your attention: quick edits. Here's another tool trailer producers use. They call it the rise.

HARRY: There's going to be...

BAUGHMAN: That's the crescendo...

HARRY: ...rise....

BAUGHMAN: ...in the trailer that builds and builds and builds to a place where the sound stops and then...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE TRAILER, "THE DARK KNIGHT RISES")

TOM HARDY: (As Bane) When Gotham is ashes...

BAUGHMAN: ...a single line.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE TRAILER, "THE DARK KNIGHT RISES")

HARDY: (As Bane) ...you have my permission to die.

BAUGHMAN: That's called the turn line. Lee Harry says...

HARRY: Oh, that's a good line. It kicks off a nice montage.

BAUGHMAN: And then at the end of the trailer, when you find out the title of the movie, that's called the main title reveal. And it usually comes with giant pounding drums.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE TRAILER, "DARK KNIGHT RISES")

BAUGHMAN: Those are called hits, John Long says, appropriately enough.

LONG: Yeah. That's all part of the vocabulary of trailer making.

BAUGHMAN: So the question is if you're just pulling all these tools out of a toolkit, is a trailer producer an artist or a craftsman?

ROB MYERS: It's always - well, how do I explain it without sounding bitter? No.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BAUGHMAN: Rob Myers. His trailer house, Workshop Creative, recently did the first "Men in Black III" trailer.

MYERS: Watching trailers in the theater for me is always a frustration because either I'm frustrated because I feel like I could've done a much better job, or I'm depressed because someone did something great that I never would've thought of.

BAUGHMAN: Sounds more like an artist, doesn't it?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BAUGHMAN: I spoke to a lot of professional trailer producers about a lot of different trailers. And by far, this one from last year for "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" inspired the most envy and admiration.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE TRAILER, "THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO")

BAUGHMAN: It's a minute and 39 seconds, shots cut on every beat of an updated version of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," some 170 fugue state-inducing edits. The trailer producers I talked to say it's all the more impressive when you know it might have started as a four-hour version of the unfinished movie.

MYERS: They might not have music on it yet. They might have green screens all throughout.

BAUGHMAN: And it's not like they knock these things out in a week.

MYERS: You know, I was assigned two new projects just before Christmas, and one of them comes out in 2013.

BAUGHMAN: With this much time, a producer gets to know a film as well as its editor, its director, anyone who actually made it.

MYERS: We break it down scene by scene, then line by line, and sometimes shot by shot.

BAUGHMAN: Then there are test audiences...

MYERS: Focus groups that look at things. There are all kinds of people around the studios. There are managers and agents, and they have to look at something and improve it.

BAUGHMAN: And then, just when you think you're finally done, you get a phone call, like Lee Harry once did.

HARRY: This is not working. Start over. I want you guys to go back and come up with something new, different, out of the box, something that's never been seen before. Call me back in 15 minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE TRAILER, "THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO")

BAUGHMAN: All that in the hopes that you'll turn to your seatmate after it's over, and in that green glow before the next trailer, say: Yeah. I guess I'd see that. Brent Baughman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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