A lesson in trailers

I’ve posted on what makes a good trailer before, and that hasn’t really changed. But with the 3D release of Titanic, Salon has taken the time to look at the evolution of trailers in the past 20 years with Titanic providing a case study.

To begin with, go back and read my first post on the subject. Because the points I make in that one are salient to this conversation and will be referenced. Also, because I think the things that make a good trailer are independent from the trends of the time.
But also in case you’re lazy my three main points are that a good trailer:

  • Should not tell the story – it should create more questions than it answers
  • Captures and focuses the energy of the film – especially through the use of movement
  • Great music makes a trailer

Then, go read Salon’s article. Or (in case you’re lazy) their three main points are:

  • Title cards have replaced narration (not surprising because it’s cheaper and gives the editor greater control)
  • Trailers cut faster now (as does everything else but it’s still a viable point)
  • Sound effects are used more to heighten the visceral experience (if you don’t know about sound effects, watch Transformers 3 – the sound effects pretty much make both the trailer and the movie. though the music is also good).

Now, before we get into the case study, please allow me a moment to say all six of these reasons are what makes Legends of the Fall such a great trailer and totally ahead of its time. It wasn’t a fluke that it was the first trailer I ever fell in love with.

But Legends of the Fall isn’t our case study.

The original Titanic trailer from 1997 isn’t bad. It obviously doesn’t meet the Salon 3 points which makes it look dated, but it hits my point 3 (music) and gets at least half way there on point 2 (energy/movement). But it’s also showcasing a great movie so there’s a lot of brilliant footage and music at their disposal. It’d almost be difficult to make a bad trailer of Titanic.

That being said, the new one from 2012 is so much better.

It’s faster and sharper; the editing is more inventive than the original which streamlines the whole thing. Being cut faster also gives it a better sense of movement (my bullet point 2).

I want to somehow convey how powerful a sense of movement and energy is in a trailer (not just this one) but find there just aren’t words for it. That movement is what grabs you and enraptures you in everything happening on screen, the energy wrapping itself around your heart and mind, enticing you to become a part of it and engage in the power of everything happening before you. It’s why Michael Bay is a billion dollar director.

It also avoids the most prominent pitfall of trailers (my bullet point 1): telling the story in the trailer.

Despite Salon’s assertion that this doesn’t happen any more, it totally does.

Both trailers make you feel a great deal and offer stunning visuals. But the second one just has more of a modern feel to it (probably in large part due to Salon’s 3 points but mostly the editing. The older one feels kind of slow and plodding). But, in addition to the faster editing, I think the voice overs are really well done. They’re haunting and beautiful and really, really effective. They also highlight a great quote in the Salon article:

“Trailers are a lot more visceral than they used to be,” said Jeff Smith of Open Road Entertainment, a veteran maker of movie trailers. “There’s less information given to you. You feel it more than you understand it.”

I love that line about making you feel it more than you understand it. It epitomizes what makes a great trailer and capturing involves all of my three points and requires all three of Salon’s points to technically accomplish.

Again, Titanic is a phenomenal movie so both trailers are going to evoke emotion really well. Neither one fails to make you feel something. But the second one is more visceral, unconsciously drawing us to the film rather than consciously trying to convince us to watch it.

April 4, 2012 | Commentary | this post contains affiliate links