I’m going to let you in on a complete non-secret. I done love me some blockbuster. I like my small indie and international films too but I make no shame of my love for grotesquely budgeted uber-movies either. My argument is the same as my Dad gave me about music. “You’re ears don’t lie”. Meaning if you like a song, you liked the song. Same goes for films, no point lying about how much you actually love Beethoven’s 2nd with Charles Grodin just love it and enjoy it. There are no guilty pleasures there are only pleasures. I am happy to admit I love the Beatles, Hendrix, etc as well as McFly. You read that right, I own their first three albums and a live DVD. I like them. They are a fun pop band with catchy, well-produced songs. There are far worse things to like. Jimmy Savile leaps to mind…
Anyway, Blockbusters. Yes. Do you know what I love even MORE than Blockbuster movies? If the title of this post hadn’t already given it away? Yes, trailers. Once upon a time trailers didn’t exist for cinematic films. Then they did. Hitchcock practically invented the form. These developed into a more descriptive form. The ‘Descriptor’ revolved around a bombastic voiceover over some scenes and the odd bit of dialogue from the film, there was normally some loud music and some scrolling text too. (This post will be link central from here on out btw) See Cleopatra as a good example. This style remained pretty constant till the late 70’s then something like the more modern form of the ‘Montage’ developed. An early progenitor (as ever) was the horror genre, see The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for a good example. Things then got a bit more arty and a lot more mood based. What have come to be known as ‘Tone Poems’ in cinema now, as they normally cultivate the sense of awe/dread/fear/excitement they hope the film would generate. The turning point I think, was Ridley Scott’s plain fucking amazing trailer for Alien in 1979. It has no dialogue and no real music, it is edited to within an inch of its life and really makes you want to see it. It beautfiully encapsulates the whole film in as brief a manner as possible. Another favourite was a junked trailer from a film that came out the next year, Kubrick’s The Shining. That one was rejected by the studio as the famous scene was considered much too horrifying to subject an unsuspecting cinema audience to. Sadly, these fantastic examples of short form palate whetting were not adhered to by and large and the 80’s began the, now legendary, trend for the ULTIMATE GRAVELLY VOICEOVER. Things changed a little in the 90s when the montage came back into fashion a bit more, with less of a voiceover or if there was it was normally used in a bit of a post-modern, ironic way. Typically, Tarantino lead the way on this. But again not a lot changed.
The big shift, I think, came in 1999. Two films and certainly their trailers came along and toe punted us into the 21st century. One was the Matrix and the other, oh how I am LOATHED to admit it now, was Episode I – The Phantom Menace. My feelings on Star Wars are for another post (probably two or three) but the Matrix and TPM trailers are works of art and are truly awe-inspiring pieces of cinema. These are pretty much the template for trailers now, though they are now horribly overdone and formulaic (similar to the films themselves and their genre). Let’s look at the Matrix trailer:
The most important thing is; it RAMPS. The whole trailer acts like a narrative with no voiceover to propel it. A very obvious ebb and flow so you can get a mood going in the small 2 minute time frame. The music and text start it slow and pose the question. Then the music pics up with the dialogue for a bit of intrigue. Then pics up again speeding towards a finale. Then the all important ‘Drop’ at 2.10, just after a neat piece of dialogue (“you’re saying I can dodge bullets?”). Then louder rockier music, barely visible cuts of action sequences and the dazzling special effects, no dialogue, moneyshot, a drop in the music for the punchline or a gag, film title. Go and watch every trailer from 1999 on. It will not differ. Action/blockbusters in particular.
Let’s look at Star Wars: Fuck me. For a start I haven’t watched this in ages and it still makes me excited. I watched this trailer nearly every bloody day for months. This was such a huge deal and the trailer knows it. It was what kicked the hype into hyper drive (pardon the pun) before anyone knew what was happening. Again it has clear narrative a beginning middle and end. Again, no voice over just a very minimal text scroll to start. The two biggest things it introduced was the held or ‘glimpsed’ shot that dissolves to black on some fairly crucial shots. These are now accompanied by a ‘throb’ or heartbeat today. Then BANG, main theme, bunch of man children have an excited little sex-wee. The other thing it did was introduce the idea of a ‘Teaser’ trailer at large. i.e. More than one trailer would come out and the first had a few crumbs of shots that whet your appetite then a longer one would deliver better information and longer money shots. It also began the use of balls-out bombast with John Williams’ still unmatched symphonic score. I defy this trailer to not give you shivers even if you DON’T like Star Wars. What this trailer did though is make the film look like a classic Star Wars film. A shame that didn’t translate in long form. Whilst opinion divided from there on the trailers got better. This one is honestly a masterclass in building tension in barely a minute. No voiceover, no text, no dialogue, two very well-known sound effects and then finally some strings. Sound is a powerful tool in cinema, this is how you use it very well indeed. (Jesus christ, I haven’t watched that in ages, that is a seriously good bit of filmmaking right there.)
Notice neither of these trailers tell you a damn thing about the plot or what happens in the film. It is all about the mood and tone. It was at this point trailers became little movies in and of themselves. By and large I’ve come to love these trailers more than the films they advertise and I am much more able to spot a film I don’t want to see. Don’t think this style is particular to action blockbusters either. Romantic films do it, Indy minded movies do it, everybody does it. Ramp to the end, title, punchline. The formula reached its quantum singularity with the one/two punch of The Dark Knight and Inception trailers. These have been so mercilessly ripped off in the last few years it has become its own parody. Even the Thick of It is at it… Ridley Scott also proved turd polishing is possible with a magnificent retread/revamp of the original Alien trailer for Prometheus.
Cutting through all the pomp and the slam-you-against-the-wall, blisteringly fast, deafeningly loud nonsense that has become the movie trailer genre there are some real gems still out there and technology and editing are getting better and better. Some of my particular recent favourites are the lovely little tone piece of intrigue and setting that is the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy trailer, the genuinely frightening Kill List, love love loooooved the trailer for Little Children, Kill Bill’s trailer was a lesson in how I could love a trailer a LOT more than the movie itself, a particular fave of mine is Taken’s effort which bases itself around ‘That’ speech beautifully (I also loved that film too), but if you want to see a real stroke of genius that hasn’t been done to death: Red Eye was a mediocre thriller but the trailer is ingenious. All those romcom film trailers that preceded it were used to the full to lead the audience up the garden path. The trailer begins exactly as a romma-comma-ding-dong trailer should then cleverly twists it halfway through. No other trailers have used an audiences preconceptions of the form and subverted them in this way and in as effective a way before or since to my knowledge. Check it out.
Want a good impression of how to make a movie trailer? Head to youtube and watch the parodies. Most of them are spot on but this one is still the best.
I haven’t even touched on computer game trailers yet but these are the way forward in my opinion. Just take a good scene or idea and run with it. The most classic and brilliant example of this was the recent jaw-droppingly good trailer for Dead Island. Again the product didn’t live up to the hype but WHAT a trailer. Bioshock’s is another personal favourite of mine.
Trailers will hopefully grow out of the PULSE POUNDING AMBIGUOUS ROAR of its adolescence and hopefully become more nuanced but for the moment I really enjoy a good trailer and will go out of my way to look them up. One day I’ll bore you to death with the trailer idea I had for my screenplay… But understanding the form, however, does make it easier to spot the turkeys and avoid them but what makes me wonder is that if you can make a trailer so compelling, why can’t you deliver that in the film?
N.B. I spent waaaaaaay too much time writing and looking up the videos for this post but had great fun doing it. I highly recommend looking at all the posted links, there are some really great examples and I defy you to not want to watch at least one of the said movies right after. Enjoy.