What I Learned About the Art & Craft of Making a Film Trailer on My Feature Film 'CENTS'
After writing, directing and producing my first feature film, I know it better than anyone. And that might make me the worst person to cut the film's trailer.
As the writer/director of CENTS, I feel like I am way too close to the material to figure out how to distill it down to two minutes that will both captivate and intrigue audiences, making them want more. I even think our film's editor has worked too long with the footage to know what to include and what to leave out to make an effective trailer. So I decided that we needed to work with a trailer editor.
After researching several trailer houses, I reached out to Jump Cut Creative because of their consistently strong work on independent film trailers and their willingness to collaborate with low-budget filmmakers like myself. Our film landed in the extremely capable hands of Jump Cut Creative Senior Editor David Klagsbrun. After David completed the trailer, I asked if he could carve out a few minutes from his crazy schedule to answer some email interview questions about the art and craft of creating dynamic film trailers.
NFS: Whittling down a feature-length film to its essence in the form of a 2-minute trailer is an art. Where do you even begin?
David Klagsbrun: Typically I'll get myself comfortable and simply watch the film just like anyone else. Come to think of it, I'm probably watching it like no one else. We're in the unique position of watching a film without preconceptions since there's no trailer yet! Honestly, it's the best way to see a film. I know. A trailer editor shouldn't say that, but... There's no substitute for really being surprised by something. Maybe that's why I got into the business in the first place…?
NFS: How do you work with the filmmakers when you edit a trailer? Are you dealing with the distributor of the film for approval or do you work with the director of the film? Or both?
DK: At Jump Cut, we work with a variety of mid-size distributors and, occasionally, directly with independent filmmakers who are self-distributing their films. When we're working with a distributor, they'll usually clear anything we do with the directors and producers of the film we're working on. Sometimes it's for final approval and sometimes it's just as a courtesy. Usually it's the distributor who will have final cut.
I think there's an interesting tension inherent in the process of working with a filmmaker on his or her film. It's tough to trust someone with your baby and there's often a real reluctance to do so. Filmmakers can often shoot themselves in the foot by unwittingly subverting the creation of a trailer by pushing for the inclusion of more great moments from the film or by refusing to include a relevant plot point because they're afraid to reveal too much about their film. It's a tricky balance of soothing a nervous parent and serving the best interests of a potential audience.
NFS: Do trailers follow a certain narrative structure?
DK: The classic three act structure is pretty common. Although, the third act "resolution" is hopefully more of a question than an answer. There's nothing worse than when a trailer feels like a substitute for actually kicking back and watching the film. We'll usually stray from this model when we're cutting a "teaser" which is shorter than a trailer and usually leaves more to the imagination. Or when we get the go-ahead to spread our wings and try something unexpected.
NFS: When you are watching a film, are there particular moments or shots that jump out at you that you know have to be in the trailer?
DK: Absolutely! I think that as a general rule our job is to tell a compelling story and the moments of sound and picture that we select to include in the trailer should support that narrative. But what really makes a trailer sing are those visual bits that don't necessarily push the narrative. They're images that make you go, "wow" or "what the hell?"
NFS: In trailers, dialogue gets separated from picture to underscore images from different scenes in the film. Do you have a strategy or technique for identifying key lines and images from separate scenes that you think will work well together in the trailer?
DK: After watching a film a couple of times, I'll try to come up with an underlying idea for what the selling points are for the film and then I'll dive in and start breaking the film down to discrete bits of sound and image with that idea in mind.
NFS: Are there parts of a film that you consider off-limits to include in a trailer because they may reveal too much?
DK: Probably less than some of the filmmakers we've worked with might say but more than you'd think! It's our job to leave the audience wanting more.
NFS: Music plays a key role in the tone and pacing of a trailer. How do you choose the music for the trailer? How many music cues do you tend to use in a trailer?
DK: The number of cues we use can really run the gamut. It's rare (although it happens occasionally) that we won't use any music in a trailer. But I'm cutting something now that will have five separate music cues and that's a lot. As for how I choose them -- in a job that requires a lot of going with your gut, selecting the right piece of music is almost all instinct.
NFS: Copy can be an effective storytelling shortcut in trailers. How do you decide when and what to include in copy for a trailer?
DK: Lately there's been a lot of knee-jerk antipathy to using copy in trailers but I'm most definitely a fan. I think folks are naturally distracted and I find that the occasional copy card can really help ground the viewer and punctuate an idea. I'll often try to do a first pass without them; just as an exercise to see how far the material alone can take me. Then I may drop a few in strategically to support a moment in the trailer that needs some clarity or resonance.
NFS: I was fortunate enough to work with you for the trailer of our film CENTS. Could you walk us through your process and describe how you approached our particular trailer?
DK: I think for us the real selling point for CENTS was the story of a young outcast with a special talent. There's so much more to the film as a whole but when we boiled it down to that one central idea, we lost some of the mother's story and the intricacies of the power struggle within the "mean girls" clique. It helped us to showcase something about the film that truly felt unique. Then we made sure we were using the best music to available in the film to keep things brisk and energetic. Streamlining the penny drive conceit was important to us since that drives the action of the film and dropping in a few copy cards felt like the right way to bolster the stakes for this young girl and keep the audience invested in her story.
NFS: A really good trailer takes time to edit. What is your typical timeline for cutting a trailer?
DK: That's a closely-guarded industry secret! Honestly, we're almost never working on one project at a time so it's hard to say how long it would take in a vacuum. Usually we'll need about two weeks to send a client a first cut and then depending on how well that goes over we can refine the cut for a month or so before it's ready to be delivered.
Many thanks to David for his time and insights into creating compelling film trailers. Be sure to check out the website of Jump Cut Creative to see more of their excellent trailer work. You can find more lessons learned from the making of CENTS from our complete series of NFS posts on the film.
What have you learned about making trailers for your own films?