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The Art Of The Modern Movie Trailer

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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Brent Baughman
    Brent Baughman is a senior producer in the Programming division at NPR, where he works on new and existing podcasts.