The Art of the Trailer

So this is the big one – the EPIC Post. Something that is quickly becoming a major passion of mine is the creation, construction, stylisms, and impact of a trailer.

I mean the short video promos that sells to you the product, be it movie or video game.  I have even seen them for books. They are the first impression makers, the only thing that makes me even think about caring about your production.  Trailers are an invaluable part of how a film or game gets big…and yet to most people they are just bothersome fodder between them and the movie they came to see.

For me this is an incredible tragedy.  In the space of 2 minutes or less you have to convey what your story is about AND make it look worth my time AND make it look fun.  This is not a task for the faint of heart, nor for the perfectionist. It’s not easy, and thus we often get junk, but once every long while we get a great one that stands out as the amazing work of art that it really is.

It seems to me to often we end up seeing the whole movie in the short preview.  There is no wonder. There is no mystery. There is no draw. I may be a film major, but it doesn’t take any sort of real brain-power to see the entire plot of the story from the trailer; they give it to you on a silver platter.  Take almost any modern trailer, say….oh…how about…Everything Must Go. Check out the trailer and come back for my thoughts.

Right off the bat the tone is set by the music – this is a comedy. This is confirmed by the opening image of Will Ferrell as Nick. However they quickly show us that it is a bit more serious than most of his other stuff….until 0:25 in, when he falls right back into his old schtick.  The next thirty seconds details the entire Act 1 – he gets kicked out and decides to live on his lawn, trying to hold onto his old life.  The First Turn is at 1:08 when he finds out that he can’t stay this way for much longer.  His struggle is between letting his past go and moving forward versus keeping his old life.  MAJOR CONFLICT DEFINED.
Immediately following that we get “the sidekick” (and a bit more confirmation of Ferrell’s humor).  Then, comes my friend Ryan‘s favorite part – THE INDIE MUSIC!!! (that tells us that it’s going to be a “quirky, yet serious drama about ‘real’ people and ‘real’ life”. Yippie.)
***1:42 – Blatant stating of the moral of the story by female friend/mentor. (Then the music gets hopeful…).  We get a nice little montage and at 1:51 we see the Second Turn – he gets rid of his stuff, thus proving he is learning the lesson.
And you might be saying “wait! that seems more like the ending than the end of Act II.”  And you’d be right, because at 2:17 we see the hero’s low point (the real Turn 2). Clearly he falls into depression towards the end of his borrowed time and is lifted out of it by what really matters – his friends. Aww.

End on some jokes to remind us that it’s funny and that’s it. The story mostly laid out in the trailer.  Why should I pay $11.50 to see in 2 and a half hours what I got in 2 minutes and paid nothing for? Seriously.

To be honest, what really sparked this dissertation was the recent slew of trailers and news from the E3 conference.  Video Game trailers have inspired me far more than most of those for movies.  What I truly love about video game trailers is that they understand that they can create something totally off-story to sell it.  Doesn’t make much sense when I say it but check out the announcement trailer for Dead Island and I think you’ll see what I mean.

I LOVE THIS TRAILER!!!  The music fits so well to what they are doing there, and this is exactly what I mean.  It shows absolutely zero gameplay, zero story, and honestly zero characters from the video game.  Yet, this alone enticed me enough back in February for me to have followed it all the way here into June.  I love how it focuses on the emotional impact of the zombie invasion, something often left out in favor of “killin’ them damn zambies!” But the true beauty of the promo is the mixing of the story, both forwards and in reverse, so that at the end he leaves his daughter behind.  That was a beautifully tragic moment that incredibly re-imagined a classic scene into something new and amazing!  This is far more interesting than them telling me the whole story and hoping I’ll buy it anyway.

Ultimately I could go on forever about this (and I probably will do a follow-up post sometime) but this post is epicly long enough already.  However, as promised to my friends on Facebook, below I am posting a list of great trailers along with my comments on each.  They are broken up into three sections – Classics, Friend Recommendations, and My Own Personal Favorites. Enjoy, Comment, Subscribe, and please let me know what you think about my opinions.  I am passionate about this and would love to hear your comments. If this is your first time here, thanks for checking me out (yeah!) and please feel free to comment below! A-Dios!


[All-time classic; Hitchcock creates a neat documentary style which makes the film seem all the scarier because of the potential reality of it; though his acting sucks, the audiences of the 1960’s would have been totally freaked out by this sort of gimmick]

[A more recent classic, it really sells the major feature of the movie – the handy-cam-esque style of the film; Also note: they don’t even name the film in this preview…fascinating J.J. Fascinating]

[Surely you remember this one, a classic that focuses on it being the last Pixar original (early) idea; really works well for selling it to older audiences who will in turn excite the younger generations; Cool way of marketing this]

–>Scary Mary
[I am putting this under Classics because this really shows how important a trailer is and how much impact it can have on the expectations of a movie or game. Also because it is bleeping scary!]



–>Green Lantern
[Never been crazy about this; It shows way to much of the movie; I like the motto at the end except that Batman does the final line]

–>Star Wars: The Old Republic
[1:11 is the teaser; 2:02 is the second teaser; the rest is the trailer; It is super long but works I guess.  More of a short than a trailer]

–>Girl with Dragon Tattoo
[I have no idea what this is about; the only reason it works is because most people have read the books or seen the foriegn movie and know sort of what is going on; an insider’s trailer – not good for outsiders like me]

–>Battle: Los Angeles
[I like the ramp from the metallic somber song to the near-scream; also this one doesn’t say title just like Cloverfield; However, they are still showing us a lot of the movie]

–>Transformers: Dark of the Moon
[I remember I really loved this the first time I saw it; great mixing of past and future; I am looking forward to it; doesn’t tell us much but just enough to make me interested]

–>Another Earth
[Perfect example of a trailer that shows too much; I know most of the story and am left with only a little mystery left. Also they don’t clarify the mood – it starts as a dark sci-fi then becomes a typical indie depressed drama; I am interested in the story but the only thing the trailer did for that was tell me the name]

–>Green With Envy
[Please watch it first then read the rest of this! ||  Love it!  Great misdirect and beautiful parody of every RomCom trailer ever 🙂 Segel is really making me believe that this won’t suck! In fact I am really looking forward to this!]

–>Gears of War 3
[Really just “meh”; good use of song but really doesn’t make itself stand out; Only really good part was the “Let’s finish it” line and the “Brothers to the End” – that seems interesting but otherwise really a letdown from GW3]

–>X-Men: First Class
[Great trailer; starts off with emotional build up of the music which really invites you in; Great blending of the old and new (in many ways); Doesn’t show to much and still enough to make me think this might be worth my time; Good use of a different title scheme rather than typical text]

–>Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
[Should have ended right after 0:56; we see far too much; just like the movie you keep thinking “when is this going to be over?”; Again a trailer that really only works because the audience has already seen movies 1 and 2 and is chomping at the bit for the final installment; really not that good of a stand-alone trailer]



–>Assassin’s Creed Revelations
[By far my favorite trailer right now; sick song that hits deeply and emotionally – amazing graphics in the cinematic – tells me everything I need to know (protag, setting, style, and part of plot) – and is FREAKING SICK!!! Please check this one out now and see what I mean]

–>Halo 4
[Very cool reintroduction of the series; I like that it takes only 20 secs to figure out what we are seeing, yet the payoff still is really fantastic]

[Almost put this in classics, but I want you to try to watch this how you first saw it – see everything new and remember what it was like to not understand it then (not like how you don’t understand it now 🙂 ]

–>Sly Cooper 4
[I have always been a fan of the series, and the trailer plays right into what I love about it with a great payoff at the end]

–>Dead Island
[Worthy of being mentioned again; great re-engineering of a scene to make an intended mood]

–>Legend of the Guardians
[This is the trailer that got me into studying trailers; PLEASE watch in HD; really showcases the visuals which are phenomenal (and totally Snyder-esque) and the song was well selected and used to drive in the emotional impact]

–>Ghost Recon Future Soldier
[I like the “carousel”-esque effect that really works to make itself standout from Battlefield or COD, which is what this needed to do to muster any support]

–>Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter
[Just to prove that books get trailers 🙂 but really this is a great promo for what looks to be an awesome book]

–>10 Things I Hate About Commandments
[I end on another parody that again showcases how important a trailer can be in making the mood, tone, and direction of film (or game) go and how well it can reach the target audience]

NO...DAMN IT!!!! Gah........

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Author: Tyler D. Welch

Filmmaker, Storyteller, Scholar

3 thoughts on “The Art of the Trailer”

  1. For the average cinephile (like the two of us), I would say that you are right, you shouldn’t spoil everything in the trailer. The experience is more fulfilling and complete the less you know about the film. However, to hook in the mainstream audience, you need to show them the entire film in the trailer or else they won’t go to see it. Think about it this way: Why should they go spend 12 bucks on something that they are not sure will completely satisfy them? Especially when they can just wait six months, get it for much cheaper and still get the same experience by watching it on a very high-quality home theater. There is absolutely no reason for people to go see a movie in a theater anymore. However, studios need people to go see it in a theater because that’s how the movie makes its money back. This example might be a little extreme but I think the same principles apply in this case: would you buy a washing machine without figuring out if it will do you want it to do when you need it to? It’s sad, but that’s pretty much how consumer America sees movies and those people are who the marketers pander the trailers to because that is where the majority of the money comes from. It’s why the summer movie season is filled with big, dumb action films. But I digress. The point of the trailer is to get people to spend the money on the theater release, specifically in the opening weekend. If studios can get people to see the movie in the opening weekend, and hopefully put it in the top 5 box office, then hopefully word-of-mouth will spread from there. Look at a list of the biggest opening weekends. Here is a link to one:

    What do you notice? They consist of sequels, superhero movies, and other previously established material (e.g. Alice In Wonderland). The highest weekend from an original movie is Avatar and that is placed at #35. Look at the trailer:

    I think you would agree that they give too much away. But that’s what they needed to do to get people to see it. Then word-of-mouth took over and it became the highest-grossing movie of all-time (unadjusted for inflation).
    Now there are exceptions to the rule and you mention one: Inception. But again, it was not the opening weekend that made that movie; it was the word-of-mouth and repeated viewings (Inception falls at #65 in opening weekends). I’m sure a very interesting study could be conceived of this.

    P.S. Whadayamean the indie music is my favorite part?!
    Also, the reason I did not look at the trailers of any of the higher films on the list is because they are mostly sequels and therefore did not necessarily need a good trailer for people to go see them. But I’m sure it would be very interesting to look at those trailers as well and see how they compare.

  2. Also, it is notable to point out that the above comment strictly refers to movie trailers and not video game trailers. I don’t play video games and I don’t know what kind of impact a good video game trailer would have on the masses who buy video games.

  3. Sorry it has taken me so long to respond. I took a siesta for a bit and have recently been working on the new blog site so I am just now getting around to responding to your comments, Ryan.
    First of all, thank you for responding! You were asking about where the other comments were? There aren’t any. You were the only one to comment at all on the site, though I did get several facebook likes.

    So, in response to your comments, I mostly agree. You did bring up the good point that getting audiences in on opening weekend is important. However, if you look at the boxofficemojo list you sent, their are a few interesting cases. While most are sequels, which almost ensures that they get lots of viewers early on, for some I don’t think that carries the full story. Look at Spiderman. It had a huge weekend and yet was the first superhero movie of the new movement. Alice in Wonderland to Thus it needed great trailers to get us into it.
    The sequel thing I will get into at some point on the Art of the Trailer blog, so I will save that for later. However I do want to point out that the number 1 film on that list is Dark Knight which I am not sure falls into that same category as a success sequel. To me the first wasn’t all that hot and I went to see the second because it looked (and sounded from friends chatter) awesome. Might go into that later as well.

    My second point is this: if I wanted to be sure I wanted a washing machine, I would take my clothes to the store and do my laundry in it. I would ensure that it works and is going to be worth my money. However, as soon as my laundry is done, I really don’t have much of a need to invest in the laundry machine. My need was satisfied now and I don’t need to spend hundreds on a machine I already have made use of. This isn’t the best metaphor because you could easily say that I will need it later but that isn’t the point. The point is that if the salesman doesn’t sell it to me the first time, I am not going to buy. Curious to see what you think in response to this.

    Now on to the trailer for Avatar. First, the link you sent me is called the “New Extended HD Trailer” so of course they are going to show too much. It is a four minute preview of the whole movie. What I like about it is that it doesn’t specifically show the ending. We know how it ends because we know that story inside and out. We’ve seen it so often. However he at least leaves a little bit of mystery which is nice (though I think he does it the way most do – leaving only the parts we can guess out).
    Anyway, I am going to be judging the trailer’s effectiveness off of the one below:

    This one works a lot better and I believe this was the first trailer for it. Now, while Avatar was not specifically based on any one source material (ie- not like Harry Potter or Pirates), they do play up that it is JAMES CAMERON’S Avatar in both. They use the familiarity with the director to sell it. As far as the trailer goes, I like how it is simple and starts well, uses silence (except for the one very specific line about “this [film] is great”), and only goes to far towards the end. My only beef with it is the monotonous noise in the background gets annoying before they hit the ramp way to hard.
    Again, I think that the way Avatar sold was they stressed it was James Cameron’s return to directing and then the constant harping on the technology advances of the film’s graphics. We both know why they didn’t sell it as a great new story, but really I am not sure which sold Avatar more – the trailers or the out-of-theaters gossip about how sick it would look. Just saying.

    So that’s it. The comment about you liking indie music was in response to last years Summer FIlm Challenge when you complained on both Son of Rambow and Kabluey about “why do all indie films have to have indie music!?” Just thought I would call that back 😉

    Final thoughts: WATCH ASSASSIN’S CREED REVELATIONS!!!!!!!!!!!! I had never played any of the games before I saw this, but it alone inspired me to pick up the series. I am almost done with game one, and it is really fascinating. Please check it out because there is always the element of selling the game (games in particular) to the people who have never played any of them. I will be reviewing it further in detail on Art of the Trailer soon.

    And once again I say thank you for commenting. I would love to see your response to my thoughts here, as well as to my new review of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Thanks!

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