The Art of the Tease: Reel ’Em In With a Trailer That Looks the Very Best Your Film Can Look

A trailer is an audience’s first glimpse at what a movie will be.

It advertises your film in a small amount of time. Often potential distributors or audiences don’t have more than a few minutes to decide whether or not they want to see something, so it’s important to hook them quickly!

I’ve cut trailers, TV spots and featurettes for movies including the Harry Potter films, Sherlock Holmes, Gravity, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and, most recently, The Accountant and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I’m also an indie filmmaker who has cut trailers for my own lower-budget films and side projects. Currently, I’m working on a new travel/adventure show called Outsider—I’ve cut two trailers for it already, and before we even have had an episode to show, buzz is building.

Here are my basic tips on creating a big-budget-feeling trailer for your low-budget film, something I’ve had to do myself on many occasions. (Spoiler: The secret is being organized.)

Step One: Transcribe Your Dialogue

You need to be able find those key dialogue moments so that you can tell a story in about two and a half minutes. Transcribe your entire film into a searchable Word document that you can then print out and begin highlighting. Look for all those juicy, dramatic bytes (i.e. lines) that tell the story and pose questions. Find those great acting performances. If it’s a comedy, highlight all the funny jokes. Sometimes narration can help convey story points; however, these days we see a lot less narration in trailers.

Step Two: Create Select Reels

Select reels are sequences, or timelines, of moments from your film, organized by topic. They allow you to find moments for your trailer efficiently.

All of that dialogue you typed up should be cut into one master sequence in an editing timeline. Cut out all the pauses in between, so that when you play back the sequence, it’s nothing but the dialogue from beginning to end of your movie. From this master or “broad” select reel, you can then make more specific select reels.

Say you want to make a select reel of all your jokes and funny dialogue. You would duplicate that master dialogue sequence you made and then just delete all the parts that aren’t funny—what you’re left with is a comedy dialogue sequence. Now all your jokes are in one easy-to-find place for when you edit. Implement this technique to whatever “category” you want: Mysterious dialogue, scary dialogue, exciting bytes, etc. Just make sure you always duplicate that master select reel, so that you can go back to it to create your other, more refined reels.

In the same way you break down dialogue, break down your visuals. Go through your film and throw every shot into a timeline. This time, just omit the dialogue. Put a cut mark on every shot so that you can just thumb through and see everything. Once you have that master sequence, you can create more refined visual selects, such as: wide shots/scope, emotional shots, artsy shots, shots of individual characters, great head-turns—any category you think might be helpful for cutting later.

This is all tedious work, but I can’t stress enough how helpful it will be when you start cutting your trailer. Don’t you want your trailer to show off all your best stuff?

Step Three: Build a Paper Cut in Three Acts

In your paper cut (an outline with the flow of information you foresee being in the actual cut), focus on dialogue. You want the flow to make sense. The order of bytes does not have to be in the order they take place in the film, but they do need to make sense in the order you present them in the trailer.

Watch some trailers online; look at how they are put together. You’ll see a basic formula. Most likely, some sort of intriguing opening moment sets the mood. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, for example, we opened the trailer with a cool scene of Harry confronting evil wizard Voldemort. Harry walks bravely out of the forest and comes face to face with Voldemort, who says, “Harry Potter, the boy who lived… come to die.” You’re immediately hooked!

The open is usually followed by a logo or graphic to help separate it from what comes next. These title graphics allow you to transition from one moment to another. Often it’s the studio logos you see at this point. If you want the logos at the very head of the trailer instead, you might just cut to a “This Summer” or “From Director X” card here.

After your intriguing open, start Act One of your basic three-act structure. Act One typically sets up the story: where I am, the world I’m in, who my main characters are, why they are interesting.

Act Two presents the conflict. Who are my antagonists? What are my main characters going to have to overcome in this story? What is this movie going to be about? Every trailer varies, but you typically want to be in act two by about a minute in.

Act Three is what I like to call “montage land”—once you’ve gotten your story out of the way, you generally just cut a montage of images to music (with cool lines sprinkled in) until you hit your main title at the end. By this point, I want to see my characters off on their adventure. I want to see good performances. I want to see dramatic dialogue about how they may or may not save the day.

Use story cards throughout to convey your point. For example, “This summer,” “get ready,” “to rumble!”

You might want to have one last dramatic line before your title, or a cool end moment after the title. Sometimes you have both. What you’re trying to accomplish is a takeaway line that your audience will remember—the “tag.”

Step Four: Pick Your Music

Hopefully you, by now, have an idea of what your film is about, and what “feel” you want it to have. Music is instrumental (no pun intended) to creating that feel. Thriller? Tense music. Comedy? Light and fun music. You should be able to tell, when you throw some dialogue up against a music track, if it feels like the right fit or not.

Music with lyrics can tell your story more effectively if the song is telling a similar story. In 300: Rise of an Empire, we used a new rendition of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”—“generals gathered in their masses/just like witches at black masses.” You can see how that lent itself perfectly to visuals of Greek soldiers fighting off invading Persian ships. When you get a lock like that between the music and your storytelling, a trailer can really have an effect on people.

Use sound effects to bring your visuals to life. Add drum hits and cymbal rolls to downbeats to give them more weight.

Music should build in intensity throughout the trailer. Sometimes this requires using two or three music cues. Nothing is worse than a trailer that feels like the same note all the way through. So your open might start minimally, with just a few piano tinklings. Then, by Act One, you’re hearing the introduction of a melody. In Act Two, it starts to build more intensity, and by Act Three you should be into the big chorus of a song.

You’re probably thinking, “Man, music is expensive to license!” It’s true. If your trailer is just for promotional use, you can sometimes get away with using unlicensed stuff. You run a risk with that, but you typically don’t have a problem until you start making money from it. If you want to do everything by the book, I recommend reaching out to local bands or exploring “library music,” which is plentiful online. Many tracks cost around a hundred bucks. The more you are willing to pay, the better the production value and sound will be, of course—though certain musicians, like Moby, make some of their music available for free if it’s just for use in film festivals.

Step Five: Create Audio Structure

If you try to do everything at once, you are going to get very frustrated. I suggest that your visuals be the last thing you work on; I find that building my audio shell first is the way to go. Cut in your music cues, put dialogue up against it, and make sure everything “sounds good,” before you start to illustrate with your visuals. That means placing your dialogue or narration before musical downbeats, not on them. Allow the lyrics to play in between dialogue so that they aren’t fighting each other. Once you have the audio right, you can begin placing visuals.

Step Six: Cut Picture, and Make it Sing

Finally, time to start cutting picture. If the song has lyrics, make sure the shots you see over the lyric make sense. The same goes for dialogue. You want the visuals to enhance what you’re hearing, not fight it.

Sprinkle in wide shots to help give things scope and tell people where they are—the skyline of New York City, or a mountain range. These shots will also help make your movie feel like it has high production value. Ideally, you’ve already shot footage like this, but if not, with today’s easy access to stock footage—and drones— it shouldn’t be too hard incorporating scope into your trailer. Place those big shots on big musical downbeats to give them more emphasis. Place your graphics (“From Director X,” “This November,” etc.) on downbeats as well to give them dramatic weight.

Think “cause and effect” with your shot flow. If a character is shooting a gun, I would cut to an explosion. If I place this explosion on a musical downbeat, it’s going to be more exciting than if it was in the middle of a musical phrase. Your indie film may not have a ton of super-exciting shots, but do the best you can. Break up the focal length of your visuals so there is variety for the eye. Head shot after head shot is visually stale.

One last tip: Watch trailers of other films that are like yours for inspiration. Then go on, put together something that will truly wow. MM

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Complete Guide to Making Movies 2017 issue.

Originally from Houston, Texas, Chris St. Pierre has been cutting trailers and other advertising media in California for more than 10 years. He is a staff editor at Mob Scene in L.A., and has won both a Key Art and Golden Trailer Award for his work on the Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes films. He has produced and edited projects such as the mockumentary Beer Pong: Behind the Glory (2008), documentary Where My Heart Beats (2011), comedy pilot HELL-A (2014) and an exciting new travel/adventure show called Outsider. Hosted by Dyana Carmella, Outsider dares people to get out of their comfort zone, leave work behind and explore the world.