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A funny thing about blockbuster summer movies? Consistency. Previews, for example, all feature similarly bombastic drums, intercut with thumping helicopter rotors, the sounds of guns being loaded, and (most notably) no shortage of technologically-textured explosions. Considering the fact that this is the era of the international box office—wherein feature films high on spectacle and low on dialogue are more likely to cross language barriers—it makes perfect sense that trailers for these high budget popcorn exports speak more through a nonverbal language of sound design and special effects than English.
But while the plots of today’s biggest movies range from ancient mythological yarns through futuristic intergalactic space warfare, why do their trailers sound the same?
Max Douglas, an editor at Transit—the company behind trailers including The Lego Movie, the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles vehicle, and more—simply suggests that, “The audience for those movies must like that style.” He explained to The Creators Project over email that multiple trailers are made for big-budget Hollywood films, then shown to focus groups in malls across America.
In this context, most trailers sound they way they do because the market approves—the target Transformers watcher enjoys the harsh digi-noise that accompanies robot fight sequences the same way the average 22 Jump Street fan prefers popular hip hop— but this isn’t always the case. As Douglas explains, “If it's a Tom Cruise movie, and Tom Cruise prefers a trailer over one everyone else liked, [the studio will] release the one he likes.”
Over the past 20 years, sound design developed alongside advancements in nonlinear editing softwares, including Avid Media Composer and Final Cut Pro. In a phone conversation, trailer editing expert Mark Woollen explained the radical progression of editing technology since he started his career in the analog age: where, once upon a time, few audio tracks were available, limiting the numbers of available sound sources, today’s softwares allow up to 48 synced, separated audio tracks.
“People get incredibly inventive with the tools that are available,” Woolen tells The Creators Project. As a person responsible for trailers for some of the most successful indie films ever, Woollen himself is one of those incredible sonic inventors.
Take his trailer for Joel and Ethan Coen's 2009 film A Serious Man: the slamming sound that accompanies trailer’s first image, of nebbish protagonist, Larry Gopnik, being pummeled against a chalkboard, becomes a chaotic cadence that gives a rhythm to the successive series of images from the film. Atop the steady, pounding beat, an intricate, sickly musical rhythm is built around sound effects ripped from moments from the film. From an old woman’s pained hacks, to a car accident, and even a rabbi’s groans, Woollen explains that his goal was to encapsulate, “The whole story, this character who is caught up in this cycle of all of these forces in his life.”
While the external obstacles presented to Gopnik are conveyed on a cursory level— turmoil within his job and family lives, questions of his own faith feature heavily in the trailer’s dialogue— Woollen understood that the audience would be best treated to a trailer that drew them into, “this kind of crazy fever dream cacophony nightmare.”
For Woollen, trailer editing is a form of remixing, the ultimate goal of which is to “encapsulate the viewing and a little bit of the story.” Just as with the groove of a good dance remix, a trailer's success is highly dependent on good timing: “It all comes down to fractions of seconds whether the thing is funny as it could be, or as serious as it might be.” Like a typical remix artist, Woollen works with stems— distinct elements of audio and video from the film— to cut with as he pleases. It’s undoubtedly a mode of trailer production tailor-made for the new millennium, but Woolen’s not the only one to use it:
The Spectacle Theater, a repertory cinema in Brooklyn which was converted from a bodega into a 30-seat “microtheater,” is an eccentric organization that runs a consistent schedule of midnight movies and retrospectives of obscure and forgotten filmmakers. Best known for screening The Shining Backwards and Forwards, Simultaneously, Superimposed, a project by local musician and Room 237 documentary subject, John Fell Ryan, Spectacle Theater has churned out over 500 original trailers for the films it has shown, a vast majority of which are viewable on the organization’s Vimeo page.
Over email C. Spencer Yeh, one of the most active trailer editors at Spectacle, explains that their teasers are like “mini-collages and mini-movies unto themselves.” A name you'd certainly recognize if you kept tabs on this century’s noise music scene, Yeh’s trailers are often musical affairs, boasting obscure, dusty covers of well-known pop songs, and strange juxtapositions of sounds occurring from within the film cut around what Yeh refers to as, “a certain cadence rhythm.” He admits that editors at Spectacle “often don't have access to isolated [audio] tracks,” so instead, they rely on the figurative principle of “using every part of the buffalo.”
While Spectacle exists outside the world where major industry movers and shakers make the final editing decisions, and in turn, produces material significantly more quirky than run-of-the-mill Hollywood teasers, any cursory perusal of any of the 515 teasers on Spectacle’s website suggests that many of the same principles that guide Douglas' blockbuster trailers, and Woollen's indie ‘remixes’ are universal: whether the auditory means are musical or otherwise, the sound in a movie trailer needs to make an audience move.