A Year of Making Game Trailers - 2016

2016 was my busiest year making trailers for games so far! Compared to the previous year I had a LOT more indie game gigs than agency work. This year was also the first where I felt like I had the luxury to be much more selective about the work I accepted, which made it a very creatively fulfilling year. I can only hope that I find myself in such a privileged position every year from now on. Special thanks to Kert Gartner who referred what amounted to nearly half of the independent game projects I worked on this year! Thanks also to every email, tweet or comment that put my name in front of the eyes of people that I was fortunate enough to work with.

Here's a look back at a number of the trailers I worked on, with a small look behind the scenes for each.

1-2. Firewatch Launch Mini-Trailers/Accolades Trailer

About a month before Firewatch's release, Campo Santo called me up to make their launch trailer. My first attempt was more of a "traditional" approach with accolade quotes from game previews intercut with dialogue from the game.

While working on it, I also made some joke trailers which were just one scene followed by a smash cut to the title. I thought it was funny to take one moment that clearly did not sum up the entirety of the game, and cut to the title as if to say: "That the game!" I later pitched these vignettes as videos they could share on social networks.

After seeing a few rough drafts of my full trailer, Campo Santo realized they didn't want to show more of the story, so the Launch Mini-Trailers were born! I made about half a dozen, and we settled on three small moments. These mini-trailers challenged my game capture/performance skills rather than my editing skills. Since the majority were one-take captures I had to make sure everything was timed, and smooth as possible. None of the previous videos had game UI, so it was our opportunity to show how the game played. The guitar riff for the "Trowel" mini-trailer still cracks me up every time I watch it.

At the last minute (9PM the night before they were due) Jake pitched me on another mini-trailer which showed pretty vistas set to music. I quickly knocked it out that night, and made some tweaks the following morning. I felt the greatest sense of pride when Campo Santo told me they wish they had found some of my shots, and used them for the official screenshots!

I like that the idea for the mini-trailers came organically from just messing around saying "Hey, this would be funny..."

The Accolades trailer was both for the Xbox One release, and also the reveal of the Audio Tour mode. For this trailer I revisited the draft I made that didn't get used for the Launch trailer. I chose to cut with the music from the original reveal trailer because I like in trailer campaigns when they revisit a piece of music and re-contextualize it, but mostly it was because I selfishly wanted to cut with that music. Campo Santo gathered some good quotes from various reviews, designed the title cards for the trailer, and I chose dialogue that spanned a range of moments from the game that showed Henry and Delilah's relationship, and also a bit of the mystery.

For the cold open I used one of the mini-trailer ideas that didn't get used in the first batch. This many trailers into the campaign it took extra long to find beautiful shots that hadn't been used yet. I did a LOT of backtracking in the game to look at areas with lighting you don't normally see in those places.

As explained in the Audio Tour, there are triggers to change the time of day that are cleverly hidden in areas where you're not looking at the sun. So I would cross a trigger, then backtrack to areas to see them with the new light. Both the color of the light and position of the sun made a HUGE difference in the compositions I could get.

3-4. Thimbleweed Park - Ray/Delores Trailers

I got this project via a referral from Lars Doucet, creator of Defender's Quest. He was the one of the developers whose game was in the Humble Weekly Bundle trailer I made in 2014. I had already heard of Thimbleweed Park, so I knew it was being headed by Ron Gilbert, which meant OF COURSE I took this job!

Most of the work for the Ray trailer was finding the story to tell. Ron wanted someone outside of the game to take a look at what they had of the game so far, and hone in on the trailer's narrative. The only guideline I had was the trailer had to center around the character Agent Ray, and have a film noir-ish tone.

I played as much of the game that I could, and wrote up a rough script based on actual dialogue, and story moments. I even listened to Diane... The Twin Peaks Tapes of Agent Cooper for inspiration on how to approach Ray's narration.

Then Ron took my draft, and translated it into something that fit the voice of the character. With a more complete script I went about capturing interesting looking settings, and unique animations. Point-and-click adventure games are very difficult to make trailers for because there's not usually a lot of movement, so unique moments outside the normal walking and picking up animations are what look best.

Ron did final capture for the trailer, and sent it to me to cut together. There was some back and forth to tighten the script.

The thing I enjoyed most about this project was of course collaborating with Ron on the script, and then having free reign to make suggestions for the trailer structure, and shot selection. While not the most labor intensive trailer I've worked on, it was very fulfilling, especially after seeing the very positive reaction from the community they've fostered around this game!

The process of making the Delores trailer was similar to the first, but the narration changed the breadth of areas we could explore. The Ray trailer is very moment by moment, while Delores' trailer tells a bigger story about her family and the town. This allowed us to explore more environments that were only teased in the first trailer.

5-6. Absolver Announce/PSX Trailers

Absolver is another project I got via referral from Kert Gartner. This was one of those projects where I knew I wanted to work on it just from the screenshots. Unique art direction in games is a truly special thing, so when it comes along in my inbox I LEAP at the opportunity. It didn't hurt that the game involved martial arts. (Fun fact: The entire team consists of people who practice martial arts!)

The team already had a rough cut for the trailer when they came to me, but they wanted to see if I could do anything to improve upon it. At this point I wasn't official hired, but after watching their draft I immediately saw several things that could be done to improve the pace and feel. So I spent a little time restructuring the pace, and structure.

They liked what I did, and not long after, they contacted me again to be the editor on the trailer. They performed all the capture, and occasionally I'd ask them for an alternate angle, but mostly I was just re-cutting to the best of my ability. For the majority of the time, there was no music, so I had to cut from my own sense of timing.

By the end of the project they had a composer, and some music that I adjusted my cut to. A couple shots were swapped out for the final edit by the developer, but I feel confident I put my stamp on this one.

The PSX trailer also went through the same process as the reveal trailer, but there was the added bonus of seeing it on the big screen during the PSX presentation!

Sometimes it's just fun to take something rough, and put your own finesse on it to make it even better. This is very much one of those projects, and I'm happy that I was able to lend a hand!

7-8. Cosmic Trip Early Access/Oculus Trailers

I won't go too much into this since I wrote a full blog post about making this trailer. I previously met Funktronic Labs' co-founders Eddie Lee and Kalin at various game events like IndieCade and E3. We'd previously met for lunch, talked about trailers, and the unique challenges that VR games create for trailers. If you sit me down to talk about trailers I'll pretty much take up every minute of your time. Later they hired me for the gig!

This was my first VR trailer, which opened up a whole new level of expertise I'd have to work on for future trailers.

The second trailer had a might tighter turnaround, but I pretty much gave a very generalized pitch, and got to work. At this point in the game's development there were quite a few new features to show, so I wanted to make this trailer a broader overview of what's in the game, and to just make it look like a lot of fun. While the first trailer was made with the intent to educate the audience, for this one I felt we could just show a lot of stuff without worrying it would look too confusing.

The sound design in the game is something I really wanted to showcase because it really makes every moment very punchy. I did a lot of capture where I'd choreograph several beats within a shot to match up to the music. To get the timing I'd either loop the music on my computer or use a metronome while capturing.

9. Quadrilateral Cowboy Release Trailer

Another dream project! I got this one via Jake Rodkin of Campo Santo who previously helped Brendon Chung with the trailer for his game Thirty Flights of Loving, which was a Kickstarter reward for the Idle Thumbs podcast that Jake is also part of along with Chris Remo who composed the music for Thirty Flights of Loving. Phew!

I was actually on my trip to Japan when Jake asked me if I'd be interested in helping him make the trailer; Jake's time frame was very tight. I  previously played a demo of Quadrilateral Cowboy, and I love Thirty Flights of Loving so this was another easy YES!

This project is somewhere on the top of my list for the most fun I've had making a trailer for a game, despite having less than a week to do it all. Jake came up with the news broadcast conceit of the trailer, but needed help putting it together, and also doing gameplay capture. He only had the intro, and a section of credits leading into what would be the gameplay. It used a ticking clock sound effect which I immediately seized upon as an opportunity to make one of those trendy trailers which use a lot of sound effects in the score. I'm not sure that stylistic intent quite came across, but I still had fun doing it.

Game capture was EXTREMELY easy because the game is all about programming a series of actions in code, and executing on them. That meant whenever I messed up a camera move, I just re-input the code, and tried again. I could change the timing of my countdowns and even put beeps to cue certain actions.

The game itself has a freecam mode, so the only reason I needed any debug commands was to hide the game's HUD.

Chris Remo wrote the script for the trailer and Erin Yvette of Campo Santo did a beautiful job on the narration, while Jake worked on the motion graphics, VHS distortion effects etc.

I can't claim complete ownership over this trailer since it was such a collaboration, but it's a crowning achievement in my reel, and definitely one of my favorites I've ever worked on. What did I learn? It's amazing collaborating with talented people!

10. Tricky Towers Launch Trailer

Another referral from Kert Gartner! I first played Tricky Towers at PlayStation Experience, so I didn't need to be sold on it before taking the project. This project was fairly straightforward in terms of capturing, and editing in a way to teach the audience how the game works. The intro was another take on their previous trailer's intro, but in a way that I thought would tease out the premise in an amusing way.

If you've seen my work on BattleBlock Theater you'll know I'm a big fan of the After Effects physics plugin Newton, which I used for the title cards of this trailer. I still struggle to design interesting/good looking motion graphics, but for this project I instantly knew how they should look, and that I could execute on that look.

The intro was made using a special build where they recreated the tower I built in my rough cut, with some debug controls added so that I could zoom in without the loss of resolution.

As a side note, this was the first year I felt comfortable asking developers for custom tools, assets or build options to help facilitate making the trailer. I still don't know much about making games, but the speed with which I received some of these assets taught me that certain things that would take hours on my end can be relatively simple to put into a game build.

11. Anarcute Launch Trailer

Yet ANOTHER Kert Gartner referral. Seriously, I can't imagine how many requests he must get if what he has to pass along this much work.

Anarcute stands out for me because I LOVE its music! I've long said that if you want to make a trailer editor happy, give them great music to work with. Music is the lifeblood of a really good trailer, and will give the project wings.

I actually spent a lot of time figuring out how to structure this trailer. My main problem is that the whole game is cute animals rioting, and destroying buildings. In the game you find out it's because those cities and buildings are taken over by an evil corporation, but I needed to give that context to make them sympathetic. So I came up with the framing of the news broadcast windows being censored by the bad guys.

For this I got some game assets for the opening graphics, but for the middle section I asked the developers to create a special build where the in-game menus were replaced with text for the trailer. I take any opportunity to have the graphics connect with the game, so I was happy they were able to make this for the trailer. They also added a button to press to make everyone jump up and cheer!

Capturing this was fun, because there're always so many options in a 3D game. I also had some nice debug tools to get level shots, and also some alternate angles like the building falling on the security guards.

12. Ladykiller in a Bind (NSFW)

Yet another referral from Kert! I had never played any of Christine Love's games, but I was familiar with her work, so that got me excited to work on this project.

Visual novels usually have very detailed and pretty artwork, but not much in the way of flashy animation that make a visually exciting trailer. My initial approach was to treat it the way I would a dialogue heavy game like Firewatch.

I watched a lot of visual novel trailers, and found that they either avoided showing gameplay or they show gameplay with text that is cut off before you can read it. The vast majority of the time, it's clear the trailer maker doesn't intend for you to read the dialogue, but I find that incredibly distracting because the audience will naturally want to read text on screen.

Christine made it clear that she didn't want to sell the game as a "visual novel game" because fans of the genre aren't the ones the trailer needed to target. From playing the game I could tell that the most important part of the game is its colorful cast of characters. When I asked her for some bulletpoints, Christine wanted to make sure the audience knew about the game: "It's gay. It's really gay."

With that in mind I knew I had to establish the main character is a woman dressed as a man as quickly as possible. Then I went through the game carefully selecting dialogue for each character that would hopefully tell the audience as much about their personality as possible in just a few lines.

For the presentation I recreated the in-game moments in After Effects so I could re-compose the word bubbles to the center of the screen so the audience's eyes wouldn't have to move from the middle of the screen to the bottom just to read the text while looking at the character designs.

This was a deceptively simple trailer, but I like how it came out. I hope a lot of people play this game, because it's by far the most sex positive game I've ever played, that does a fantastic job of depicting respectful and healthy sexual relationships.

13. Forza Motorsport 6: Apex - Development on the Unified Windows Platform

This was my first collaboration with Ayzenberg which is a prestigious agency in Pasadena. This was a nice change of pace where I worked closely with a producer and creative head of the studio. It was also the first time working with a producer who was also a musician, which meant that my music edits had to be EXTRA tight for this cut.

14. Xbox Play Anywhere Promo

Another project I worked on with Ayzenberg. For this I got to work with the producers and director from the very beginning making an animatic from storyboards, be on set while they filmed the promo, all the way through to the final export. There are always a lot of these sorts of promos during E3, but something to remember is that while they might be over in a couple minutes, they're the result of the work of A LOT of people coordinating so that everything is just right by the time it comes out during the show.

15. LEGO Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Poe's Quest For Survival

This was one of the trailers I worked on with Hammer Creative this year. I've worked with them several times, so it's a very streamlined process at this point. I wasn't the editor for this trailer all through the end, but except for a handful of shots, the structure and pace of it is still what I recognize from when I finished this freelance gig.

Working on LEGO games is fun because since most use dialogue  taken straight from the films, it's essentially like working on a trailer for the actual movie, just with cartoony LEGO characters.

16. LEGO Star Wars: The Force Awakens Mobile - Ottegan Assault Trailer

This is the app preview for this bit of DLC for the mobile version of LEGO Star Wars that I also made with Hammer Creative. Since they're supposed to be very simple trailers, the details I focus on are choosing very readable gameplay shots, and of course putting in a joke or two whenever possible. Pretty much everything is funnier when it's done with LEGOs.

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PHEW! 2016 was an incredibly difficult year to get through for myriad reasons, but the work I did is one thing that I can look back on, and feel good about.

Thank you again to everyone I worked with, and people who supported me. I hope to work with many of you again, and I look forward to new opportunities that will come up in the future!