This post originally appeared in my Sunday newsletter where I talk about trailers. If you like these posts, please subscribe!
Trailers are short, and quickly consumable, but I don't think that means they have to feel like junk food. My favorite trailers are like a sumptuous meal which serve a full spectrum of emotions. I don't mean that it showed the entire film, just that it told me an engaging story that felt like a complete experience. It's a tricky line to walk, because by their very nature, trailers are meant to leave you wanting more so that you go to watch the film, or play the game.
The trailer for The Thin Red Line is one of my favorites, and it walks that line perfectly.
Terrence Malick films can make great trailers because of the beauty of his shots, and heavy use of voiceover. The dialogue in The Thin Red line in particular has a lot of people explicitly discussing the themes, and ideas behind the film. This sort of dialogue doesn't always work in a film, but it almost always works in the heightened drama of a trailer.
The dialogue in this trailer is a fantastic example of what I look for when breaking down the script of a film or game.
"In this world, a man himself is nothing, and there ain't no world, but this one."
is a grand statement that talks about no specifics, but gives plenty of ideas, and words to cut visuals to. The more general or grand a statement is, the more likely it is to work well in the trailer. This isn't to say that all trailer dialogue has to be like this, but it's good for setting the scene at the beginning or summing up at the end.
Something you might not think about while watching a trailer, is they try to avoid saying the names of characters whenever possible. There are a lot of characters in this trailer, but no names. It's much better to omit them because it's just more information for the audience to process. Even in a feature film it can be hard enough to remember a character's name, so I avoid them whenever possible. As long as the audience knows the characters' roles in the story, that's what's important.
I said before that a common way of starting a trailer is opening big, settling down, and then building back up to a climax. This trailer is a good example of starting low and building up. I find this trailer engrossing from the very beginning because of the ominous sound design, and music. The structure of the trailer feels very much like the film itself.
Not quite halfway through the trailer there's a burst of energy as guns start firing, grenades and mortars explode, orders get barked, and people run at each other with bayonets. Pay attention to how the sound effects punctuate the gaps between every line of dialogue in this section; that's trailer editing 101.
After the brief section of action, the trailer resets itself with a wistful piece of music. The music is slower in tempo than the beating drums, but the trailer still feels like it's building to a climax. I think that the emotional highs the music reaches in this section are more intense than the battle scenes. Then there's more voiceover with very big statements, which fits well with that kind of sentimental music.
Finally we get the climax of the children's chorus, which is where the trailer really soars.
Quick sound mixing note: I initially thought the line "Who lit this flame in us?" was cut to come right before the first claps, but it turns out they slightly overlap the line. The second clap is mixed up much higher, and serves as nice punctuation.
Following this there's more voiceover from a soldier to his partner; this line gets nicely used to encompass the plight of all the soldiers. Finally we finish with a cast credits synced to the claps, and we're reminded that holy crap a lot of people were in this film.
Do you see what I mean by a sumptuous feast? The trailer went from suspenseful, to action-y, cuts to black, then build back ups with soaring music, and goes EVEN HIGHER with the children's chorus, and finally there's a cast line up at the end synced to the claps of the chorus (Btw, I was totally thinking about this part of the trailer when I made my Metal Gear Solid 4 fan trailer in 2010.) As the music fades out at the end of this trailer, I feel the satisfaction similar to seeing the end credits fade up at the end of a film.
The word "epic" gets thrown a lot around with trailers, but I think the definition need not be used exclusively for movies about robots rocket-punching kaiju (though that is also a VERY appropriate use for it). This trailer feels both epic and personal. Its dialogue discusses grand themes, and the personal stories emphasize that central theme.
The Thin Red Line is just shy of three hours long, so it's a big commitment to sit down and watch. I haven't watched it in years, but I frequently revisit the trailer. I think most trailers aspire to feel like the film they're cut from, but few of them pull this off as well as this one does.
The trailers I cut tend to be shorter because game trailers are usually 90 seconds or less, so the only opportunity I have to cut a full 2.5 minute trailer is in the fan trailers I cut. I aspire to make my fan trailers feel be as full of an experience as this trailer. Sometimes that means including spoilers, but I worry less about spoilers for fan work since I know people seeking them out are more likely to have played the game. This is why I think I'll always cut fan trailers, because in a short period of time, they allow me to enjoy a favorite film or game.
Of course the goal of a trailer should first and foremost be to get the audience interested in the film or game, but my second creative goal is to create something that people will enjoy unto itself.
One more thing before you go, watch the first teaser trailer for The Thin Red Line.
I remember seeing this in theaters, and rolling my eyes for a number of reasons. The first being that the late 90s were an era when it seemed like two of every major film was coming out (Deep Impact/Armageddon, Dante's Peak/Volcano etc.) so The Thin Red Line was coming out the same year as Saving Private Ryan.
The other reason that stuck in my head was the quick juxtaposition of drum music, and a guy on screen literally drumming. That cut felt too cute/silly for the subject matter, that it immediately took me out. When the final trailer came out, I was much more impressed, and interested to see the film. Trailers are interesting because it's one of the few things you can see multiple directions on using the exact same source material. A lot of these shots are exactly the same as in the full trailer, but the cutting makes it far less appealing to me.