This post originally appeared in my Sunday newsletter where I talk about trailers. If you like these posts, please subscribe!
After college I worked at Giaronomo Productions, the trailer house that produced trailers for the entire Matrix trilogy. They were all edited by senior editor Phil Daccord, who made trailers for countless blockbuster films; to this day his editing is an inspiration to me. The story goes that the finished trailer is the FIRST version he presented to the client, which is a god damn miracle.
The trailer for the first Matrix film is one of my all time favorites. The film's mix of visuals and writing were practically tailor made to be cut into a trailer.
This is what it's like to cut a trailer under ideal conditions.
First watch the trailer, and then we can talk about three act structure, and dialogue!
Okay, I know I just said trailers have three acts, but I'm going to add one to the beginning. You might know about the line of rising action, which is used to describe narratives in film. Well I made up my own for trailers that looks like this:
There are of course exceptions to the rule, but the general idea is to start a trailer strong to grab the attention, then calm down to then start building back up to the climax. If a trailer feels high energy all the time, then none of it will feel high energy.
The Cold Open
Not all trailers have a cold open, but a LOT of them do. The purpose of a cold open is to hit the ground running with some very exciting, humorous or dramatic scene that requires very little context to understand, or quickly provides its own context.
Before the first shot, the treatment of the logo combined with music, and sound effects give us a science fiction vibe.
The trailer literally hits the ground running when we see Trinity running across rooftops. This is already an inherently suspenseful setup, because we want to know why she's running; is she being chased or is she chasing someone? The third shot is her making an impossibly long jump. Neo (hopefully) speaks for the audience: "Whoa."
This cold open is fantastic because it's short, exciting, and from a mere three shots we already want to know more about the movie. This leads into:
Here is where the premise of the story is established, usually via exposition or a bunch of questions to be answered.
You can't unsee this:
At the beginning of a trailer or after the logos, pay attention to the music; 9 times out of 10 it'll be something like light violins. The purpose of the music is to build tension, but unobtrusive to the dialogue. In production music libraries (music composed specifically for advertising), a descriptor for this tone is "Driving" as in a driving force. This trailer plays it more mysterious, and sound design-y.
In this introduction, Morpheus asks a bunch of rhetorical questions about reality vs. dreams. Trinity talks to Neo which leads to the question: "What is The Matrix?"
Morpheus gives us the exposition dump about The Matrix, yet he doesn't explicitly say what it is, we just see some more vague imagery, and hear some abstract ideas. With the basic premise established, we can move onto:
This is typically where the antagonist or central problem is introduced, and we get an idea of what the main characters are going to do about it.
The intro and escalation of this trailer blend together. The introduction of the Agents show the threat, Neo yells: "Get me the hell out of here!"
There's a flurry of images followed by a line from Morpheus:
"Welcome, to the real world."
Then after a title card we're back in The Matrix seeing that Neo's plan is to get lots of guns, and shoot lots of things.
Finally Cypher says "Buckle your seatbelt Dorothy, because Kansas is going bye bye." Cypher's line leads us into:
Here's where the protagonist does their thing, the music swells, the most interesting shots get cut in rapid succession, and at the peak of excitement, it ends and we get the title card.
Finally we have quintessential epic trailer music (The Eyes of Truth by Enigma) with a chorus that is cut to the coolest visuals from the film, a cast line up, and finally a cut to black with one last cool visual of Neo dodging bullets, and the title of the film.
The climax of this trailer stands out now because it's pretty atypical to have a section in a trailer this long with no dialogue or additional sound effects.
We already know that "The Matrix" has great visuals, but in terms of trailer editing, its dialogue is really what must've made it one of the most joyous editing experiences ever. One of the first things a trailer editor does is break down the dialogue into individual bits that can be taken out of context and rearranged.
The Matrix's trailer is a great cheat sheet for the kind of categories an editor might break dialogue down into. The dialogue is especially suited towards trailers because so much of it is incredibly dramatic; trailers don't trade in subtlety. Here are the lines and why this category is important.
"The Matrix is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth."
It's pretty unheard of nowadays to have a trailer narrator start off with "In a world..." this means short and illustrative lines of exposition are the bread and butter of a trailer. If you have a character flat out describing something, then of course you're going to want to put that in your timeline, and cut it with shots of what they're talking about.
Rhetorical questions & straightforward questions
"Have you ever had a dream Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world, and the real world?"
"What is happening to me?"
"What is The Matrix?"
"So what do you need?"
Rhetorical questions are good fodder for cutting with abstract imagery. People always hate when trailers feel like they're spoiling everything in the film, so abstract ideas and rhetorical questions are a nice way of hinting at the thesis of the film while keeping it vague.
Straightforward questions are good for setting up lines of dialogue or actions. When I'm organizing dialogue I always separate out all the questions, and see what I can pair them with (assuming the answer that immediately follows within the scene isn't what I'm looking for).
Seriously though, just look at this dialogue. Everything question here is just begging to be paired with a visual or punchy trailer moment. Dialogue this is sometimes specifically recorded or cobbled together for the trailer because there wasn't one line that worked as well.
Statements that provide their own context
"The answer is out there Neo, it's the question that drives us"
"They're watching you Neo."
"Human beings are a disease, you are a cancer of this planet. We, are the cure."
"Welcome, to the real world."
"So you're here to save the world."
"No one has ever done anything like this."
"Buckle your seatbelt Dorothy, 'cause Kansas is going bye bye."
Statements like these are great because they're short, they set up moments of action in the trailer, and show character motivation. Statements that are short and to the point, and describe a subject doing something are great for beefing up the action in a trailer, because they're easy to pair with visuals.
Frequently, grand sweeping statements that sum up a character's ideology get used during end montages where the editor isn't worrying about matching dialogue to visuals anymore, but want something grand and epic to fill the air and set the mood.
Trailer editors will usually latch onto any noun in a line of dialogue, and try to find an image that will go with it; the chosen visual will often be INCREDIBLY LITERAL, but it still works. A simple example is an establishing shot of a setting when it's said in a line of dialogue "The Matrix is the world..."
The most ridiculously perfect line of trailer dialogue
"Unfortunately no one can be told what The Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself."
This sort of line of dialogue is absolutely ridiculous because it perfectly fits into the context of the film, and the context of the marketing. There's no category for this sort of line, except: PUT THIS INTO THE END OF THE TRAILER.
Music the backbone of a trailer, but dialogue is what helps an editor choose visuals, because only certain shots will pair with each line of dialogue.
For example, "Human beings are a disease..." should be paired with a visual that has humans in it, or evokes the presence of humans. It wouldn't make sense to have a shot of trees. Some trailers make very tenuous visual connections to the dialogue, but it still works. This style of editing is actually very similar to what anime music video editors do when telling a story. It's rare that a song perfectly matches the story of the anime it's paired with, so the editors just try to match every lyric with a visual that sort of makes sense.
After each line of dialogue is cut to supporting visual, it's just a matter of filling out the gaps with other exciting visuals, accents, and action scenes. I just said a mouthful, but this is the process I go through when editing trailers with dialogue. As agonizing as the creative process can be, choosing music and dialogue helps provide a path to work within. I always welcome constraints, because they help me focus.
A few weeks after the release of The Matrix, the Columbine Massacre in the United States happened. After this, the MPAA became especially sensitive about guns in trailers. It became an unspoken rule that trailers could not include shots of guns pointing directly at the camera. Therefore, this trailer would've NEVER been approved as is because of the numerous shots of guns pointing at camera.
This is even more evident in the trailers for the Matrix sequels because international trailers have plenty of guns being shot towards the camera, but the domestic ones avoid them entirely. Guns pointed at people who were in the same frame were also prohibited.
Nowadays, restrictions have relaxed on content in trailers because trailers are screened for "Appropriate Audiences" meaning the rating of the film in the trailer matches the rating of the film it's shown with.
Hopefully this gave you some insight into dialogue editing for trailers, and just why I think The Matrix is the perfect example for what trailer editors hope for whenever they start a new project. In the future I'll discuss the trailers for the Matrix sequels, because there are interesting takeaways from those as well!