I'll sometimes facetiously tell people that all I do in my work is sync cuts, motions and actions to the beat of the music. This isn't untrue, but that go-to reply made me realize that I don't think I've ever said flat out what is going through my mind while I'm working on a trailer. What are the things I think about that guide my cutting decisions?
The best way I found to explain this is to go through a brief history of some select things I've edited going all the way back to the first thing I ever cut freshman year of college.
Here are six things I tell myself to do on each project, and the first videos that employed those techniques:
1. Match cuts and actions to the beat of the music
This is nearly universal in all the things that I cut. I do this because it's satisfying for me to see things in sync. Even in trailers that use less beat driven music, I'll still do my best to find something to sync to. I've done this ever since I started editing, as evidenced in this video which is the first trailer-like thing I ever edited.
During my freshman year of college, the movie "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" was a highly anticipated film (at least, in my circle of friends); on the official website they periodically released very short clips from the film with no audio. I was so excited for the release that I edited a fan trailer using music from Final Fantasy Tactics.
I made no effort whatsoever to tell a story; I just cut together title cards with the available shots. Every cut and action is there simply to match the music as well as possible. For example: the rising harp notes matched to a rising crane shot, the eye blinking on the music crash (it's a little bit off), the motion of the soldier getting up matched to the music crescendo, and the motion of the shuttle matching the vocals at the end.
This technique is called Mickey Mousing because in the classic Mickey Mouse cartoons, the on-screen actions matched the music perfectly. I always try to make picture cuts land on the beat, but cutting on every music beat can get repetitive very quickly (and even nauseating if done too frequently) so I try to mix up it up by matching beats and musical moments to onscreen motions and actions.
I made at least a dozen of these Final Fantasy videos set to different Final Fantasy songs I liked; my only goal was to sync moments on screen to the music. All the videos used the same clips from Final Fantasy CG cutscenes; most didn't even have any sort of ending, but it ended up being good editing practice. Had YouTube existed back then, I definitely would've had a channel full of Final Fantasy videos.
2. Match the music to the picture
Wait, is this not the same thing as #1? Not precisely. Sometimes the music is just fine, so the visuals get cut to the music, but with more advanced editing you're shaping the music into what you want the structure of the finished piece to be.
Here's another fan trailer I made cut to music from "The Rock." 40 seconds in, there's a terrible music edit. I wanted to skip to the good part so I just faded the two pieces together. Nowadays my music edits are much better than this (at least I hope they are), but editing music to serve the purposes of the trailer's structure is something I try to do for every single project.
If this terrible music edit is the beginning of my learning to edit music, my technique for adding markers to music for easier editing represents when I learned to be more deliberate and efficient with my music edits.
It's very rare for me to make a trailer where the music doesn't get edited down to better suit the cut. Usually it's done for length, and also to ensure that a section of music doesn't overstay its welcome. Every new section of the trailer is an opportunity to raise the stakes by cutting to a different part of the music cue.
Trailers where the picture cutting shows no relationship to the music (or vice versa) feel very monotone to me. This is the one thing that causes me to get bored, and think to myself: "How long is this trailer?"
3. If you say it, show it.
In trailers, lines of dialogue or song lyrics always get paired with a visual, even if it's a white or black screen. Most of the time it's obvious what to cut to each line, for example in a heist film if they're describing the place they're breaching, you would cut that dialogue to shots of the building, the safe, and security guards etc.
Other times the dialogue is about something more abstract, but you still need to show SOMETHING. Sophomore year of college I made my first anime music video by pairing Satoshi Kon's psychological thriller "Perfect Blue" to "Every Breath You Take" by The Police. This AMV is essentially a reel of those sort of abstract visual matchups.
(Content warning for stalking)
Most AMVs are built upon these sort of tenuous juxtapositions; trailers do this quite often too. It can get very hokey, so it's important to be aware of what effect this sort of visual pairing creates.
4. Add sound design for emphasis
In my first job as an editor, I had a lot of creative freedom, so I went to town adding sound design and effects all over my trailers. Looking back, it's absolutely ridiculous how much I put into some of them. I was like someone who gets their hands on editing software for the first time, and decides the best thing to do is use ALLLLLLLL the video filters.
Nowadays I try to make my sound design less in-your-face; it's there to enhance the moment, not draw attention to itself.
5. Excite, tell the story, and excite again.
The goal of a trailer is to tell a story in a short and engaging way. This is typically done via dialogue, narration and title cards; these elements are what make something a trailer and not a music video.
At that same job, I rarely had clean dialogue audio stems to work with, so for this trailer I wanted to finally make a "real" trailer that told the story via dialogue. I was still figuring out the structure of showing cutaways between lines of dialogue, but this is most of the way to where I am now in terms of trailer structure and intent, if not execution.
6. Control the pacing
This is the fan trailer where I made a point to deliberately work on my music transitions. It took me way too long to reach this point, but I give myself some credit for being mostly self taught. Yes, I worked as an assistant at a movie trailer company the three years after college, but most of my creative editing experimentation started after I left that job.
Before cutting this, I watched several movie trailers to specifically pay attention to how many pieces of music they used, how they stopped down the music, and how they moved onto the new section. This felt like the final ingredient that gave me the tools to do everything I do now.
Nowadays, the things that challenge my editing are unique stories that can defy simple explanation or exposition. It took me a while to integrate these six ideas into my editing, but now most of them carry me through all my projects. The hard part is knowing when to employ these techniques, and when not to.
How do you know when to do something? There's no definitive answer to that because every project is different. Once you get past explanations of what buttons to press and techniques to use, the inevitable answer is that each editor just does what feels right to them.