Trailer Review - Searching

Searching is a 2018 film starring John Cho about a single father who attempts to find his missing daughter via what he can scrounge up using her computer and social media accounts; nearly the entire film is comprised of computer screens and cameras. 

While common in games, it's a rare necessity for a movie trailer to "teach" the audience what they're looking at. Most films don't have an editing style, look or structure unique enough to make people wonder what they're looking at. 

Searching doesn't actually have to work too hard to orient the audience because it's working with very familiar visual language; most of us spend a lot of time looking at desktop and mobile screens, so it's an instantly relatable space. That said, an important lesson to take from this trailer is the importance of a good dialogue edit.

First, watch this trailer without looking at it.

Even without visuals, the story is completely understandable. The core points you can pick out:

  1. There's a man who has a high school daughter named Margot

  2. Margot goes missing

  3. A detective asks for the father's help

  4. The father calls around to discover information about Margot

  5. The father learns he doesn't know much about Margot.

The audio for this trailer creates a suspenseful, and engaging arc. 

0:00-0:34 - Gentle piano for the introduction
0:34-0:42 - ominous atmosphere to make Margot's disappearance suspenseful.
0:42-1:14 - A building electronic score and a "rise" to start building tension.
1:14-2:13 - Macintosh computer "BWAAAAM" and a different suspenseful music bed underneath some suspenseful percussion as the father questions the people around Margot; this is the climax of the trailer where these audio motifs start: 

  1. The mouse clicks

  2. The father saying: "I know my daughter"

  3. The father hitting the wall

  4. A piano key

This section is using the same tricks as in the trailer for A Serious Man. Here the audio represents the cycle of the father's search: 

  1. Searching

  2. Discovering something he didn't know

  3. Getting frustrated

  4. Thinking about his daughter.

 There's a lot on this screen, but your eye is probably drawn to John Cho's face first because it's a face, and most prominent thing in the frame.

There's a lot on this screen, but your eye is probably drawn to John Cho's face first because it's a face, and most prominent thing in the frame.

Finally, the climax/rise ends on a boom, and there's a long drawn out moment where the father admits he didn't know his daughter.

Look at how much is accomplished from audio alone!

You wouldn't know anything about its visual presentation, but the core of the film is clear, visuals can only enhance the presentation from here. Let's look at what the visuals do combined with the audio. 

The trailer starts with the father looking through home videos before calling his daughter. Right away, this is already a pretty novel visual presentation, but this early on, we probably don't suspect the entire film is shot like this until maybe after the call with Margot is concluded, and then we get more shots of Margot as a child to establish their relationship.

 There are a lot of closeups to draw focus to objects on otherwise cluttered frames.

There are a lot of closeups to draw focus to objects on otherwise cluttered frames.

In a lot of my articles I talk about visual confusion and distraction, which despite the cluttered desktops isn't a concern here. We're naturally inclined to want to look at human faces, so those screens aren't confusing, but whenever there are no faces, there's an extreme closeup to focus the eye on something like a URL being typed in. Computers also have ways to literally highlight objects on screen, so those are used to draw our eye. 

The visuals during the investigation are classic see/say montage cutting where everything being said is given a corresponding visual to strengthen the ideas. I'm also guessing there are a lot of shots where the father's webcam screen was cut out and superimposed over a computer desktop visual relevant to what he's talking about or who he's talking to. No sense in wasting the screen space on something that doesn't help tell the story. 

The climax follows the same see/say format, but is cut even faster. Even though the shots are fast, the fact we're watching a repeated cycle makes it easier to understand the visuals each time they repeat because we're expecting them. There are also some title cards that say: "WE ARE WHAT WE HIDE." This section benefits from visuals the most, because as the audio gets more fast cut, it's harder to parse what is going on, but we can see the father getting deeper into the investigation, and intense things happening. 

 You probably missed this very quick shot in the climax, but the audio is still there to highlight this story moments even if you can't process the images quickly enough.

You probably missed this very quick shot in the climax, but the audio is still there to highlight this story moments even if you can't process the images quickly enough.

I really like this trailer, and as I wrote this my appreciation for it grew even further. It's very tightly edited, exciting, and really made me want to see the movie based on the novelty of its presentation (Also I just like John Cho).

Another thing this trailer has going for it is the familiarity of its missing person premise. There are a lot of stories like this where the parent doesn't know their teenager, and then fights tooth and nail to find them, so our built in expectations give us mental headspace to process what we haven't seen before. 

For game trailers especially, there are three good lessons to take from this:

  1. Introduce stuff, and show them on screen

  2. Teach/prepare the audience for what they're going to see

  3. Repeat ideas to reinforce them

For movie trailers, 1 is old hat, but 2 and 3 don't come up as often, and are more of a necessity in games because even if a game is in a familiar genre, the audience still needs to know just how much is familiar, and what is unique. The bottom line is, trailers are ways to communicate ideas and to excite. Oftentimes people try to go exclusively for excitement, but without proper setup it's just visual/audio confusion. So focus on information, then feel free to jazz up the presentation to strengthen that information, and make it fun to watch!

Update: Here’s a great behind-the-scenes look at how the film’s animatic was created before production started. You can see how everything was created in Premiere, After Effects and Illustrator, and the decisions made to serve the story by directing the eye and making everything easy to understand.