How a Short Trailer Can Feel Incredibly Long

An experienced trailer editor can make two minutes fly by, and a less experienced one can make a minute feel like an eternity. Why is this, and how can it be avoided?

The two most basic mistakes are:

  1. Editing with no intention
  2. Music used as background noise

What do I mean by editing with no intention? Humans like to seek out patterns; we like to make sense of things that we see. If we watch a trailer where the editor is cutting on the beat, we can recognize that. If a gameplay trailer has a montage where the weapons are getting incrementally more powerful, that's easy to recognize. If there's a story being told, that's of course something we can latch onto. Or maybe there are just really cool transitions, anything to give us a reason to keep watching.

 Trailers need to give the audience reason to keep watching

Trailers need to give the audience reason to keep watching

If there's no progression, no story, no style, and the clip selection is seemingly random, the trailer will get boring VERY quickly. The audience shouldn't know where the trailer is going, but they should feel it's going somewhere.

The dulling effect of random clip editing can be mitigated somewhat if the music is amazing, but even great music can become boring if not used well. This brings me to treating music like background noise.

One of the surest sign of a less experienced editor is when it's clear they didn't know what to do with its music or seemed to be willfully ignoring it. A trailer that doesn't cut to or with the music feels flat and dull. Music is one of the most effective ways to evoke some sort of emotion from the audience; not using it to do so is just a waste.

 Music shouldn't be overcome by the other trailer elements

Music shouldn't be overcome by the other trailer elements

In my trailers I want the music and other elements to augment each other; it's both a conversational and symbiotic relationship between the two. What I don't want is for the music to disappear into the background and become a one-sided conversation. I talked about this in part of my post about the first Harry Potter movie trailer. The music in that trailer merely sits there while the visuals and dialogue are off doing their own thing.

Another good example of music in a trailer with little to do is in the trailer for Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. Starting around 0:40 the music does virtually nothing other than provide a touch of Star Wars flavor (unless you've never heard the Star Wars score, in which case it probably does little to nothing for you). The music does change several times in the trailer, but it doesn't interact with the editing. The transitions between the tracks don't assert themselves either, and music transitions are usually what a trailer editor uses to mark a big moment.

The audience craves variety, especially when watching a trailer which is typically a barrage of audio and visuals. If a music track is used like background noise, it makes the trailer feel much longer than it actually is, because the audience will quickly adapt and learn that nothing new is going to happen musically. If on top of that, the editor doesn't cut with the music, it will feel that much more monotonous.

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Think about eating a piece of white bread and eating a piece of raisin bread (if you don't like raisins, think of something else tasty that gets sprinkled into bread). If you take two or three bites of the white bread, you know what you're in for. If you take a bite of raisin bread you might get no raisins, but if you get a raisin in the second bite, then you're hooked for the long haul because you know a bite of bread is bringing you closer to another raisin. This sense of anticipation is what a good trailer will instill in an audience.

Trailer music needs to give the audience just enough of those metaphorical raisins that they'll tolerate the bread in anticipation of another raisin; the editor also needs to cut the music in a way to say: "LOOK AT THIS RAISIN!" when they appear. This back and forth relationship between music and other elements is something I talked a lot about when it comes to watching trailers analytically.

 Trailers need some back and forth in their editing.

Trailers need some back and forth in their editing.

It really takes surprisingly little to make a trailer or video just a little bit more engaging. Cutting on the beat is the simplest one, and it already circumvents the two things I mentioned here, because it shows intention, and it uses the music. Having a good handle on cutting to the beat establishes a nice baseline which can be built upon with more sophisticated editing.

So whether you're a trailer editor, aspiring trailer editor, or just trying to figure out why the heck you find a trailer so uninteresting to watch, pay attention to what the music is doing, and whether the editing has some sort of pattern or intention behind it. Keeping an eye out for these things will make you a better editor, and a more sophisticated viewer!


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 You should always be anticipating more in a trailer!

You should always be anticipating more in a trailer!