High Budget Film, Low Budget Trailer

It's pretty common to see low budget films with lackluster trailers; it's typically because they didn't specifically hire a trailer editor to make it. But what does it look like when a high budget film gets a low budget trailer? Sadly, this is a pretty common occurrence when Hong Kong films get new trailers made for the U.S. and/or international market.

Despite a wealth of amazing films and a history of influencing Hollywood, Hong Kong films are still mostly relegated to the bargain bin at the proverbial video store. For every Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon there are at least a half a dozen Jackie Chan films that were released in the United Stated dubbed in English, with 5-20 minutes cut out of it (typically because Miramax didn't like a film's sophomoric sense of humor). 

All this to say that Hong Kong films are not cash cows for the United States, which means they don't spend a lot of money on their trailers. This all came to my attention when I saw this trailer for John Woo's newest film. I'm guessing this was recut footage from a Hong Kong trailer, but later I'll explain why that's not the whole story.

My reaction to a trailer like this is disappointment and bewilderment. From looking at the shots, I can see that a lot of money went into the film, but why does it feel so... cheap? First, watch the trailer again, but this time watch it with the sound turned off. 

How did it feel this time?

It might just be me, but the trailer doesn't feel as cheap when the sound is off. Anyone who has enough experience in video production knows that high quality sound is more important than high quality visuals; I think this is a prime example of why. What is it about the sound in this trailer that makes it feel so low budget?

First is the music. Movie trailers typically license production music to make them as big and bombastic as possible. The most expensive music can cost a few to several thousand dollars per license. The cheaper music is around a few hundred or less per license, and the cheapest can get as low as $15 for royalty free use.

The people who made this trailer clearly bought cheaper trailer music. I'm not a musician, but there's a distinct sound to low budget production music that feels very insubstantial. Either it's the electronic instruments, the samples or the composer, something makes it feel like the musical equivalent of a small child trying to make their voice deeper to sound like an adult. Music does most of the work in the trailer, so this plays a HUGE part of what makes this trailer feel so cheap.

Remember that climactic slow motion in the trailer that just kind of... happened.

Remember that climactic slow motion in the trailer that just kind of... happened.

The second thing making this trailer feel so cheap are the sound effects, or lack thereof. A typical trailer timeline is mostly sound effects; a lot goes into making a trailer sound good. I'd wager there's only one track of trailer sound effects in this, MAYBE two for if a whoosh has a long tail. Sparse use of sound effects isn't a problem per se, but there are SO FEW in this trailer that when they DO appear, it's all the more underwhelming that they lack any punch or weight.

For example, the silenced pistols sound like typical silenced pistols, but it's made to look like such a big moment that it comes off as smaller. The fight scene afterwards has a very light sounding hit and some light grunting. Then after a lot of silence, we hear a woman struggling; it feels weird and haphazard.

Not long after that moment there's a classic John Woo shot of someone sliding while shooting two guns, but the sound effects are "canned" sounds from a library which sound almost cartoony. Then there's a big car crash, but the car feels like it weighs 10 pounds because of the metal sound effects.

The English in these graphics don't help much, but the style is very generic.

The English in these graphics don't help much, but the style is very generic.

Then there are the 3D title graphics. The design of a trailer's graphics play a huge role in its aesthetic. For example, comedies typically have big blocky text, and dramas often have understated serif typefaces. 3D graphics like these look like paint-by-numbers "EPIC" trailer graphics that don't feel like they tie into the film at all. Hong Kong trailers frequently have graphics like these.

They feel like someone looked up epic trailer titles tutorial on YouTube instead of getting someone to art direct the trailer. Just like the low budget music, these graphics feel like someone trying to punch above their weight, and it looks like it every step of the way.

Similarly, the stylistic choices in the editing feel like it's trying to hard to make the film look "cool." Trailers that do a lot of speed changes on the footage or uses "flutter cuts" where image rapidly blinks back and forth from black tend to feel to me like an editor who is trying too hard. These techniques have their time and place, but when used so excessively they look like a person using nunchucks and then hitting themselves in the face.

You might've missed the explosion, because you can barely hear it.

You might've missed the explosion, because you can barely hear it.

Most importantly, the editing lacks direction. One problem is that foreign film trailers in the U.S. almost never get to have subtitles, which means the trailers have to do everything in their power to never show anyone talking. This is why the trailer graphics do their best to frame the story of the film, but even with that framing the trailer is mostly just showing action scenes instead of trying to tell the story.

From the title I know that it's a movie about a man on the run, but who are the women in this trailer? Why are women being strangled or killed, and who are the women with the silenced pistols? None of these scenes feel connected. Who is the woman with the horse? The audience wants nothing more than to make connections between the images, but this trailer does virtually nothing to make it easy for them.

Now look at this other trailer for the same film.

This trailer still isn't that great, but it's better than the other one by a long shot. The music feels fuller, and the sound design isn't quite as airy (it could still be improved quite a bit though).

Even if you watch this trailer without subtitles, the first several shots tell the story visually. A woman is dead, a man is the suspect and he's on the run; this was all done without title cards flat out telling us what's happening. Later we get some shots that seem to indicate that the women are assassins after the protagonist for whatever reason. It's not much to go off of, but it's SOMETHING.

So to sum up, it's possible to take gold and make it look like poo in the following ways:

  1. Low budget music trying to punch above its weight

  2. Lackluster sound effects

  3. Badly art directed graphics

  4. Editing without intent or direction

  5. Editing with "style" for the sake of it

Seriously tho, this shot says nothing except: "This pretty actress is in the film."

Seriously tho, this shot says nothing except: "This pretty actress is in the film."

In other words, this trailer shows a lack of meaningful creative decisions. It feels like someone read one of the many trailer "tutorials" I've seen that include tips like: "Use the best scenes!" or "Try fading to black!" These tips are useless if you don't make those decisions with some sort of thought and intention.

Editing is a mix of experimentation and decisions. Experimentation is to explore possibilities, but decisions are what determine the final structure, and if there are no answers to why you're making those decisions, then it's necessary to slow down and think. Otherwise you're like a chef just throwing all the ingredients into a pot because you heard they were good, and then plating it like you saw in a high end food documentary.