Red Dead Redemption 2 and Paper Edits

I don't like Red Dead Redemption 2's third trailer; I'm going to explain why via an explanation of paper edits.

A paper edit is the trailer written in text. Since you can't see dialogue when it's in a timeline this is the fastest and most efficient way to block out a story told via dialogue and/or title cards.

The first step is to make dialogue selects from a script or video footage that you then transcribe. I sort those lines into categories like: exposition, character building, declarations, questions, action etc. I then pick my favorite lines and write down the story beats they illustrate when in isolation.

For example, for "Come out. No use hiding, I know who you are." I'd assign the story beat: "Person knows someone in hiding has a secret."

 There's no denying how pretty the game is!

There's no denying how pretty the game is!

Working from the story beats allows you to look at the bigger picture. To create the story sequence of the trailer I'll read a story beat, and try to find what would logically follow and/or precede it, and any story beats that I feel like don't fit anywhere will get tossed aside. At the end of this stage you have an outline of the trailer which you can now insert the dialogue back into.

This method is effective because it frees you from the chronological order of the dialogue. A line at the end of the story might work best at the beginning of the trailer. This is one of the many reasons it's advantageous to hire a 3rd party to make your trailers; it can be too difficult to separate your associations with the dialogue and their relationship to the larger narrative.

Which brings me back to Red Dead Redemption 2's third trailer. The first two teasers were heavy on imagery, but light on story. This trailer has a substantial amount of dialogue, and somehow it's still light on story.

After I watched this trailer I transcribed the dialogue; I wanted to understand why I didn't have any sense of the story. Here's a transcription of the dialogue and title cards. I don't know any of the character names, but I did my best to identify characters who speak multiple lines:

MUSTACHE MAN: Listen to me, we don't want to kill any of you, but trust me, we will. Wake 'em up a little!

MICHAEL MADSEN LOOKING MAN: This thing is pretty much done, we're more ghosts than people.

BY 1899 THE WEST HAD NEARLY BEEN TAMED

MUSTACHE MAN: You have got to keep faith. They will not crush us.

THE AGE OF GUNSLINGERS AND OUTLAWS HAD ALMOST PASSED INTO MYTH

WHITE EYEBROW MAN: Good 'ole Dutch, my best friend. You know how we met? A pair of hucksters trying to rob each other. Back in '78 or thereabouts.

VOICEOVER MAN: You have to love yourself a fire. It's one of the blessings. Sure, we can have fire. And we can have the knowledge of fire, but with that comes the knowledge of everything.

ROBBER MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, this is a robbery.

BLONDE MAN: The Sons of Dutch. Makes us brothers. Sometimes, brothers make mistakes.

BROWN HAIRED WOMAN: You'll never change, I know that.

WELL DRESSED MAN: All of you venerate savagery. You will die savagely.

KNIFE WIELDING MAN: Get out of here!

MUSTACHE MAN: Stay strong. Stay with me.

VOICEOVER MAN: You have to love yourself a fire.

 "This thing's almost done, we're more ghosts than people." What is the "thing" and who is "we"?

"This thing's almost done, we're more ghosts than people." What is the "thing" and who is "we"?

Now take a look at the story beats I derived from these lines of dialogue:

MUSTACHE MAN THREATENS TRAIN, DECIDES TO SHOOT

MICHAEL MADSEN MAN SAYS HIS FRIENDS ARE RELICS OF THE PAST

(TITLE CARD) THE WEST IS LESS WILD NOW

MUSTACHE MAN SAYS SOMEONE WON'T DEFEAT THEM

(TITLE CARD) AGE OF GUNSLINGERS IS IN THE PAST

WHITE EYEBROW MAN HAS A FRIEND NAMED DUTCH WHO HE MET WHILE TRYING TO ROB EACH OTHER

FIRE IS GREAT, BUT COMES WITH KNOWLEDGE

THERE'S A ROBBERY

THE SONS OF DUTCH ARE BROTHERS, SOMETHING WENT WRONG WITH THEM

WOMAN KNOWS SOMEONE WHO WILL NEVER CHANGE

WELL DRESSED MAN CALLS SOME PEOPLE SAVAGES, SAYS THEY'LL DIE

MAN THREATENS HOSTAGE WITH KNIFE

MUSTACHE MAN SAYS TO STAY STRONG AND WITH HIM

FIRE IS GREAT

 "They will not crush us" Who are "they" and who is "us" referring to?

"They will not crush us" Who are "they" and who is "us" referring to?

It might feel unfair to judge the dialogue in text because the visuals are half of the story, but the story has to work on a basic level for a new audience to follow it. This is also a large cast of characters; the audience doesn't have enough time to distinguish who is who.

The strongest theme I can find in this dialogue is the idea that this is the end of an era, but I don't know who these characters are, if they are at all related, what they want, what they're going to do or what is happening to them. 

After looking at this dialogue and the trailer for a long time, I'm guessing that "The Sons of Dutch" are probably the cast of characters the game is about, but there's nothing in this trailer that is telling me that. These story moments are selected moments of a larger narrative, but there's no connective tissue that makes them into a trailer story.

 This shot looks like it would be great for establishing the protagonists in the game, but it doesn't come until the end of the trailer, and there's no supporting dialogue.

This shot looks like it would be great for establishing the protagonists in the game, but it doesn't come until the end of the trailer, and there's no supporting dialogue.

None of the story beats or lines of dialogue can be connected by a "because", "then" or "and therefore" because they're so isolated. Some of the dialogue would be perfectly comfortable in a teaser trailer intent on keeping things vague, but in a trailer of this length, it's increasingly frustrating to hear more dialogue, and not understand any more of the story. 

If I were working on this trailer I would take the story beats I have here and either remove them or give them context for the audience. For example, after the cold open the trailer could show the fallout of that train robbery, or name drop the people responsible for it. Or the title cards about the end of gunslingers could be contextualized with gunslingers who are having difficulty adapting.

Context and juxtaposition is the core of editing; when the audience doesn't have enough information to understand the story, it'll cause them to tune out just like if their eyes get lost in visual confusion. 

So if you're working on a narrative trailer, start with a paper edit to help you find the story connections, and you'll have an easier time finding the story within the story that will make a compelling trailer!


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