The Differences in Making Game and Movie Trailers

Trailers for films and video games both function to excite and raise awareness, and while their methods of production overlap in some areas, there are fundamental differences that make them very different beasts.

Here are the core elements of trailer production for film and games:

  1. Film/Capture
  2. Concept & Writing
  3. Editing
  4. Graphics, Sound and Finishing
  5. Clients
  6. Competition

Film/Capture

 A photo of tapes of dailies from when I was an assistant editor. I don't know if this is an indicator of how old I am or how long it took for technology to move on.

A photo of tapes of dailies from when I was an assistant editor. I don't know if this is an indicator of how old I am or how long it took for technology to move on.

This is where movies and games differ the most. Movie trailer editors get the footage from the film, and that's it. The footage provided can range from: scenes selected by the director, a rough cut of the film, or raw dailies containing every single take filmed for the movie. Either way, there are few options for a movie trailer to add footage unless it's stock footage.

It's EXTREMELY UNLIKELY for a movie trailer editor to be able to request an insert shot or alternate take, simply because of the logistics and cost of film shoots. On very rare occasions, there are special shoots specifically for the trailer; these make trailer production more like a short film. The point is, you work with what you're given, and that's it. This is both restrictive and freeing at the same time, because it allows the editor to focus on what they have.

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Video games don't have one set of footage to send out. At most, the only footage that is pre-determined are cinematic story cutscenes, but the majority of footage for a game trailer has to be captured. Game capture is an entire discipline that doesn't exist in movies; I made an entire talk about it.

Game capture is either custom made in-engine, captured from a build of the game, or a synthesis of the two. Big AAA game companies have proprietary tools for their capture artists, and engines like Unity have functions like Cinemachine to create customized camera movements. Game capture is directing, cinematography, camera movement, and acting all in one. In some places, game capture is an entry level job, and other places it's a specialized discipline.

For movies, filming is done before trailer production, for video games, it is part of trailer production.

Concept & Writing

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Creating the concept and direction for a trailer isn't very different between movies and games, but there are unique considerations in each. They both have to show the art, mood and tone, but while movies always focus on story, games tend to focus on play. AAA game trailer campaigns typically create multiple trailers, one for the story and others for the gameplay. 

One big difference in movies, is their trailers frequently highlight the creative people involved, whether the actors, producers, director, or writer. Cast line ups often make up the last third of a trailer, and some high powered actors might have a say in how they appear in the trailer. Whereas in games, people seldom know much about the individuals behind the scenes, and it's rarely a consideration when making a trailer unless the developer or publisher has significant recognition.

By and large, coming up with an idea for a trailer for movie or game is the same process of breaking down the available ingredients, highlighting the key selling points, and weighing what to show and not to show.

Editing

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Editing is very similar between movie and game trailers, but there are stylistic choices to be considered because of audience expectation. I feel game trailers tend to be less "cutty" as in, fewer quick cuts of action; this is especially true of gameplay trailers. 

The purpose of a gameplay trailer is to communicate what it's like to play the game. Quick cuts undermine the audience's ability to parse what happens on screen. Stylized editing could even be construed as a game mechanic instead of an editing choice. For example, slow motion in a film is style, but in a game it could be a function of the game like in Max Payne. Reigning in stylized editing is less of a concern for story or cinematic trailers, but the vast majority of game trailers show some sort of play. 

Movies are of course always about the story, so they're free to play with the format as much as they want. If the trailer editor does a good job, the audience will still know roughly what to expect when they go to the theater, rent or purchase the film.

One universal truth of editing is to always question a lot of editing "tricks" like flutter cuts, and cuts that end before an idea is finished. Sometimes it can be used effectively, but other times the editor doesn't let the footage breathe because then the audience will see the flaws or weaknesses.

Graphics, sound and finishing

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These disciplines don't fundamentally vary much between movies and games. Motion graphics are the same for both. One additional option games have is the ability to make graphics in-engine by adding in assets to the game. To make 3D graphics appear to exist in movie footage, it has to be motion tracked, and composited.

Sound is largely the same too, but in games you know you're always going to be working with dialogue recorded in a booth or sound stage; movie dialogue might have to be re-recorded, scrapped or cleaned up before use. It's also less likely sound or music from the film will be available for use since those elements are typically finished last. It's also simpler to ask a video game developer: "Can you send me all the sound effects from the game?"

Finishing is the process of taking a picture locked cut, gathering the final quality versions of the footage, color grading and polishing it up. This is easier in games because there's no offline/online process; the footage from the edit is the final footage. In film, an offline edit has to be "conformed" with the final versions of the shots, cleaned up dialogue, visual effects etc. The last step in both is typically the sound mix.

Clients

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Then there are the people you work with! This is one of the biggest, if not THE biggest difference between the movie and video game trailer industry. To state the obvious: movie trailer clients make movies, and game trailer clients make games. 

The contrast between the two is most obvious when it comes to client feedback. In my experience, feedback and notes for movie trailers focus on the story structure and editing. Feedback and notes for game trailers focus on game capture; they don't want their game looking buggy or unfinished. It's the exception to the rule when a game developer comments on the story structure I cut together, the pace, or whether or not a cut landed on the music beat. In movie trailers, that feedback is the norm. 

There's also a subjective difference between clients based on my biases and observations. The video game industry makes more money than the movie industry, but it's only in movies where I thought I could feel how rich the clients and the people they represent were. Maybe it's just because the media only portrays Hollywood bigwigs and not video game executives, but when I worked in movie trailers I felt like a cog in a marketing machine; I didn't feel the passion behind a project, or at least I was several degrees separate from those people.

It could also be because a movie trailer agency typically has very little interaction with the filmmakers; movie trailer agencies deal primarily with the marketing team. Perhaps it's because I worked at an agency making trailers mostly for blockbuster films, and not independent ones. Maybe my experience would've been different working closely with low budget films. 

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I prefer working with game developers because everyone I've met in the industry is really geeky and loves video games. One of the joys of my job now is working directly with small teams of game developers, and helping show the best version of their game, or showing their game in a way they've never seen it. When I work with indie developers I feel like part of the team, even if it's only a few months out of multiple years of development.

Movies feel more ego driven, especially because the people in power are much more visible. They're both collaborative art forms, but I think the fact that virtually no one knows the names of game developers makes them more fun to work with.

Competition

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This is less about the process, and more about the industry. There's far more competition in movie trailers than game trailers. A blockbuster film gets sent out to multiple vendors who each struggle to make the trailer best suited to the taste of the clients. It's not uncommon for months or years of work to never see the light of day. Hundreds of places make movie trailers, and getting to edit trailers for the most prestigious films takes years and years of working at an agency.

The game trailer industry is comparatively small. I worked at an agency that produced trailers for AAA games, and it was the exception to the rule when we lost a job. Just about everything I worked on got finished and released. The game trailer industry is growing, but it's still very small in comparison. There are even fewer people making trailers for indie games. Considering the vast number of games that release every DAY, it seems nearly impossible to reach a point where the majority of releases go through a professional game trailer editor. 

The more I make indie game trailers, and the more I scroll down Netflix to see what are considered prestigious works, the more I find myself with no desire to work in movie trailers ever again. I consider both dream jobs, but if given the choice I prefer to work with the people I like most, and want to support. Not to say I don't think of how cool it would be to edit a trailer for a Marvel film, but what I know of the process turns me off. 

If you're considering a career in one or the other, I hope this gives you some insight into what suits your tastes in creative pursuits and work environment. They're both fun industries to work in that are largely unknown or not thought of by the public, so I'll continue to do my part to pull back the curtain.

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