Editing an Engaging Trailer Opening

One of the biggest changes to trailer presentation in recent years is the emphasis on the first 6 seconds. This is evidenced by the proliferation of movie trailers on YouTube which start with a 6 second teaser for the trailer you're about to watch. As of the writing of this post, Steam is experimenting with 6 second trailers, inspired by Twitter bot @microtrailers which compiles six random seconds of each new Steam release's trailer, puts it into one video and tweets it out.

If you haven't read it already, this post I wrote will give you a good overview of the most basic requirements of a good cold open. In brief, a cold open is an engaging opening scene intended to hook the audience so they'll continue watching. For this post I'm going to show you a variety of cold open types from which you can draw inspiration.

I made this post in collaboration with movie trailer editor Melissa Starr who had a lot to say about cold opens when I asked my newsletter readers about the problems they're encountering. You can see her work here, and follow her on Twitter!

Without further ado, here's a spectrum of ways to make the opening of your trailer as engaging as possible. Not all of these fit the bill of a self contained 5-10 second opening, but they're all good ways of cutting together a cold open. 

The Thumbstopper

This is the much maligned "teaser before the trailer" technique which is now ubiquitous on the internet mostly for movies; some games have adopted it too. This is where the first six seconds of the trailer flashes a series of images from the full trailer, and ends in a title card. I'd consider this the most brute force way of getting the audience to pay attention.

As a trailer aficionado I find them irritating, because when I decide to watch a trailer, I've already set aside the time, and need no further convincing. They're not the most elegant way of solving the problem of people who stop watching a video after just a few seconds, but apparently they're very effective at increasing audience retention for the more fickle audience by a significant margin!

I didn't know the term "thumbstopper" until Melissa told it to me, but you can immediately see how this term emerged from a desire to stop people from scrolling through their social media feeds while browsing on their phone. Even if you don't make a six second teaser before the trailer, fast cutting is just something which is inherently more difficult to stop watching because it tells you there's going to be something new coming up in less than a second. Of course, something cut fast for too long will be exhausting, so a proper balance is important to find.

The Scene Lift (aka In medias res)

This is probably the most commonly used way to build a cold open. In medias res is a narrative term which refers to starting in the middle of a story. With the right scene, this is a very effective way to start a movie, game or trailer because it feels raw and unfiltered. Fast editing in advertising can sometimes look like obfuscation, so this lighter touch makes for a very confident opening. 

One of my favorite examples is the trailer for Bad Boys II which was made at Giaronomo Productions when I was an assistant editor there. This does have a little bit of an intro before kicking into gear, but the car chase is the meat of the cold open. Keep in mind, a scene lift doesn't mean the scene is raw and unedited. Sometimes it's necessary to quicken the pace for the purposes of a trailer.

The scene lift can be used in so many different ways. A recent example I wrote a review for was the first trailer for IT: Chapter 2 which has a tense scene between Jessica Chastain's character and a mysterious old woman serving her tea.

For video games I've used this approach for FirewatchSpelunky 2 and Cyber Shadow.

Scenes which feel suspenseful in some way can really hold onto an audience when well done. It can be suspenseful in that you want to see an action scene resolve, a mystery be revealed, a joke to be told, or a scary thing to pop out.

The Flashback

Another way I like to think about this direction is the: "I've been through a lot" approach. This is when there's a fast series of images which are indicative of a person recounting their experiences. This rapid-fire series of cuts is something which is used in feature film storytelling, so it's a visual language familiar to the audience. 

This is a good way to start exciting, and have the fast cuts integrate into the story of the trailer rather than be isolated from the main narrative like in the case of The Thumbstopper. After seeing the summary of events, the next natural question the audience will have is: "How did we get here?" which presumably the trailer will then show. Here's an example by Melissa for Season 2 of Vida.

In my fan trailer for Uncharted 3 I used the Bad Boys II trailer as inspiration for that cold open. You can see how opening in medias res naturally lead to story flashbacks.

The Rug Pull

This is a classic trailer cold open technique where the trailer misleads you into thinking the story is for one thing, but it then pulls out the rug, and reveals something entirely different.

This is frequently used for comedic effect. One of the most classic examples is for Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Another example is the teaser for Resident Evil: Apocalypse which seems to be a makeup commercial, but takes a horrific turn.

Melissa used this for King of Thieves' opening. The style of shots and trailer music make it seem like it's going to be about some sort of super high tech, badass thieves who've pulled off a heist, but then it reveals the thieves are old men led by Sir Michael Caine.

This is a format which nowadays is most effective on live television, livestreams, or live events. The reason is simply because on-demand videos on the internet are labeled with the title of the movie or game, thus spoiling the reveal. That is, unless you're willing to go the extra mile for the rug pull by naming the video something else, like the trailer for Green With Envy which turned out to be a teaser for a new Muppet movie.

The Name Reveal

This is similar in structure to a Rug Pull, but it's not intended to deceive. It's simply holding pertinent information until the end of the cold open. This one is very popular with biopics where you're introduced to a character who is either renowned, notorious or underestimated, and then we're told who it is.

My Cutdown podcast co-host Ric Thomas mentioned using this approach for the trailers he cut for Ms. Potter and Mr. Turner. This is also necessary for the trailer, because unless the person being depicted had a very distinct look, the audience might not recognize an actor playing them until they hear their name.

The Enigma

This is when a trailer opens with an idea so intriguing you need to stay to watch until it concludes. Another way to think about it is in terms of the magic terms The Pledge and The Turn as described in Christopher Nolan's The Prestige. The Pledge is when you're showing something normal, and The Turn is when the magician makes the normal thing do something unexpected. 

This is common in horror films with a unique antagonist. For example, in this trailer for Lights Out which is about a monster which only appears when the lights are out.

Warning for those who dislike jump scares!

This is also used in the trailer for Doctor Sleep which starts with some writing on a wall which appears to mysteriously change. 

This is a technique which I think can work great for video games with a unique mechanic which is very visual. For example, in The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds Link had the ability to become a painting on a wall. When Half-Life 2 released, its physics puzzles could've been used for a cold open because of their novelty. The original Portal also could've used its unique mechanic for a very strong opening.

These are all the cold open styles I can think of for now, but these formats are incredibly versatile. The key is to give the audience a reason to keep watching by showing them something which as soon as it starts needs to be resolved. This is why I often malign game trailers which start with too many slow shots of the environment art; unless there's some environmental storytelling in the art, there's no story hook holding the audience in suspense. 

If you're designing a cold open for a game or movie, and you're unsure whether or not it's effective, just ask yourself if there's anything in the scene which presents a question which begs to be answered, or does it start in the middle of an idea which needs to be resolved. If there are no questions (or it's not cut fast enough) then it's unlikely to hold the audience's attention.