Variety is the Spice of Trailers

An exciting and memorable trailer needs variety. I'm not simply referring to a variety of shots; there are five things I think a good trailer needs to vary to keep things interesting:

  1. Content

  2. Composition

  3. Energy

  4. Pace

  5. Shot Length

What is the problem with no variation?

Humans.

We're very good at recognizing patterns. If we see two points, we immediately want to connect them to form a line, and then deduce where the next point will be. If we spot a pattern which is going somewhere we don't want to be, we're going to tune out or leave.

For example, a school bus of kids who start singing:

99 bottles of beer on the wall, 99 bottles of beer, You take one down, pass it around, 98 bottles of beer on the wall!

98 bottles of beer on the wall, 98 bottles of beer...

98 bottles of beer on the wall, 98 bottles of beer...

Let's look at each of these elements, and break down to see how they make an interesting and dynamic trailer. The word "Dynamic" is a buzzword which gets overused a lot; Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines "dynamic" as: "marked by usually continuous and productive activity or change."

On the other hand, a pattern we enjoy we'll watch forever

On the other hand, a pattern we enjoy we'll watch forever

Let's look at each of these elements, and break down to see how they make an interesting and dynamic trailer. The word "Dynamic" is a buzzword which gets overused a lot; Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines "dynamic" as: "marked by usually continuous and productive activity or change."

Sounds good to me.

Content

A variety of content is the most basic thing a trailer needs. "Content" is another word which has kind of lost its definition, but I'm using it to mean: "The action occurring in the shot" Whether it's the player verbs, a non-playable character doing something, a camera move through an environment, or the effect of something a player did. If the content of all the shots in a trailer is always the same, it's going to be very boring.

For example: A trailer for a Super Mario game where he only does single jumps in only a few levels is going to get old very quickly.

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An idea doesn't even need to repeat that many times in a trailer before it becomes rote. Also, showing the same content multiple times in a trailer implies there's nothing more to show. The audience knows a trailer's goal is to show a lot of different things, so you can't blame them for thinking there's nothing more to show if all they see are the same things happening over and over. If a trailer wants to repeat an idea, there needs to at least be a twist or new angle.

For example: Mario doing a single jump, then doing a double jump, then doing a triple jump followed by throwing a fireball.

These are all different twists on the same idea, which is good. 

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A simple way to check how much variation there is in the content of a trailer is to write a shot-by-shot description with the action, where it happens, and if there are any other x-factors which make the shot different. If the list contains descriptions for a lot of shots depicting similar ideas, it's a good idea to evaluate which shots can be removed or replaced.

Composition

Making a trailer with a variety of compositions can be tricky, because it's important to have good eye trace, but if done right, changing up the composition can make the trailer better.

There are infinite ways to compose the elements in a frame, but to be extremely reductive let's say the composition types are centering the objects on the screen, or using the rule of 3rds to position things on the left, right, top and bottom. It excites the eye to see different compositions, shapes and blocking on screen. Even directors like Wes Anderson change up their compositions despite being mostly known for one type of framing.

A lot of these are center framed, but some alternate between left and right, which makes things more interesting.

A lot of these are center framed, but some alternate between left and right, which makes things more interesting.

Another simple way to vary composition is to use scaled up footage. Animated zooms aren't necessary, but cutting from wide shots into closeups can add punch and emphasis. With pixel art especially, it's easier to have closeups with less blurring as long as you're using Nearest Neighbor scaling in After Effects.

Energy

Whatever you call it, the energy, excitement, intensity or drama in each shot of a trailer needs mixing up. Energy is a relative term, but I roughly define low energy moments as silence, slow music, slow cutting, simple game mechanics, and low stakes dialogue (e.g. My name is Alice... I was born into a world you may not understand)

Conversely, high energy moments I define as having fast music, fast cutting, complicated and/or layered gameplay ideas, or very high stakes dialogue (e.g. "TODAY WE ARE CANCELING THE APOCALYPSE!!!").

A good trailer needs to mix these up, because a trailer which is all low energy is boring, but all high energy is boring too because of the audience's ability to recognize patterns. This doesn't mean every trailer needs a mix of super fast and slow music; it simply needs contrasting music. A music track with very low beats per minute can still be exciting if for example, it starts with a simple piano, but by the end has many instruments layered on top; this means it has contrast. 

Cats and their mix of anticipation and bursts of speed are the perfect example of why contrast is important.

Cats and their mix of anticipation and bursts of speed are the perfect example of why contrast is important.

This is why when I do music searches I look for music cues which have a mix of slow and fast or slow and less slow moments. A music cue which has the exact same level of intensity the entire time frequently needs to be edited together with another piece of music.

Pacing

Pacing is closely related to energy, and good trailers play with it a lot. For example: many trailers tend to have music stopdowns where they cut to black, and give time for a new music cue to fade in. The stops emphasize the fast, and the fast emphasize the slow. Too slow is boring, but too fast is overwhelming. The pace of a trailer needs ebb and flow. Watch any Jackie Chan fight scene, and you'll see there are small punches and kicks, and BIG ONES which make a huge impact, and get plenty of time to be showcased.

Pay attention to your breathing when you watch an action scene. Do you find yourself holding your breath the entire time? Do you hold your breath sometimes, then get a moment to breathe out for some relief? A good trailer gives room to breathe, which gets you ready for some more excitement, which makes it cool when everything comes to a stop, etc.

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Shot Length

This is related to pacing and music, but imagine a trailer where every single shot cuts on the beat at the exact same time. This would mean every shot is the exact same length; this will get predictable very quickly. Cutting on the beat is fun, but sticking too closely to a pattern quickly becomes predictable. An alternative is to cut on the beat, but sync the beat to an action during the shot, not on the cuts between the shots. — It's one thing to say "change these things around" but it's another to execute it. How do you decide how to change things up? When should something be fast or slow? Every project is different, but a good way to start is to figure out where the sections of the trailer begin and end. For example, the cold open is generally before the logos, the intro is after the logos, escalation comes somewhere after the intro, and maybe there's a music stopdown before the final climax. It all depends on the intent of the trailer, the points of emphasis, and how the editor wants to play with the emotions of the audience.

It also comes down to personal taste and inspirations. It's very helpful to watch professional made trailers, and break them down bit by bit. Take another look at this old post about analyzing trailers, except this time when you watch a trailer, pay attention to the variations between these five things. I think you'll find most well made trailers mix them up quite a bit, and are more entertaining because of it! 

Variety is always better

Variety is always better