Trailer Review - An Inconvenient Truth

An Inconvenient Truth is the feature film version of Al Gore's presentation about climate change. It also happens to have an incredibly flashy trailer, especially considering it's a documentary. Take a look at it, and think about what genre the trailer looks like it's been cut for. I'm pretty sure "documentary" won't be your answer.

What do you think?

A lot of this is cut like a horror movie trailer, while the latter portion feels more like the trailer for a prestige drama film; the title slams, the rapid cuts and intense sound design are very horror specific. For reference, look at this trailer for Paranormal Activity.

The first goal of a trailer is of course to sell the product, but ideally it's also to present it in an honest and authentic way. I think this trailer is a good example of presenting honestly to the source material despite stylistically going in another direction. This is a great lesson in making an emotional connection with the audience rather than simply making a short summation of the film. Let's go beat by beat:

This title card literally frames this as something terrifying, but the serif typeface also signals this is an "important" film.

This title card literally frames this as something terrifying, but the serif typeface also signals this is an "important" film.

The trailer uses a lot of title cards and slams. I typically don't like title cards because they're very in-your-face and feel like a hard sell. The title cards work here because that's precisely what this trailer is trying to do; it's anything but subtle. The rapid cuts and sound design create tension and urgency; this is about as trailer-y as editing can be.

After this fast cut open, there's a slow and tense "rise" sound effect which matches nicely to the animation of rising temperatures before it ends on the last year. Another title slam punctuates this section, and the trailer segues into music to accompany the introduction.

The intro lays out this information:

  1. Humans are causing global warming

  2. This presentation is by Al Gore

  3. The effects of climate change are drastic

  4. Climate change is only getting worse

There's a low "boom" sound effect to emphasize the last statement about stronger storms. Booms and music stop downs are a good way to vary the pace of a trailer, and draw attention to whatever preceded the stop. It also gives the audience a moment to breathe as if to say: "Take a second to think about this."

Satellite imagery can be dramatic with the right sound effects.

Satellite imagery can be dramatic with the right sound effects.

Next is another horror movie style section intercutting the worst examples of climate change with very dramatic title cards about betraying the planet. This section is a wake up call after the section about snows melting. It almost as if the trailer producers knew some people wouldn't be convinced of the dangers of climate change by seeing melting snow, so they decided to bring out the big guns.

What follows is driving, orchestral, prestige film trailer music. This is a very specific style of music which feels like slowly taking a giant breath. The audience isn't sure where the music is leading to, but it's apparent the stakes get raised with every note. This music is cut to a montage of arctic ice melting, and sea levels rising. After the line about 100 million refugees there's another emphasis boom to give the audience another breather before it goes right back to building up again.

Finally there's a dramatic orchestral flourish over fast cut images. The music cuts to a dramatic silence under a photo of the Earth; the two basic tools of audio editing are silence and lack thereof. The trailer ends on a final "boom" for the title.

Pretty much anything can be made dramatic with the right sound effects.

Pretty much anything can be made dramatic with the right sound effects.

I saw the film during its original release, and it's most certainly not cut like a horror movie, but I think the trailer producers were smart to treat it like one to give a sense of urgency. The danger in doing it this way is it might turn off people who find the trailer's style to be TOO in-your-face and serious. I think they pulled it off well.

The trailer certainly could've played things more "straight" by making it look like a typical documentary, but I think this was a very smart way to cut it; the tension in the trailer matches the urgency of the subject matter.

People might have a desire to do something original and never seen before for their trailers, but to do that is not only incredibly difficult, but it ignores the familiar audio/visual language audiences already spent years learning. It's perfectly valid to tap into stylistic conventions if it means better communication with the audience. I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel with every trailer I make; at worst trying to be too out-of-the-box might confuse the audience. 

Playing to the emotions of the audience makes sense every time, because their emotions are the only thing you can count on them bringing to the table. Everyone has varying levels of familiarity with the source material of any given film or game. No one can be sure whether someone knows the previous movie or game in a series, are familiar with the actors or filmmakers, know game genres terms or video game industry lingo. But if ideas are presented clearly, and in a way which describes the experience and emotional arc of the film or game, there's a much better chance of making a connection, and inspire them to check out the movie or game.