Written by Carly Mangus
This article is part of a series on how to make films on a small budget, based on the documentary Vanishing Borders. Please check out Alexandra Hidalgo’s article on how to produce a micro-budget feature, Becky Harris’s article on how to make a micro-budget poster, and Shannon Roe-Butler’s article on how to make a micro-budget film website.
Over the past summer, I had the pleasure of working with Alexandra Hidalgo on a trailer for her documentary, Vanishing Borders. Here are a few tips I learned for how to cut a solid trailer.
1. Know your source material.
Make sure you’ve watched the film a few times. Discuss the purpose and meaning of the film with the filmmaker. Is it political? Informational? Is it supposed to make people feel a certain way or spring them into action? All of these details are important for the scope of the trailer. Without knowing what the filmmaker’s purpose is, you can’t accurately represent the film or reach the right audience.
For example, in Vanishing Borders, Alexandra and I talked at length about what she wanted the film to accomplish. In order to capture its position as a genuine and optimistic account of immigration, we identified which parts of the film we could highlight that would build a trailer that left the viewer feeling good about the film, while understanding its content. Because so many films about immigration have negative themes and are depressing, Alexandra wanted to make sure people did not expect that from her film.
2. Know what sells.
Do some digging. In order to create a trailer that makes sense, it is very important to have some context from the genre of your particular film. While you don’t want to create a trailer that people have seen a million times before, you also don’t want to accidently create a trailer that reaches the wrong audience. Watch other trailers in your subject’s genre to get a feel for what makes sense in that niche. Pay attention to what kind of shots are used, whether the focus is visual or aural, and how quickly cuts are made. Look at good and bad trailers to get an idea of what works and what doesn’t.
For example, warm, happy films tend to use shots that have bright colors, a lot of movement, and smiling people. You don’t usually see the person talking, since bright visuals are a bigger focus, but what speaking you do hear is uplifting or optimistic. In a more serious film, on the other hand, the colors are darker, often dramatically shifting the focus to the spoken content discussing the subject matter.
3. Find a balance between the two.
Sometimes it isn’t just a matter of what the film is focusing on or what other similar films’ trailers are doing. Your trailer needs to fall in with both of these aspects to be successful. You will always have to strike a balance between what your trailer needs and what sells. For this, I have two sub-tips:
Don’t get too caught up in your research. You can obsess all day about what other trailers are doing, or fall in love with a specific trailer that was truly amazing, but your trailer is probably going to be different. If you ever start thinking about your trailer in terms of living up to one you researched, take a step back and remind yourself of your purpose.
On the same token, don’t get too caught up in your piece. As the maker of the trailer, it is your job to portray the film in a way that sells it to an audience. You might think a particular line or image in the film is very deep and impactful, but that doesn’t mean it’s well-suited to use in a trailer. You can get stuck in the weeds really quickly if you lose sight of the big picture.
4. Keep track of the visual and audio aspects while you’re watching the film.
You’ll want to find visuals that reflect the meaning you’re trying to convey. Keep in mind the discussion you had with the filmmaker at the beginning of the project while watching the film. The best way to keep track of which aspects you want to use is to keep a timestamp running while you watch the film. Any time you see or hear something you want to use, make note of the timestamp, what the scene or soundbyte is, and the reason you think it is a good fit for the trailer.
You will inevitably have many more clips or soundbytes than one trailer will allow, and that is okay. After you pull everything you liked and lay it out together in your editing software, you’ll be able to narrow it down more easily.
5. When editing a trailer, it is important to pay attention to details.
For the most part your cuts are tiny, and the people watching your trailer will only get a flash of each visual before the next comes in. I ended up filing my shots into two categories. The first were shots that I considered “small”—pretty shots containing few details. For me, these were close-ups of subjects’ faces or footage from interviews. The second were shots I considered “big”—aesthetically-pleasing shots containing a lot of detail and/or movement. To fill this niche, I found establishing shots, long shots of the subjects in interesting environments and shots including many people at once.
It is important to strike a balance between both types of shots. The small shots take less time and tend to exist in a second of the viewer’s time, so you can use more of these in quicker succession to create a sense of excitement for your trailer. On the flip side, the big shots take more time, sometimes for many seconds because you really want the viewer to take in the details, focus, and appreciate what’s happening in that scene. Often, the big shots have dialogue as well instead of working as images that illustrate voiceover.
6. Set aside a lot of time to look for music.
The music you choose can completely alter the focus of your trailer, and it takes a long time to find the right fit. If I had to put my time into percentages for how long each part of the project took, it would look something like this.
I went in expecting the music to be fairly easy. I knew which kind I thought would work from my research, and I knew where to find royalty-free music online. Unfortunately, this was not the case. The music took much longer than anticipated, simply because there were so many choices, and each of them, no matter how similar, significantly altered the feeling of my work. It takes a lot of watching to find the music that fits.
The first place to look for music is with your filmmaker. If they already have music in mind, or have soundtrack material from the film that works well, that will make your job infinitely easier. If not, turn to the internet. Creative Commons has a list of music communities where you can find free music licenses for your work. It is very important to indicate in an advanced search tool that you want music that is free for commercial use. This way, you can display your trailer anywhere and for any purpose without infringing on copyright. My personal favorite site to use is Free Music Archive, where you can search by very specific genre, but any of the others listed on the Creative Commons site are great tools as well.
7. Arguably the most important tip, make sure you get people’s eyes on your work.
You need to show trailer drafts to people close to the film and to people who haven’t seen it to get a well-rounded vision of your work. You can upload the draft trailer on YouTube so that it is unlisted, and then send the link to friends and family for review. Ask them what they think of the trailer, what it makes them feel, what they think the film is about, and who the think the target audience is based on what they’ve seen. Let them add any other comments they have. You’ll receive a lot of “It’s great! This is so cool, you made this?” which is nice but not very helpful, so you really have to give it to people you know will give you constructive criticism.
For this project, I worked closely with my colleague Becky Harris, who made the film’s poster, bouncing ideas off her and getting her to sit down and watch the trailer when I got stuck with part of it or when I wanted feedback. She was instrumental in my work as an advisor. I also worked with Alexandra, the filmmaker, during various editing stages to make sure the trailer reflected her vision for the film. She and producer Shanele Alvarez sent trailer drafts to critics and shared the results with me. The more eyes the better.
As with any project, make sure you step away from it here and there to take a breather. It’s easy to get frustrated when doing this kind of work, and it’s even easier to get caught up in details when you’re getting close to tiny cuts and soundbytes. It is just as important to remember the big picture as it is to deal in details.
Here is the final trailer that I created for Vanishing Borders. Good luck with your own editing!
To learn more about Vanishing Borders, visit their website, like them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. Also, check out Becky Harris’s article on how to make a micro-budget poster, Alexandra Hidalgo’s article on how to produce a micro-budget feature, and Shannon Roe-Butler’s article on how to make a micro-budget film website. You can visit Carly’s profile here.