The Distinct Artistry of Trailers

A brief catalogue of some trailer and trailer types I find particularly cool |
The ultimate example of the conventional Hollywood trailer, which the trailers below will stand in contrast to.

Some time ago, I wrote a post that was little more than a list of music videos I have long remembered for being great. What compelled me to write such a thing, rather than the sort of essay or technical post I usually peddle, is that there really was a discrete number of music videos that stuck with me and seemed to represent the best of the medium. And so it is with another medium not so dissimilar from the music video - the trailer.

The similarities are obvious - like music videos, trailers tend to be short, are free to not represent reality but bound to reflect another piece of art, and tend to make a strong aesthetic impression with imagery and sound. But, then again trailers also have a practical purpose music videos do not have - to inform you about the nature of some movie and make you want to watch it. As a result of this a great majority of trailers take up a fairly predictable form, like the one above, and work well as an advertisement for the movie but not as its own piece of art apart from that movie.

Still, I have come across many trailers in my life that did not just make me want to watch the movie, but also excited, entertained, and impressed me wholly on their own. This is not so surprising, since (as stated in “The Art of First Impressions: How to Cut a Movie Trailer”) a trailer is really its own film - it has rhythm, appeal, and impact that are utterly distinct from the movie it is derived from. So here I am, posting another list of things I like, and little more. But here’s a twist - thinking back on the trailers that made the greatest lasting impression on me, I noticed they tended to fit into one of a few styles that that differed from the above ‘conventional’ trailer. And so, read on for those greatest trailers stuck in my head excitingly grouped by the styles it occured to me they exemplify.

The Music Over Montage Trailer

The Double Teaser Trailer. This song is not in the final movie.

This is my favorite style of trailer, perhaps because it tends to least resemble advertising and most function as its own work of art. The cutting together of footage without any continuity, and the muting of dialogue in favor of a single musical track, together almost completely dissasociate the images from the movie they are from. Instead, the audio track and spliced footage make for a new composition that can be quite different from the movie while hinting at it’s overall mood and spirit.

I think this is particularly true of the above trailer; The Double is a slow dark comedy about heady themes concerning our need to be acknowledged, but you could hardly guess that from the trailer alone. The normal exposition about themes and characters is totally absent, and about the only thing that is conveyed is the creepy surreal aspect of the doppleganger and the fantastic visual style. It is not telling us what the movie will be about, who these characters will be, but just is its own little film representing the style and spirit of the whole movie. Of course, this is also why this style is reserved for teasers and not ‘real’ trailers that actually need to explain what the movie is about. Still, I think this style deserves recognition since in my humble opinion it is basis for some of the best movie trailers of all time:

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Trailer #1. Again, we at most see Fincher's visual style, that this will be some sort of gritty thriller-sort of thing.
The Clockwork Orange trailer, an especially extreme example of this style. Kubrick, ever the auteur, was among the first to do these sorts of crazy things.
The trailer for Alien. This is even more its own thing than the others, as it includes footage not at all in the movie.

The Single Track Trailer

A similar but distinct style, in which a single track of dialogue or beat is repeated and intensified over a montage of unrelated footage. It is not quite as divorced from the movie as the previous style, since it is typically the main character monologuing and there may be some cuts to dialogue, but is still far less expository than the likes of the Independnece Day trailer. And, crucially, these trailers can also include an element entirely not in the movie. In the above trailer, the continuous blackboard beat and repeated scenes are elements unique to the trailer. And then there is Inception’s now ubiquitous BRAAAM, which was in fact conceived for the teaser trailer rather than for the movie itself.

The Condensed Movie Trailer

The first full trailer for The Double, notably different from the teaser.

Sometimes, just taking all the best elements and plot beats of a movie and succintly showing them off works wonders. In Hopes&Fears’ “An epic history of the movie trailer” this is referred to as the mini-movie, and said to come about in the last few decades:

“By the end of the 1980s, movies were making more money than ever. Year after year total grosses and movie budgets were higher. As such, studios took fewer risks on trailers. They would make multiple trailers, premiere them at different times, test them on different markets, and find just the right way to sell their product.

More importantly, they started honing in on an abridged version of the movie, advertising with a short version of the film’s three acts: setup, confrontation, and climax—essentially everything but the resolution.”. This may sound like pretty much every trailer out there nowdays, but it takes skill to do well, and is doomed to fail if the movie has nothing interesting going on to begin with. These trailers, at least the ones I consider great, do more than just introduce the characters and plot of their movie - they simultaneously weave together the strongest elements of the movie, leave out just enough to keep the viewer interested, and have a crazy amount of editing flourish that is entertatining even apart from the footage it is executed with. “

The above trailer for The Double is wholly different from the teaser in that it introduces the characters and plot at length. But it does more than that - it combines multiple songs from the movie’s memorable score, quickly executes multiple character arcs, and builds to an incredibely energetic conclusion that combines moments from multiple distinct scenes in the source. The following trailers, too, combine exposition with a melding of multiple scenes that is not found in the movie but represents its unique strengths:

The Cinematic Video Game Trailer

It should be clear that the above three styles represent increasing levels of exposition about and representation of their source materials. But, trailers don’t only exist for movies. They exist for video games as well, and for video games there is a unique style of trailer that is literally a wholly distinct work of art - the cinematic trailer. Usually these short films are not much more than eye candy, but in some cases - as in these cases - they are quite good short films in their own right. I have seen the above Deus Ex trailer many times now, purely because I think it is marvelously conceived and executed.

Advertisements are often seen as something to instinctively avoid these days, as something tasteless that intrudes into our lives only to cause annoyane. But, it should be acknowledged that ads can also be this good looking, this well produced, this distinctly artistic. I can only hope to see more like them.