Editing Techniques

Movie Trailer Editing: How Much Should You Reveal?

“So they’ve basically just shown us the full movie, then.”

It’s a common charge against many movie trailers, particularly in recent years. For whatever reason, it’s becoming common to show so much in the trailer that audiences wonder whether there’s any point in seeing the full cut.

It goes without saying that this is the exact opposite reaction that you want to elicit from your potential audience. Today, we’re going to look at the arguments for and against baring all during your movie trailer.

Warning: potential movie spoilers ahead!

Setting Out the Market Stall

A classic example of this would be the trailer to 2011’s “The Double,” which relies on a central plot twist that Richard Gere is the killer he claims to be hunting…

… something which is completely given away in the theatrical trailer:

Didn’t see the movie? Neither did anybody else. Commercially, it completely tanked (grossing $3m against a $17m budget), and we can’t help but suspect that the tell-all trailer was a deciding factor in the movie’s failure to garner interest.

But there is a case to be made for showing all your cards. Director Robert Zemeckis opines: “We know from studying the marketing of movies, people really want to know exactly everything that they are going to see before they go see the movie. It’s just one of those things. To me, being a movie lover and film student and a film scholar and a director, I don’t. What I relate it to is McDonald’s. The reason McDonald’s is a tremendous success is that you don’t have any surprises. You know exactly what it is going to taste like. Everybody knows the menu.”

Who is Dead?!

A compelling argument for sure, but a counter-point would be that this all applies only to specific types of movies; if you’re dealing in a formulaic genre, it’s generally good to reassure audiences that you’re hitting all the beats they’ve come to expect. Take the “Golden Eye” trailer, for instance — a lot of spoilers in there, but this was a Bond movie. There’s almost an unwritten contract of things a Bond movie needs to deliver, and the trailer is the best opportunity to advertise the fact that all of the boxes are ticked.

The same goes for remakes. The 2013 adaption of the Stephen King classic “Carrie” also had a spoiler-laden trailer, but for good reason; fans of the original needed assurance that all of the iconic scenes (such as the “prom reveal”) would be faithfully featured in the remake.

While Zemeckis makes a good point, unfortunately his movie “What Lies Beneath” probably wasn’t the best type of flick in which to pour every single plot reveal into the theatrical trailer:

It’s okay if you let slip that Tom Cruise will survive a big explosion in a “Mission Impossible” trailer. After all, nobody assumes for one moment that his fictional life is in any real jeopardy, and audiences already know he’ll live to survive for at least another movie for as long as the franchise remains profitable.

But a Hitchcockian-thriller relies heavily on a slow and suspenseful layering of reveals, and is entirely undermined when these reveals are telegraphed ahead of time.

Finding the Balance

Trailer editors working in comedy and horror also need to tread carefully. Viewers are remarkably good at spotting whether you’ve included all of your best gags and jump-scares within the trailer, which can be as much of a turn-off as a “Sixth Sense” trailer that reveals Bruce is already dead.

Ultimately, whether a movie trailer should hold its cards to the chest or bare all really depends on the individual movie itself. Balancing audience expectation and creating intrigue (as well as succinctly communicating what the film is about) is the recipe behind an effective movie trailer.

Gut intuition as an editor will get you most of the way, but consider extensive test screening of your trailer with different audiences to get an indication of whether you’ve struck the right balance.

And we cannot understate how important that balance is. After all, those three minutes of trailer can make or break your 90 minutes of feature.

What are some of your favorite film trailers? Let us know in the comments below!

How To Use Dissolves

Nice dissolve from Spaceballs

No, that’s not a low resolution photo. It’s a dissolve from Spaceballs!

What are dissolves?

A dissolve is a classic editing technique used to transition between shots, typically shots that bridge two scenes together. As opposed to a straight cut from one shot to another, a dissolve involves the gradual transition from the first image to the next. When an image dissolves into view from a black screen, it is called a Fade In, and when an image dissolves into blackness, it is called a Fade Out.

Dissolves were traditionally created by superimposing two separate images with an optical printer. With modern nonlinear editing, the effect can be overlaid onto any two shots with simple software.

How should you dissolve?

A dissolve has two visual components, two tools an editor has to create the dissolve: the images involved, and the length of the dissolve. The length of a dissolve is typically no more than a second or two, but can be much longer if the shots run long enough to allow it. A slow dissolve is an artistic choice and usually has some meaning behind the somewhat rare decision to use it.

While any two images can technically be connected by a dissolve, there is usually a purpose to using it rather than a straight cut. A good editor will know when a dissolve is appropriate:

When should you dissolve?

Dissolves are often used to show the passage of time. While the end of a scene can cut directly to the beginning of the next, typically a dissolve will be a clue to the audience that, like the real-time, gradual transition, some time has passed by.

What is being dissolved is a visual choice by the director, another tool in her or his large array of filmmaking techniques. A match or graphic dissolve is no different than a match cut—the specific images are being connected by some narrative or thematic throughline. When a dissolve is used, it is typically adding a certain weight or resonance to this throughline. For instance, a gradual dissolve from a mother reading an Army telegram to a scene of her son’s funeral. Time has passed between his burial and when she first heard the news of her son’s death, but the dissolve allows the audience some time to figure out what the mother is reading before they actually see the funeral. Once the funeral has faded fully into the next shot and scene, the audience has not only discerned what they are seeing, but, in a small way, has shared the mother’s tragic realization.

Again, the length of the dissolve comes into play as an artistic tool of the director and/or editor. A short transition, maybe a second long, gets the point across and focuses more on the shock of the mother’s letter and the son’s passing. A longer transition becomes more about watching the mother’s facial reaction and following her internal dialogue not just through the scene, but also into the implied emotions in the time up to the funeral.

A specific type of match dissolve is a dissolve between faces. Dissolving from one face to another can have a narrative significance concerning the characters, or they can transition between two images of the same character, allowing the audience to see the change of emotion and context. One of the most famous examples of this comes at the end of Saving Private Ryan, when the story transitions from World War II to several decades later. While the dissolve from Matt Damon’s face to another actor portraying his older self was done using state-of-the-art computers, the technique is still the same one used since the Silent Era.

Dissolves can be used within a scene, for instance, a character pacing around the house to show the passage of time and their boredom during this time, or to show a character’s gradual cleaning of a garage. This is an in-scene montage. Dissolves can be used in traditional montages as well, in lieu of cuts, morphing from scene to scene in rapid succession.

Who uses dissolves?

Dissolves were very popular in classic cinema, but have since fallen out of favor by most modern editors. One reason for this is the influence of the French New Wave on emerging filmmakers, expanding the use of jump cuts. Jump cuts can be visually jarring, and it took a generation who had grown up on movies to be savvy enough to follow the transitions without complaint.

Likewise, as each generation grows up on faster paced and more innovative visual styles, movies have generally sped up in tone and movement. The slower transition of dissolves between scenes can look lethargic and antiquated, though if executed the right way they are usually accepted by an audience with no problem.

Even television sitcoms as recent as a few years ago would use dissolves that have since been replaced by jump cuts and rapid pan swipes. Early episodes of Seinfeld, a show that revolutionized three-camera sitcoms with its lightning pace, that use dissolves can make the scene feel like it’s from an entirely different show.

However, it’s the director’s and editor’s prerogative to use dissolves, and there is still a place for them in movies and television. For an artist and visual storyteller, going with your gut can never hurt, and if a dissolve feels right, it probably is. After all, everything is cyclical, and dissolves will probably be back in style sooner or later. You might even seem ahead of the curve.