Film & video

How To Cut a Movie Trailer

James Edgington takes us behind the scenes at one of the top movie trailer agencies in Hollywood

For as long as he can remember, James Edgington was always drawn to working on feature films. After moving to London in his early 20s, he landed a job as a runner at a post-production company working on prime time British television shows, such as The X-Factor, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, and The Jonathan Ross Show.

Back then, James wasn’t yet aware that an entire industry dedicated to cutting movie trailers existed: “I just thought that the director or the film editor cut the trailer”, he says. It wasn’t until a few years later, when he was invited for a trial shift at the Editpool–a trailer agency based in the UK capital–that he discovered it was possible to make a career out of specializing in this particular branch of video editing.

James cut the official trailer for Midnight Sky

Over a decade later, the British editor now lives in Los Angeles, where he works for one of the top trailer agencies in Hollywood. A few weeks ago saw the release of the trailer James cut for The Midnight Sky, which will premiere on Netflix on December 23rd. Directed by and starring George Clooney, this post-apocalyptic drama tells the story of Augustine (Clooney), a scientist living in the Arctic who has to warn a group of astronauts about the conditions on Earth.

In today’s post, James walks us through the creative process behind making the trailer and shares his top tips for starting out as a trailer editor.

James cut the official teaser for HBO's The Undoing

Key dialogue

What's the first step to starting a new project?

The agency’s producers are the ones who are in contact with the client–the client being a studio (such as Warner Bros., Universal, Lionsgate, Paramount, etc.) or streaming service (such as Netflix and Amazon). The client will contact the producer to say they’d like us to cut a trailer for a film or series, and they’ll discuss the brief, which the producer will pass on to me or another editor. With a big-budget film, a client won’t hire just one agency: they often hire multiple agencies. Then, essentially, all of the agencies battle it out to cut the best trailer.

I’ll receive the film and I’ll watch it once, straight through. Then, I watch the film a second time; however, this time, I'll mute all of the sound effects and music and just keep the dialogue. I’ll do what's called “a breakdown” or “pulling selects.” I pull all the dialogue lines that I think could work for the trailer.

How do you decide what lines work for a trailer?

You want key story plot points. You want call-to-action lines. This is a very broad and general example, but something like, “We’ve gotta go now!” or “Let’s do this before it’s too late!”. A line that has some weight and emotion behind it but can also be snappy and memorable. You don't want anything too wordy and long. You want short snappy stuff, but also key phrases and words. One of the key lines in The Midnight Sky trailer was George Clooney saying, “We need to get to that antenna.” That line gives our character a mission and purpose.

James cut the UK official trailer for The Seagull

Pulling visuals and categorizing and organizing clips

What comes next?

Next, I'll watch the film for a third time. This time, I'll mute the dialogue and pull all of the good visual shots–normally about 30 to 35 minutes of footage. Then, I'll reorder all those dialogues and visuals so that they’re categorized. I'll get all one character's lines in one place, then another character’s, then another’s. Then, I'll order the visuals and get all the visuals of one character together, then another character. Then, I'll group all the wides or the establishing shots, and so on.

Choosing music

Everyone likes to do things differently, but for me, I like to dive into music next. By now, I’ve watched the film three times, so I have a sense of the tone of the film and the style of music I want to go for. There are lots of music libraries for tracks that've been specifically composed for trailers. I will spend lots of time going through them and listening to lots of different options, lots of different music styles, to find the right tracks. Often, agencies have music supervisors who will help pull music for different movies their agency is working on as well.

Would you usually source music from a trailer music library over using a song from the film’s soundtrack?

Yes. Quite often there isn't a final soundtrack yet because we get the film so early. They’ll have temporary scores, but I wouldn’t really want to use a temporary score. We do sometimes use film scores, but they don't always play well to trailers. Trailer music works differently to score music in that it goes on a journey: it has peaks and troughs; it builds; it drops out. It has these structures to it that enable you to do certain things. Score music is typically a bit more on one level, and it plays a lot longer, so you can't quite get the snappier cutting–of course, there are exceptions.

You might use two or sometimes even three different tracks in a trailer–it all depends on the tone and what's going on, and whether you want to change styles throughout. The beginning might have a certain tone, and then we’ll build up to some kind of reveal. Here’s an example: a trailer starts and a couple are driving in a car. They’re having a nice time–it seems like a typical romantic drama. Suddenly, boom, there’s a car crash. The tone of the trailer changes. You might start with an upbeat track, but then it’s going to drop out, and then you’ll have a sad violin or piano track. That’s how you use music to build a journey. I saw a trailer that came out the other day, All My Life, which is a good example of this.

James says that the All My Life trailer is a good example of how music can be used to change the tone of a trailer following a story reveal

Cutting your soundbed

What comes next?

After I find the music, I’ll cut my soundbed. The way you cut the music really defines how your trailer is going to be structured, as you build the visuals and dialogue around the music. I would say, to make a good trailer, you’ve got to be able to create a clean, rhythmic, exciting piece. People often think that the visuals are the most important part of the trailer, whereas I say music is at least 60 to 70%.

I lay the music down, I cut it, and then I see it as this puzzle and I have to fit in all the pieces. The beats of the track are like the puzzle edges. I’ll listen to my music track and see what the music allows me to do. I will always put cards–such as the name of the director, the actors, and release date–and action shots, i.e. explosions, on significant beats. I’ve just been working on something that's got a lot of gunfire in it, and so I was laying the gunfire down on the beats and hits within the track to create a slick rhythmic cut.

Structure

What’s the key to a good structure?

You want it to be well spaced out. You want a clear beginning, middle, and end. You don’t want to have an 80-second opening and then only 20 seconds to finish. You don't want it to drag out and bore the audience. You want to keep them engaged without giving too much away. These days, there are people who screen-shot trailers and analyze them frame by frame, looking for clues. You have to be so careful that your cut doesn’t include any spoilers. The agency that worked on the Avengers: Infinity War trailer had to do special VFX just for the trailer. In the film, the villain Thanos is trying to get all these infinity stones. There are certain shots in the trailer that happen much later in the film when he has already recovered the majority of the stones, but they didn't want to give that away in the trailer so they remove some of the stones using VFX.

Audiences are always blaming the trailers for spoiling movies, but it actually has been proven in market research that audiences crave more story information when watching trailers. Most people know movies get tested way before they are released, but trailers also get tested, and when an audience is shown a trailer that has less story reveals and a trailer that has more, they, for the most part, always respond much better to the trailer that reveals more.

James cut the official teaser for season two of Home for Christmas

Software

What editing software do you use?

I use Avid. In this business, most agencies use either Avid or Premiere.

Inspiration

Do you have an all-time favorite trailer?

I have a few. I always loved the first trailer for The Dark Knight. The way they revealed Heath Ledger's Joker is amazing. Nowadays, it’s impossible to conceal the new Batman. You can see set shots everywhere. Back then, you knew Heath Ledger played the Joker but you hadn’t seen what he looked like. In the trailer, you hear his voice over footage of other people, and then they do this dropout and just fade up on his face. It makes such an impact.

The first-ever Cloverfield trailer was really good. They set the movie up as one thing, you thought it was going to be a romantic movie or a party movie, and then they do this rugpull, and it becomes this Godzilla-type movie. Horrors use the rugpull technique a lot–maybe they’ll set a film up as a nice road trip movie, and then all of a sudden the characters are in the middle of nowhere, and someone’s trying to kill them. Then there’s the Social Network trailer, which did something fresh, new, and exciting by using a cover of a popular song, which was Radiohead’s “Creep”.

These are two of James' all-time favorite trailers.

See more of James’ work here.

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