Monday, November 02, 2009

In A World Something Something, One Man Stands Alone

Today I'm giving a lecture on editing structure in film trailers. There's more to it than the text below, with lots of examples and ideas and such, but here are the basic background notes. For what they're worth.

Editing Film Trailers

A film trailer combines storytelling with persuasion.

Editing a film is about story structure.

There's a beginning, that brings us into a new world. It usually starts with a hook -- a short, very interesting part, like a well-told joke, that sets the tone for the film and shows us it will be good. Then we meet the characters, and learn about this world and begin to care about it. The beginning usually ends by revealing a big problem.

The middle usually involves the characters trying to solve this problem. Usually their struggles pull us into greater complications -- and usually raise the stakes or lead to even more critical problems.

The end is usually a showdown: we move toward the moment when a character's struggle -- internal or external -- reaches a major test or confrontation or decision. Usually there's some resolution after this, as the world settles after all the upset.

A trailer, however, has a different goal and different rules. The goal is to get people to buy a ticket to a film (or buy the DVD, or order the film on-demand) so we can't use "pure" story structure -- that would give away the ending -- and we have to use persuasion techniques to “sell” the film to the audience.

Persuasion techniques go back thousands of years. Aristotle identified three basic persuasion techniques:

  • Appeal based on authority.
  • Appeal based on reason.
  • Appeal based on emotion.

There are others that work -- and you've seen all types of them in commercials. These three are still the main persuasive appeals, though, and show up in film trailers.

When you see elements that tell us who the actors, director or producers are -- this is persuasion based on the authority of the filmmakers.

When you see lists of awards a film has won, or quotes from great reviews, that's an appeal to your reason.

When the trailer itself makes you feel a certain way, that's a persuasive appeal.

A typical trailer structure:

  • A hook - gets our interest, reveals the style of the film.
  • Reveal a new world. Now show us the big problem.
  • Show us the characters -- and the problem gets deeper.
  • 60 percent in, there’s a big reveal, often character motivation.
  • Then we drive toward a big showdown.
  • We end on a “final note.”

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