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The essentials of making a masterful trailer

Story & Heart
June 29, 2016 by Story & Heart PRO

Trailers are bite-sized videos that beckon audiences to come back and see your film in its entirety. In this way, a trailer, which you may also know as a preview or coming attraction, essentially functions as an ad or promotion to boost your projects. Below, we’ll dig into why trailers are important and how to make a striking one to help meet your goals, whether you’re selling your videos on Vimeo On Demand or just learning the filmmaking ropes.

The purpose of a trailer

First, you may be wondering where the term “trailer” came from (since we’re used to seeing them before a feature film begins, not “trailing” behind). Here’s the gist: back in the day, trailers used to bookend features, but people kept leaving after the main attraction. Alas! Soon, all trailers slowly worked their way to the beginning of the whole theater-going experience. And today, trailers are more important than ever, as audiences now have the internet at their disposal and don’t need to attend visit a theater to see what’s on the horizon. 

They differ from teasers in that trailers are longer, and provide more information about a film. However, trailers still must abide by the MPAA time guidelines, and make it under two and a half minutes. Depending on the length of your film, you may want to make a trailer even shorter so as not to divulge too many details (just like with teasers, shorter is almost always better).

Often trailers will include snapshots of characters, a release date, and a condensed plot sequence. They engage viewers by establishing the feel of a film and providing enough information to give the audience a clear picture of what they’ll get if they watch the whole thing, while not revealing all of the film’s cards. And with social media and video sites such as this one, it’s easier than ever for people to share trailers, draw in new audiences, and ultimately drive sales, whether it’s a big-budget film or an indie.

All in all, you can think of a trailer as an independent project, one that can stand alone and build tons of awareness for you and your film. 

Making trailer magic

Wondering where to get started? We asked filmmaker Joe Simon of video production company The Delivery Men to share his expertise. Joe recently shot the short narrative Low Tide, and along with it came the need to create a compelling trailer (the one you watched above!). Below, read up on some tried and true principles of trailer making.

A still from ‘Low Tide’ trailer

1. Showcase your greatest moments

Since your trailer is the main marketing tool to draw viewers in, put some great stuff in there! Have any amazing shots, moments of poignant dialogue, or a great song choice that you’re especially proud of? Include a few of these highlights to add production value to your trailer and entice audiences. As Joe puts it, “You want to create excitement with a trailer, and using your best visually compelling shots and fast cuts will draw people in.”

2. Resuscitate the cutting-room floor footage

As mentioned in our recent post about teasers, you can also include footage in the trailer that didn’t make it to the feature itself. This can serve to put the story in context, or even offer an intriguing hint at a sub-plot or related element. “It comes down to using shots that will intrigue people without giving too much away,” Joe explains. “You want to leave people with questions: What will happen? Who is this person?”

Though it’s fine to add shots that aren’t in the final movie to keep people on their toes, you don’t want to mislead your audiences. Strike a balance between adding footage to the trailer that’s related to the film, even if it’s not in the final film.

3. Three-act structures = your pal

To guide the flow of your trailer, consider structuring it in three acts (which yes, you can do in under three minutes!). “You’re telling a story with your trailer, so random shots and dialogue won’t get an audience excited,” Joe shares. “You have to build a story just like you would for a short or feature film.”

Begin by introducing characters, hint at a conflict, and end with a crescendo that will make audiences want to find out what happens. For Low Tide, The Delivery Men pulled dialogue to use as a voiceover, and shape a story around it.

“Using shots paired with dialogue created a conflict and allowed us to build a trailer story,” Joe adds. “You need flow, or your trailer will feel disjointed.”

The trailer for the explosive new film Swiss Army Man from directing duo DANIELS is a stellar example of this. In it, we meet the main characters, are introduced with the problem — getting home — and drama and intrigue builds. We watch some of the antics the main character undertakes to accomplish his mission, interspersed with images hinting at romance and adventure. The result? Everyone is intrigued.

4. Consider more

There are additional elements to consider when building out your trailer: will you add a voiceover or copy cards to give your trailer more narrative direction? While both additions can detract from the images and take up precious time, they may help explain just enough of the film to hook audiences, and help establish the trailer — and by extension the film — in a broader context.

And, of course, there’s the matter of the soundtrack. Music can guide your audience to experience emotions and create suspense. It will also affect the overall cadence of the trailer, so choose wisely!

“What do you want people to feel?” Joe asks himself before picking a soundtrack. “I think of a popular song, trailer, or film with a sound I think would work for my project [and] start searching for a similar song.” Thus, the best place to start is by considering the mood you want to evoke.

Watch the trailer for Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits and tell us you don’t feel chills. The soundtrack’s strong rhythm mirrors the overarching dance theme throughout ... but the music takes a sinister turn as the trailer progresses and reveals the main conflict.

If you’re looking for a good track to accompany your trailer, you can turn to a music supervisor like our friends at Marmoset, but it’s still helpful to have an idea of what you’re after. “Soundtrack is all about enhancing the emotion,” Joe advises. “Having a great reference is important because it can be hard to describe exactly what you want to someone else ... it’s a lot easier when you can send them a music track.”

On the other hand, if you’re looking to create intense drama, sometimes silence can be even more effective than a soundtrack. Either way, don’t underestimate the sonic experience. “Sound design helps build suspense and enhance the subconscious emotional effect you have while watching,” Joe suggests.

5. Utilize editing tools and cues

Editing tropes exist for a reason: they work. Joe says he and his team used a mix of effects for Low Tide’s trailer. “We open on a warm shot show our couple happy in a happy place, then slowly show the breakdown of their relationship with a mix of montage visuals and VO. We end with a fast-cutting, frenetic montage to build up the energy and mystery of what happens.”

Trying to create a foreboding, ominous mood with your trailer? Fade to darkness. Seeking action-packed energy? Turn to quick cuts and montage-like sequences. And if you’re looking to evoke a feeling of happiness, use warm light with a slow fade. All of these editing techniques will cue viewers into the emotional tone of the film and help engage them.

6. Accolades on accolades

Did your film make the festival rounds? Consider adding laurels or praise from critics to your film. Just note that this strategy can up your street cred, but it could also may feel distracting. Decide what your end goal is for your film, and then add in your credentials to your trailer accordingly. If you want to gain more critical attention, find a distributor or embark on a screening campaign and show off those gold stars!

For a more in-depth look at the world of trailers, join Joe and his crew in their Academy of Storytellers course, On Set with Joe Simon and The Delivery Men, and see how their narrative film was produced from start to finish.

Keep these elements in mind next time you whittle your film down into a trailer, and you’ll engross a new audience and help drive sales. What else has worked for you? What trailers have caught your creative eye? Share your tips in the comments.


Matthew Disbro PRO

I love this writeup! Very insightful and useful information... I'd like to think I applied some of the suggestions in the teaser for my first feature documentary: Check out The Chase and give it a *heart* if you enjoyed the preview! :D

Thanks Vimeo!

Great Job Matthew!

The Chase is ON!

Nicholas Vince Plus

A really useful article and well done on the trailer Matthew. Certainly an intriguing trailer.

Moises Wahnon Maman

I really enjoyed the last two trailers (swiss army man and the fits). Great article explaining what to consider and how it's used.

Jerry Self

Why does Vimeo not play with Firefox? Any solutions?

shirley setia

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Donald Burnett

Excellent Article I will view it again to absorb all the info, its rich with pointers


excellent article. really helped me

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