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Behind the Cuts: The essential role of music and rhythm in trailers

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I’ve been editing movie trailers for 11 years and for me music is the key component.

Every editor is different, some start with dialogue, others like to throw down a rough structure initially and then think about what cues will work, but I’m all about the music. I spend days trawling through music libraries and seeking out new bands. Even when I’m not at work I’m working. It’s always exciting hearing something on the radio or at a gig and to think “I’d love to use that on a trailer.” Or discovering a new band. Some editors think of the narrative as the main event whilst the music is background; a condiment to the main dish, but for me – very often – the music is the trailer. Once I’m excited about the cue I can get stuck in.

You can’t always find the dialogue you need in a trailer. Sometimes what makes sense as part of an entire scene, doesn’t work in short form, or the character doesn’t say the line you need to knit the narrative together, so you have to find a way to convey the message and help your audience join the dots – music can be so powerful in helping you do this: The right track influences and enhances the viewers’ emotional response to what they are seeing.

A particular example of that for me, is from 2012 , when I was working on a foreign language film called Rust and Bone and I faced the challenge of using minimal/no dialogue to convey the story. In a situation like this music plays an absolutely crucial role. I came across a song by M83 called My Tears are becoming a Sea which instantly captured everything I wanted the trailer to say and really hit the emotional intensity necessary for such a powerful film. That song helped me create one of the trailers I am most proud of – Rust and Bone.

You can watch the trailer for ‘Rust and Bone’ below:

The many musical aspects of editing: Rhythm is key

Additionally you’re not limited to music in the purely traditional sense. On some occasions you get the opportunity to build a sound bed comprised purely of sound effects and can rely heavily on sound design. Every piece of narrative – long, short, visual or audio – has a rhythm so as an editor you need a good sense of rhythm. And music and rhythm aren’t just important in creating the general mood, every detail has its own rhythm.

Dropping out for the punch line of a joke or a crucial dramatic line should always be musical as it creates space for the line to land or the joke to hit. An audience may not realize it consciously, but will sense it feels right. The audience is a sophisticated and intuitive collective. If you mess up the rhythm, they might not be able to pinpoint what’s wrong but they will feel it and it interrupts their experience. At that point you’ve lost them.

PAUL CARTLICH Editor HEAD SHOT1
“I always start a cut by laying down music on my timeline.” – Trailer Editor Paul Cartlich

When I started at Empire Design in London 11 years ago, I was trained to always cut within the musical time frame, count the bars of each phrase, and regularly check in by turning off the video layer and just listening to my cut. I’d like to say I still always do this, but sometimes deadlines don’t afford this luxury. I’m always grateful when I do though, as I immediately know what’s working and what needs refining.

I always start a cut by laying down music on my timeline. Music and a sound bed come first; my foundations, only then do I start to work with dialogue. This order helps me formulate a structure and work out what musical and dramatic beats I need where, and when to change cues.

However, just because I start with the music and I’m passionate about my choice, it doesn’t always mean I get to use the cue I initially choose. There are so many factors in place, not just my artistic preference. Trailer music is a big business in itself these days and securing the rights to use a cue can be a long and complicated process.

About Braaams, Covers and Zeppelins: Music Trends in the trailer industry

Music in trailers has changed and evolved so much since I started out 11 years ago. Back then a lot of music used was score from other movies, which doesn’t happen as much anymore. However there are some very successful exceptions (one of my favorites being the teaser trailer for ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, which used a cue called Wolf Suite Part 1 from ‘The Wolf Man’ score, quite brilliantly).

Styles and “sounds” come in and out of fashion but it definitely comes in waves.

One of the trends at the moment is covers – arguably started by the fantastic use of a cover of Radiohead’s Creep for ‘The Social Network’s Official Trailer. The use of covers is a trend that seems to just keep growing. There have been some brilliant ones such as Crazy in ‘Birdman‘, House of The Rising Sun in the recent ‘Magnificent Seven’ Trailer and the ingenious use of the Bee Gees’ I Started a Joke on the Comic-Con Trailer for ‘Suicide Squad’.

After the ‘Inception’ trailer came out in 2010 using the amazing cue, Mind Heist so many trailers utilized the big brass horn sound that became coined as a “Braaaam”. It appeared on lots of trailers after that, with music libraries responding to demand by creating cues just like it and it has now morphed into a staple sound in library music cues.

Led Zeppelin are enjoying a bit of a“moment” in the trailer world since they released their material on Spotify. Featuring on the ‘MI5 – Rogue Nation‘, ‘The Big Short‘ and ‘American Hustle‘ trailers. I feel like this subsequently spiked a trend in old cool rock cues being used. The ingenious use of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody in the ‘The Suicide Squad’ trailer being a prime example.

It’s interesting to see which trailer starts a trend, how people react to it and also how long it lasts for. It’s funny being a trailer editor and realizing how you’re subconsciously affected by the trend of the moment, seeing it crop up in your own music selects. Then of course there are those odd occasions when you find yourself at the beginning of the trend, having discovered a band or song and used it from a place of pure passion and then see that ‘sound’ become the next big thing.

From Live Gigs to Music Libraries: Sourcing cues for trailers and where we find the music.

As a trailer editor I’m always listening out for that next trailer cue. For the most part the music I use in my work is different to the music I listen to simply for pleasure. I’m a funk, Soul and Reggae fan and these styles of music aren’t that common in trailers, but I’m always listening out for music I can use in trailers. If I hear a song at a gig or on the radio I’ll make a note and add it to a playlist so then I can use it later. I squirrel away and save songs hoping I’ll get to use them. I currently have a few stored up that I am dying to use, but just liking a track isn’t enough, the fit has to be perfect.

Musicians make music primarily because they love it. They are creating in a pure way – art for arts sake – and whilst trailers are my passion, I’m sure that most band’s primary focus when writing their songs isn’t the movie-advertising world. If a band feels the film doesn’t fit with how they see themselves or they think it will aggravate their core fan base… or they just don’t like the trailer/film, they can – and sometimes do – refuse use.

I only ever choose music because it genuinely excites and inspires me so it’s meant as a compliment to the band/artist when I seek out their tracks for my work, but I 100% respect that they might not want a piece of their art forever associated with one film or advert. Often though, bands are really pleased to become part of the film and further plug the movie.

Right now I am obsessed with a British band called Solomon Grey. And I held on to a song of theirs called Glas/Green for ages and then the perfect project came around for it earlier this year for an indie film called ‘Louder Than Bombs’. I got the song on to the finished trailer and when that happens it’s even more satisfying. Knowing they liked it too is also nice as you feel like you’re doing both the song and the film justice.

You can watch the Official Trailer for ‘Louder Than Bombs’ below:

Another major resource that a lot of editors use when searching for cues is trailer music libraries. These days there are lots of brilliant music libraries out there that specialize in creating bespoke music for trailers. My favorites would definitely include Dos Brains, Pusher, Really Slow Motion, Audiomachine and Soundscapes. They compose every genre from comedy to horror and have really changed the way trailer editors work, especially in the last 10 years.

It also happens on occasions that a song is just out there, ready and waiting as a perfect fit. A Redband trailer that I cut for an indie dark comedy film called ‘Filth’(Irvine Welsh) springs to mind. This film’s title is operating on two levels firstly a derogative outmoded nickname for policemen, (the central character Bruce is a policeman played fantastically by James McAvoy) and secondly in reference to Bruce’s filthy and depraved activities throughout the film.

It’s a fast paced hedonistic film with lots of shocking content. Filthy Gorgeous by the Scissor Sisters was out there and there was no way I could not use it and I just hoped they’d agree to the licensing. Music syncing in trailers is a big business now and as trailers are often viewed by millions of people online, it can be very expensive securing the use of a song for your work, or in some cases flat out impossible. Luckily they said yes. I really loved cutting this trailer.

You can watch the Official Redband Trailer for ‘Filth’ below:

And on some occasions it goes a step further, when music is actually re-created for a trailer to make the marriage of music and movie even stronger.

An example of this was when I chose a Max Richter cue for the international trailer for ‘Prometheus’. It was a beautiful piece called Sarajevo, which I chose because I wanted to elevate the trailer and showcase the film as something special and worth waiting for.

I have always been a big admirer of Max Richter and Ridley Scott liked the cue enough to get it re-scored by Max Richter and re-recorded with a full 90 piece Orchestra at the famous Air Studios in London, so that it would be a bespoke fit for the trailer and for use on the subsequent television campaign. It was such a privilege to have the music crafted around the trailer, and knowing Ridley Scott liked the cue is a huge compliment. That was definitely a career highlight.

You can watch the International Trailer for Prometheus below:

I love being a trailer editor for so many reasons and I’ve been fortunate enough to work for great companies and on great films and even win some awards (a Golden Trailer Award, a Key Art Award and a Music and Sound Award) but the absolute highlight is when you meet someone, tell them what you do and they actually remember seeing one of your trailers and the effect it had on them – that’s the best feeling and really makes the job worthwhile.

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Senior Editor at Giaronomo Productions in New York.

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