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The Art of the Trailer: Two Years in 30 Seconds

The trailer plays a major role in the marketing and ultimate success of a feature motion picture. This on-screen advertisement is so engrained in popular culture that most of the time it is taken for granted by movie goers. But industry marketing veterans know the trailer is the first and last chance to create a lasting impression on an audience.

Once the audience has settled into their seats, it is introduced to a string of trailers that showcase the latest films, some that entice the audience, some that leave them wondering what it's all about, some that might leave them cold. Some audience members may find a trailer so mysterious, fun or interesting that it will prompt them to share it over social networks or mobile devices, or even look for them in television commercial breaks. Thus, the life of the trailer begins its trans-media journey.
      
Most trailers range in length between 30 seconds and two minutes. It's within that short time span that the viewer will pick up on hundreds of cues about the movie. In the blink of an eye he will determine the genre, the gist of the story, the aesthetic and level of production. By the end of the trailer the viewer might well determine the fate of the movie. Is it a must-see or to-be-avoided? A movie may have an A-list cast, an interesting plot or incredible visual effects, but without a strong first impression, the movie's fate might be straight to DVD.

 

That is why the studios invest millions of dollars on trailers, and with good reason. Trailers are not just for first impressions; they sometimes have become almost as big as the films themselves. Consider that many times, the announcement that a trailer will play exclusively before a certain movie will drive a bigger audience to that film. The fate of many Hollywood films depends largely on its opening week. It is not hard to believe that with all this responsibility weighing heavily on the trailer designer, creation of many trailers may take up to two years from inception to completion. Prior to its completion, the life of a trailer may begin as a teaser. It might then go online, then to television in the form of a 30-second spot, and finally bleed into print and on the Web.

"The process of creating a trailer is no walk in the park," says Federico Ponce, an award-winning designer and director who has directed high-end theatrical trailers, television commercials and trailers for some of the most successful video game franchises. "For studio executives under enormous pressure to deliver hit movies, the trailer presents huge demands and the highest of expectations. The process of designing and directing trailers is an extremely complicated and a massive collaborative endeavor. I usually begin by reading a script. Then the editors, producers and creative directors will get together and assess the client's needs. The client may have a fast-paced action comedy or a psychological romantic thriller with a target market and a strong brand. We deal with almost an infinite amount of variables. Will this movie be a franchise? Will it be an instant classic or indie breakthrough? So my first task is to sort through all these questions and find the right combination of variables to create a cohesive and effective narrative for the piece"

Sometimes the movie doesn't even have principal photography or concept art, which makes Ponce's job even harder. "We have to create a visual language, somewhere between 40-60 different designs are developed and then narrowed down from there. My job is to imagine a world based on the script and absorb whatever source material is available to me. I have to try to stay as close to the brand as possible. In many instances we have to supplement visual effects and we have to maintain the same level of production quality as the final visual effects. Mind you, our teams are significantly smaller. For the movie 'Hitman' we had to create a digital set and shoot a live action plate. But for 'Iron Man,' I didn't have anything to work with, so I started creating the outside shell of the character's armor suit from comic book references."


Ponce's job is complicated by the fact that sometimes he is required to create digital set extensions, shot cleanups and full blown visual effects just for the trailer release. The work is fast paced and often he might find himself juggling three or four movies simultaneously. The mental gymnastics and the creative and cognitive flexibility to juggle all the combined elements are challenging.

Sometimes he can be working on a comedy and suddenly he is required to switch gears and start creating incredibly complex designs for science fiction films like "District 9." For that piece, there were live shots that where created just for the title sequence. At the same time, I had to create a special effect for 'Twilight' and another super-hero movie." In order to get an idea of how intense a regular work schedule is, consider that during one season Ponce worked on "Hancock," "The Smurfs" and "Sex and the City" at the same time. "One night I went to bed thinking about 'The Smurfs and the City," he joked.


      
In addition to all the complications and deadlines, high-end trailer professionals must worry about technical and marketing complications. "Quality must be maintained across all media. Once we get the marketing and visual aesthetics down and it is time for these graphics to see the light of day, they go through an excruciating process of finishing. These images are shown on giant movie screens. That's why I will literally sit through frame-by-frame, pixel by pixel making sure that every shot is perfect. The trailer will live online, on the big screen and on mobile devices."

 It's no surprise that with this level of complexity and production, high-end trailers have filtered into the video game industry. That's why successful franchises like "Call of Duty," "Tron" and "Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon" have benefited from Ponce's vision and execution.

"The technology for game trailers is a bit different, different frame rates and overall a different aesthetic. It's a whole new world, with old and new complications, but having worked on all the franchises mentioned above and some new and exciting movies, I can say that it is incredibly rewarding to go to the theater and hear people clap or gasp after one of the trailers I helped create is shown."

In addition to "internal tools" that are covered by client NDA's, Ponce employs a variety of off-the-shelf tools including: After Effects, Nuke, Maya, Cinema 4D, Mudbox, and Adobe Creative Suite.

Trailers are their own world and a truly complex art. The next time the audience has an opportunity to see the latest trailer it probably won't realize that two years of work just went by in 30 seconds.
      


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Related Keywords:movie trailer, filmmaking, visual effects, film marketing, film promotion

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