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How to Make a Killer Trailer: One of the Best Explains

As a international economics student at Middlebury College in Vermont, Nick Temple had no idea he'd wind up becoming one of Hollywood's top trailer cutters. But when a post-graduation cross-country trip with a couple of buddies brought him to Los Angeles in 2000, Temple needed a job so he started working as a runner at Burbank, California production house. There, he quickly became hooked on movie teasers. "There was something compelling for me about looking at footage and compressing it to tell a story," says Temple, CEO and lead editor of Wild Card. "I really got intrigued with the idea of selling a message through images and music."

Temple's mastery of short form advertising for movies including Rise of the Planet of the Apes, X-Men, The Great Gatsby, Transformers 3, Avatar and Man of Steel, has made him a fixture at the Golden Trailer Awards. Now in its sixteenth year, the show honors trailer creators who remain largely unknown even as their handiwork earns unprecedented scrutiny within the viral pop culture landscape.

Beyond their traditional placement in movie theaters and on television, newly released trailers in the social media age routinely become events unto themselves. GTA executive director Evelyn Watters, who co-founded the awards with executive producer Monica Brady, says, "There are no credits on trailers so the people and companies who make them are truly anonymous, yet we believe trailers are a genuine art form. It's about giving away just enough, but not too much, so that people will pay money for a movie ticket to learn the rest of the story."

As he prepped for Wednesday's Golden Trailer Awards gala in Beverly Hills, Temple talked to The Credits about how he and his team deployed "rug-pulls," "buttons" and other tricks of the trade to create their GTA-nominated trailers for Kingsman: The Secret Service, Unbroken and Jurassic World.

Kingsman: The Secret Service

"This film felt to me like a spy movie with a young James Bond twist and it had this punk attitude that we wanted to tap into," says Temple. "The movie also all has all these great gadgets so we built the trailer around this young troublemaker who gets recruited to be a spy and focused on making Kingsmen feel like a fun movie that has great action but doesn't take itself too seriously."

The Kingsmen trailer throws a conceptual curveball by subverting audience expectations about the film's star. "Colin Firth is such brilliant casting because you think of him as the actor from The King's Speech. Here, we have this scene in the bar where you think he's this distinguished gentleman lecturing a young kid. Then thugs walk into the bar and Colin Firth gets up and kicks ass. It's a great rug pull because you go 'Okay, I'm in a different movie here.' If you can lead an audience down a path and then do something unexpected, that's when you really grab people's attention."

Pacing is key to trailer construction and Kingsmen builds momentum toward the end with a series of quick cuts. Temple says, "You don't want to cut fast just for the sake of cutting fast, but with Kingsmen, the action was so spectacular that it gave us the chance to ramp up and go out with a bang."

Jurassic World Super Bowl Commercial

The Super Bowl's massive viewership makes it a prime launching pad for summer blockbuster buzz. The challenge: home viewers can be easily distracted when the game cuts to commercials. Temple explains, "When you construct a 60-second teaser for the Super Bowl, you don't have a lot of time to slow-burn before people hit the chips and dip. Viewers are probably at a bar or with other people, it's noisy — you need to grab their attention quickly. That's why we opened with this scene in the park where you see the great white shark being lowered on the wire. You think 'Wow, that's pretty big.' And then you see something else enormous come up out of the water and engulf it."

The teaser efficiently conveyed both tone and story with brief bits of dialogue from Jurassic World's likable star Chris Pratt. Temple says, "Chris is such a relatable everyman that it makes sense for him to be echoing what most normal people would say, 'Maybe it's not a good idea to go build a new dinosaur.'"

Wild Card's trailer includes a mix of familiar and novel special effects footage to exploit Jurassic World's iconic franchise status, then ends with a zinger that comes out of nowhere. "We call that the button" says Temple. "In the industry when you work on a tease, people say 'Hey, lets figure out what the button is."

In the case of Jurassic World, a couple of kids think they're safe from the genetically-manufactured dinosaurs only to turn around and see a giant claw come up behind them. "It's not rocket science," says Temple. "They've been doing it since Hitchcock, but if you can find a good button, it's always effective to come back for one last jolt."

Unbroken

"Great trailers create impact early," says Temple. "For Unbroken, we started with a scene where the bomber goes down because it's very intense and engaging. Then we backtrack."

The Unbroken trailer favors character over chronology, jumping back and forth between war hero Louis Zamperini's childhood and his horrific wartime experiences. The fractured time sequence demonstrates trailer makers' increasing embrace of non-linear storytelling. Temple says "I think audiences now are very media-savvy and they're willing to accept trailers with non-linear structure," he says. A trailer that simply condenses a sequence of events runs the risk of over-serving the viewer's appetite, according to Temple. "It creates the impression that you've presented the whole story: 'Gosh, boy was born, boy gets superpowers, boy faces villain.' Presented in that fashion, it might seem as if you've seen the whole film in the trailer."

By contrast, Unbroken 's character-driven trailer viewer leaves a key question unanswered: What happened to Louis Zamperini? "With Unbroken, we wanted to create high impact early and at the same time, there's still a lot of movie left that we haven't shown. We want the viewer to say 'I don't know all this answers, I'm, engaged and now I want to see the outcome.'"

For Temple, who also produced two GTA-nominated American Sniper trailers, all great trailers share one essential quality: they keep the audience guessing. "When you cut a trailer," he says. "There's nothing more damning than doing what's expected. You ask yourself when you watch the material, what makes you laugh, what makes you nervous, what makes you scared? Then you watch it again and experience that terrifying moment where you're going, "Okay, how am I actually going to package this?" And then, you have to play by some of the rules but also break enough of them that you create an impactful piece of marketing that viewers understand.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hugh Hart

Hugh Hart has covered movies, television and design for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wired and Fast Company. Formerly a Chicago musician, he now lives in Los Angeles with his dog-rescuing wife Marla and their Afghan Hound.

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