An Industry Insider’s Top Tips on Cutting a Trailer

Ross Evison

Ross Evison has been editing in the film advertising/marketing arena for 12+ years. Creating trailers, promos and TV commercials for major blockbusters to independent features all around the globe. In 2008 he created Dark Soup Films as a back bone for his directing work. He has written three feature scripts, worked as an editor on two and is currently looking to direct his first feature film from his own screenplay.

I’m a filmmaker in my own right, but for the past 12+ years I’ve been working primarily as a freelance editor of film trailers, promos and commercials all over the globe. In that time I’ve cut a lot of material, some you may have seen, some you won’t. I’m going to share with you some of the pointers I’ve learnt in the edit room trenches to help get your film out there and find its audience.

A good piece of marketing material is a bonus and a must for any film, on any budget level. It entices, informs and most of all let’s the audience in to your film. But how can micro budget films create a piece of advertising that helps their film get noticed in this world of constant, instant content?

You may have a great idea for how to market your film, which is fantastic and any fresh idea is always a plus, but the following is for those wanting to make their regular trailer sing all the more, it’s not meant to dictate exactly how to do it, but give a broad overview which can help improve your piece.

Firstly the big lesson is the trailer is not the film.

A lot of low budget trailers suffer from wanting to put too much information in the allotted time. Don’t get bogged down trying to explain everything from A to Z, that’s the film’s job. (I know, there is a common gripe that trailers show too much but that’s an entirely different blog post)

The best way to do this is to choose a story through line for your trailer, which, shock horror, may not be the story you originally thought it was, but that’s ok, it’s marketing, you’re looking for the best way to get an audience. All films have their strengths, so play to them.

Filmmakers are often precious of their own work and find it tough to choose what is the best part of their story. That’s why getting a third party to cut your trailer or promotional material is often the best way to go. Now, if you don’t have that connection or can’t afford to pay someone to do that, then it’s up to you. But you have to be ruthless.

I would say the simplest approach is to think of the trailer as a visual synopsis.

Approach it as though you’re writing a synopsis or at very least a logline, then build around that.

So, here are some basic tips for creating this, these are fairly generic and I feel are pretty common for most genres:

  • Choose the story through line and stick to it.
  • Don’t introduce too many motifs or characters choose whose journey it is—if you’re fortunate to have a known performer, albeit in a minor role, utilise that fact.
  • Don’t name check people who nobody knows.
  • Know the end, the theme and feeling you want to leave the viewer with.
  • The trailer doesn’t have to be as linear as the film—often better if it isn’t.
  • Don’t have random moments that come out of nowhere—sounds contradictory to the above point but you can put scenes in any order as long a the through story is being followed, don’t be afraid of mixing it up.
  • Writing copy (the voice over or captions) is tough, unless you have a way with words, don’t try and be too smart, serve the film rather than attempting to be clever with you words. The copy should encapsulate your through line story and can be helpful to skip through this. However, if you don’t need copy, don’t use it. If the film is strong enough let it do the talking.
  • Stick with simple graphic captions—often the best way if you’re not graphically skilled.
  • Voice over is not a must, and bad VO can alienate the viewer (don’t cheapen it with a fake American accent, if you’re a Brit and can read the lines, be a Brit; just be confident. Failing that, stick with captions).
  • Don’t let shots and moments out stay their welcome. The perfectly constructed moment you created in your film CAN be trimmed right down in the trailer, don’t worry it doesn’t ruin your film. It will always be perfect in the film.
  • Say something once, for example you may have two characters saying pretty much the same point in two different ways, cut one out you don’t need the other. Move on.

What’s the score?

Now, music is also a big tool and I find it super important. If you are cutting your own trailer and have no more cash in the bank then you won’t be able to afford the new big music cue, or the old classic track that may set your tone up perfectly.

So be creative, if you have music in the film that works, use it. There are plenty of music libraries out there and musicians itching to build their portfolio of work who may be willing to write you something unique. Ask them or perhaps you can barter with one, they may need a music video and you need some music; exchange your talents.

Don’t settle if you feel the music cue you’ve chosen isn’t working. Often a change of music can be all the trailer needs, it may help dictate the pace for the edit, it can assist with any emotional moment you’re wanting to create.

The wrong music can be a misfire and can ruin your trailer.

How long?

A good length is from 90 seconds to 2 minutes, any extra is unnecessary. Hollywood movie trailers generally run at 2:30, but often I feel they are too much, and they certainly can labor the point.

Remember to keep building the trailer, make the story move forward, running on the spot is a waste of time. The 3 act structure, like the majority of story telling, works great. Set up you place and characters at the beginning, have some fun in the middle then push the turning point into the final act where you either have your final promise of what’s going to happen or throw in some jeopardy. Escalate, escalate, escalate then stop!

The final image is important, if your film is a horror, end with horror, it’s a comedy, go out on a great gag, if you’ve made a rom com, then make sure you end on some rom and com.

Spend time on your trailer, you’ve just put your heart and soul into your film (I hope), so don’t quit yet. Keep the quality control up, spend time on the sound mix, if you haven’t yet competed your feature fully then give your trailer a colour correct. If a line of dialogue doesn’t work or the delivery is wrong or perhaps you want a character to say something more concise than how it is in the film, then ADR it, there is no rule to say you can’t. Again this is not the film, you don’t have to implement what you do in the trailer back into the finished film.

At the end give it a polish, then, when you think it’s done, go over it and buff it once more.

Never forget you’re telling and selling the story. If you’re still having trouble, imagine you’ve made your film and someone asks you what it’s about – listen to how you explain it, did you get it across, was it engaging for the listener, do they want to see it? If so, then that’s your trailer, you just told it to someone, now go cut it.

And finally, do some research, watch trailers, watch them all the time, look at the nuances, how they build the story, create the gags or the scary jumps, how they turn the emotional moments all with editing short hand. Watch the genres that suit your film.

Trailers are a niche promotional tool and can often take a team of creatives to bring them to fruition, but that shouldn’t stop you just going ahead and creating it.

One last thing: approach it with a whole new sense of how to tell your story, keep it fresh, this shouldn’t be a chore and keep in mind that this is:


My website is it has a couple of my trailer edits on there but mainly my writing and directing work. Here are links to a couple of trailers I’ve edited in the past.

Big Budget
The Bank Job
The International

Low Budget
The 27 Club
Stepping Into The Fire

Follow me on Twitter: @darksoupfilms

Originally published on Make Film Teach Film.

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