A faux (or “fake”) trailer previews a movie that doesn’t yet exist. The International Movie Trailer Festival is running a contest that calls for shooting a faux trailer with a mobile device. In addition to having fun you can win a $3,000 Grand Prize plus support in making the movie represented by the trailer. If you’ve never made a trailer…
… don’t worry, it’s easy. The following recipe will tell you how to do it. The main ingredient is imagination: the ability to visualize a trailer—2 minutes or less—that will make audiences want to see the movie you’re pitching. If you know how to tease, and operate a cameraphone, you’re on the way to making an effective trailer.
You could spend months working on a faux trailer. But the following 12 steps will show you how to do it in four days, maybe fewer if you’re focused and lucky. This process is for a narrative (story) trailer but most of the steps are valid when making a trailer previewing a documentary that hasn’t yet been shot.
The time given for each step is a very rough estimate. You may invest more time in some activities, less in others.
Skim the 12 steps to get the big picture. Then check out the details that follow.
1. Write a logline that—in 25 words or less— sums up your story. 1 hour
2. Describe the characters. 1 hour
3. List the actions that you’ll shoot. 1 hour
4. Write the script: 3 pages or less. 2 hours
5. Scout the locations. 2 hours
6. Find the actors. 6 hours
7. Assemble the props and costumes. 4 hours
8. Plan the production. 2 hours
9. Shoot the trailer. 8 hours
10. Get the music and sound cues 4 hours
11. Edit the footage 4 hours
12 Test the trailer and revise as needed. 2 hour
Step 1. Write a logline. This is a phrase or short sentence that captures the premise of the movie that you’ll preview in your trailer. There are just two key elements in any logline:
• A character that you—and your audience—will care about.
• A challenge for your character .
• An extraterrestrial left behind when his spaceship takes off wants to get home.
• When a private detective’s partner is killed, the detective becomes the prime suspect.
• A young woman is kidnapped by a giant ape.
Hint 1: If you don’t already have a premise, the best way to come up with a good one is to brainstorm many possibilities. Then choose your favorite.
Hint 2: Don’t worry about the details at this point. A few well-chosen words should suffice to describe the character— a ship’s captain who can’t swim—and the problem—:a meteor is about to smash into earth.
Hint 3: While often there is just one character in the premise, sometimes this element is a group: a military squad, two lovers, a volleyball team.
Step 2. List the trailer’s key actions. Although movies usually have both calm and exciting happenings, a trailer usually will rely on dramatic actions that are scary, thrilling, surprising, and/or funny. For a one-minute trailer, you might need three or four significant actions such as a shouting match, a chase, a discovery.
Step 3. Identify the characters. Most memorable trailers feature well-defined characters that audiences come to care about such as Dirty Harry, Thelma & Louise, Rocky, Tootsie, The Lion King, Robo-Cop, The Joker. Minor characters may be important in a whole movie, but when you have only a minute or two to pitch your story, you need to focus on the key characters, perhaps three or four.
Step 4. Write your script. Keep it simple, clear, and dramatic. The script needs to describe each action, tell where and when it happens, and give the words. The words can be spoken by the characters or by a narrator, or printed on “title cards.” If you’ve never written a screenplay, you can find a sample at the end of this article.
Hint: Because speaking dialogue convincingly is difficult, if you’re working with beginning actors, consider using little or no dialogue at all. Even if you have trained actors, recording sound during a shoot is difficult. You’ll usually get better results if you use title cards or voice-over narration to create a context for the action.
Step 5. Scout your locations. Where an action occurs can be as important as the action itself. So don’t shoot in the first place that comes to mind. For example, let’s say your two main characters are having a fight. While it could happen in a living room, maybe it would be more exciting in a sauna or at a roller rink or….
Hint: If you’re shooting in a public place, give attention to safety. You don’t want to endanger your actors or the public.
Step 6. Find the actors. Amateur productions often sink because of stiff, unconvincing performances. Therefore, while you might be tempted to take the first person you think of for a part in your trailer, investing extra time in finding the right person can have a big payoff. Where can you find actors? Whether you’re looking for a spy, a romantic figure, or a jock, there’s a good chance you’ll find one among your family and friends. But you might also consider a local theater group or the theater department of a college or university. Craigslist can work, and these days many directors audition actors online using Skype or clips uploaded to video sites.
Step 7. Assemble the props and costumes. Study your script to make sure you have in hand the things and costumes required. You don’t want to interrupt the shoot to locate a machine gun or a parasol. No need to overdue it. A simple badge might be enough to persuade viewers that your retired neighbor is a plainclothes police offer.
Hint: One way to help amateur actors relax is to give them something to hold and use during a scene. For example, instead of having a character reveal a secret by directly talking to another character, the character might speak while simultaneously flying a kite or scrambling an egg or pumping up a bicycle tire.
8. Plan the production. As with most activities, planning can make a huge difference. Before you shoot, think about issues such as lighting, crowd control, and noise. These considerations may determine your shooting schedule.
Hint 1: To improve the quality of the shooting—and to save time—many directors make simple sketches—storyboards—of some or all of the shots. Storyboards help you determine where to locate both the actor and the camera. You don’t have to be a good artist to make useful storyboards. But if you hate drawing, you can create photo storyboards, taking still photos ahead of time, even using stand-ins for your real actors.
Hint 2: Organize your crew. While you can do all the work yourself, you increase the odds of success if you have a few helpers. These might include a camera operator—so that you can focus on the action. You might even want to shoot with two cameras, giving yourself insurance in case one camera fails. A script supervisor—someone who checks off each action in the script—can help you make sure that you don’t accidentally skip a crucial bit of business.
Hint 3: Make sure you have all the equipment and resources needed, for example, a tripod for steady shots, a laptop computer for backing up the footage, and snacks for the team.
Step 9. Shoot the trailer. For most directors, this is the fun part because no matter how thoughtful the planning, there will be surprises that require on-the-stop problem solving, improvisation, and creativity.
Hint 1: Make sure that the action you want to shoot is in the frame and doesn’t come too close to the edge…unless it’s exiting the shot, e.g., a car whizzing by. Generally, you’ll want to shoot in the landscape or horizontal mode—the frame being wider than high. Make sure that there are no annoying elements in the background, for example, a tree or pole that seems to grow out of a character’s head.
Hint 2: After each shot, take a moment to review the recording. Look carefully to make sure there are no subtle visual problems, for example, an annoying shadow or a person in the background waving at the camera.
Hint 3: Shoot enough…but not too much. While professionals may shoot 100 times the amount of material that gets into the finished movie, if you want to finish your trailer quickly, too much footage may become a problem. If you’ve planned carefully, usually one or a few takes will be sufficient.
Step 10. Get the music and sound cues. While movies are primarily visual, the sound track—music, natural sounds—can play a crucial role. If you know musicians, you can get an original score, But these days, there are numerous online sources that will sell you music in every genre for little money. You can also go online to find sounds of everything from dogs barking to a-bombs bursting.
Step 11. Edit the footage. Editing brings together all the creative efforts. It’s also the place to add titles, music, and sound effects. Inexpensive software turns an inexpensive computer into an editing machine that surpasses what the pros had just a few years ago. However, if you’ve never used editing software, there is a steep learning curve. So if you have a friend who knows how to edit, this might be the time to call in a favor.
Step 12. Test the trailer. You may be delighted with your trailer. But the proof of any movie is in the audience reaction. It makes sense to show your trailer to audiences that know nothing about it. After the showing, ask viewers to focus on problems: what’s unclear? Is the pace too slow or too fast? What would make it better? You don’t have to agree with the audience, but listen because the audience may see something that you missed. One good suggestion could help you win the top prize.
* * *
Sample Trailer Script
The following abbreviations and terms are used by many screenwriters:
* EXT. = “exterior.” This identifies scenes that take place outside.
* INT. = “interior,” This identifies scenes that take place inside a building or a vehicle.
* V.O. = “voice over.” This identifies words spoken by someone not shown in the frame.
* Title card = Printed words that fill the screen, often white letters on a black background.
A DOG & HIS BOY
We hear an EERIE flying saucer noise.
When I was sent to Earth to take over the planet….
EXT. OUTER SPACE
Earth as seen from the vicinity of the moon.
My first job was to take over the body of an Earthling so that I could carry out my plan of world domination in secret.
EXT. CITY STREET – DAY
Montage: a trashcan, a traffic light, a bicycle, a pot of flowers, and bus.
Some of my colleagues find it difficult to recognize intelligent beings on a new planet. Not me. I easily identified the species in charge.
Camera pans from a couple of people to a…DOG.
There’s a FLASH….
And now we’re looking at things from the point of view of the dog, that is, down close to the ground.
In just a few seconds I mastered the creature’s language.
Still in the Dog’s point of view, a PERSON bends down to pet the dog.
The person backs up and runs away.
Now, all I needed was an assistant.
The camera pans around, taking in a variety of dogs.
I didn’t need anyone too smart, who’d ask too many questions and require a lot of training.
The camera finds a BOY, about 8 years old, playing a game on an iPad.
Yeah, that would do.
The camera moves closer to the boy who doesn’t look up.
Don’t bother me..
Talk about primitive language.
(to the boy)
Hey, take me to your leader.
The boy looks into the camera.
Oh, my God, a talking dog.
I’m not a talking dog. I’m an extraterrestrial here to take over this planet.
I don’t believe in aliens.
But you do believe in talking dogs?
You got a point.
All right then. Take me to your leader.
INT. THE BOY’S HOUSE – DAY
The dog and the boy enter the front door.
TITLE CARD: “A Dog”
Don’t forget about me.
TITLE CARD: “A Dog…and His Boy.”
What is it, Dan? I’m busy.
There’s an extraterrestrial here that wants to take over the earth.
He’s welcome to it.
TITLE CARD; “Coming soon.”
Real soon, earthlings.