Editor Jon Mesher on the art of the modern movie trailer
Jon Mesher, Head of Editing at The Picture Production Company, talks to us about creating trailers for major feature films such as Ex Machina and The Light Between Oceans, the art and creative process behind the trailer, its evolution over the last 30 years, plus his advice on creating a trailer for your next project.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, Jon. Trailers are an integral part of the filmmaking machine, the craft of which can be easily overlooked by most cinemagoers - so very interested to learn more about your work! What’s your role at The Picture Production Company, how long have you been there and how did you get started?
I am head of editing in our London office, overseeing all the offline editors. I have been here for over 11 years and I started as a runner as there were no editing positions open at that time. I worked my way through the company from runner, to librarian, to edit assist, junior editor and so on. 11 years has flown by! Prior to that I studied Fine Art at the Arts institute in Bournemouth, where I focused mostly on the study and practice of video and installation art.
How does the process work when cutting a trailer together? Do you have much creative control or a full brief from the marketing team behind the film?
It varies between clients. Some films come in with no brief at all and we go ahead with the story we think is the strongest as our starting point. Other movies will come in with a specific lead from the client, characters to include (and exclude), story beats that are important for the marketing of the film. Once we have our first cut, we work closely with the client for the duration of the project. We come into the project at different stages of production, sometimes there's just a script and shooting hasn't begun yet. Other times, we work directly from dailies as the shoot is progressing. We sometimes receive a complete film, which is useful for tone and visual effects. In every case, I start by watching the movie, reading the script, and breaking down the various elements of interest - dialogues, shots etc. Once I have broken down the dialogues I tend to watch the movie again with no audio so I am able to look for camera movements that interest me, how do characters interact through the camera, what are the special moments of the movie, that kind of thing. As trailer editors we have to take a two hour movie and tell the story in around two minutes. We need to find the lines that do a lot of heavy lifting for us and a lot of that involves moving moments of the film around, like a jigsaw. When we start playing with the context of the moments, we can be creative in our storytelling.
Your answer may differ depending on the genre, but what do you think makes a great trailer?
Movie trailers should show enough to engage an audience and at the same time leave them intrigued to know more. Teaser trailers are the most successful for me. They are the first impression, they set the tone for a film, often using limited dialogue and footage. And they don't give away too much! It is our job to represent the story as true to the filmmakers vision as we can, whilst getting people to the cinema to watch it. A trailer should absolutely make you want to see that movie.
What are some of your favourite trailers that you have cut together?
Alex Garland's Ex Machina is up there as one of my favourites. I loved the script and the movie and it was a great process with the client. It won a golden trailer award as well which was cool. I loved the freedom I had on creating the trailer for The Light Between Oceans some beautiful cinematography and performances meant it looked stunning and finding the balance between the drama and story was really fun. I also had loads of fun with some more independent movies like The Girl With All The Gifts and Dogtooth in the past.
What’s the best trailer you’ve seen this year? Do you have a favourite trailer of all time?
There were a few good ones in 2017. The It Comes At Night teaser was great. The Florida Project trailer was beautiful. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was hilarious. Thor Ragnarok had a good trailer for an established franchise. Blade Runner 2049 was great. IT was great fun and did a fantastic job of getting a modern audience on board.
I love many trailers but I think the two that stand out for me are the trailer for Alien which is just magnificent and innovative and the trailer for Little Children, which is so incredibly creative and simple and yet has stayed with me for years. The tone of both these pieces are so perfectly in balance with the movie they are marketing, whilst still being able to stand alone as pieces of art.
How do you think trailers have evolved over the last 20-30 years?
Historically, a film audience would only have seen a trailer in the cinema. I remember a cinema screening where the Star Wars: The Phantom Menace trailer was going to be premiered. Once the trailer had finished, two thirds of the cinema got up and left. They had paid their money just to see a trailer! We now live in a digital, connected world where trailers receive instant views and instant critique. You only have to look at a James Bond trailer to see that every shot is dissected and discussed, months before the release date. The internet has given movie trailers a huge platform to be seen globally no matter the film's budget. Social media has driven another opportunity for film marketing to be viewed and absorbed. We are having to find quicker ways of getting the message across to the public. We often get asked to create specific marketing to be used on the individual cast member's Twitter and Instagram feeds. So the marketing is much more saturated now, it's so much more than making trailers. I would still rather see a trailer on the big screen though, there really is no other place like it.
Recently, the feature film Suicide Squad found itself in multiple re-edits because of the audience response to the trailer (and some inspired use of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody), which didn’t necessarily reflect the final picture. What are your thoughts on trailers informing what the final film should be? Is this something you think we will see more of?
We are working with filmmakers very early on and sometimes they don't know what takes or scenes will go into the final feature cut. The trailer will always be released before the movie so there might be something in the trailer that won't be in the feature. Sometimes we even write unscripted dialogue and have it recorded by the actors because we need to shortcut certain things or be more direct with a piece of information. During the process of making the trailer, the film director or producers will be involved and give their input so maybe there will be a certain take they prefer that has featured in our trailer rather than the one they have seen in the movie edit but that's probably about as far as it goes.
Would you say that cutting trailers is an art form different to that of cutting films?
I would absolutely say that trailer making is an art form. It is a different art form than cutting feature films as it is intrinsically linked with advertising, however trailer editors still need an audience to be emotionally involved, they just have considerably less time to do it. Any art form requires commitment and persistence and trailer editors have plenty of that. We work long hours and often have to make creative compromises on our journey through to the completion of work. Most editors I know have come from a background of film, art or music and are very creatively minded people. We often work with people who are trained and skilled in marketing and consumer content. Most of our process on a project is balancing these objectives to come up with the most amazing work we can. An artist or a musician may make the work themselves but they will need people skilled in other fields to promote their work to make a living from it. I still find it fascinating that during a movie production, there can be hundreds of people involved in creating that film. Then all the footage is given to someone like me, who sits in a room on his/her own and gets the chance to create a two minute piece of art that will represent that movie and potentially be seen by millions of people.
As well as your work with trailers, do you also work on your own film projects?
No, I don't really have the time to work on film projects. I come from an art background so I used to work on video installations using the skills I have acquired as a trailer editor. Ironically, before I got into film editing I was re-appropriating film footage to create art installations. It seemed natural for me to move into a world of manipulating film and sound for a living.
Do you have any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
I have lots of upcoming projects I can't tell you about! Because of the nature of the work, everything is embargoed. I think 2018 is going to be another great year for film.
What advice might you give to those making trailers for short films?
Keep it short! Always. It sounds obvious with less duration but you really just want to tease the tone and concept of the story rather than the plot. Find a piece of music that is within the score of the short film, it could just be a sound or underscore but it will naturally have a connection to the visuals. Make it stand out, the first 5-10 seconds are about all you get these days to make an impression so make it count. Remember that it's not about putting music to pictures, it's about a solid audio structure that the pictures can connect with.
For more info about The Picture Production Company visit their website.