Trailer music is big business, whether you’re dealing with a placement of an existing song, a cover/remix, or an original composition. Trailer houses are all too aware of the pressure to sell a film in under 5 minutes, and music can have a huge influence on a trailer’s impact. In this post, our friends at Trailaurality take a look at key trends in the trailer music world, and where industry professionals see things heading next.
Trailaurality has been researching trailer music and sound for over four years now, so we’ve developed something of an ear for what’s happening in the industry. And though it sounds cliché, freshness and originality still count for much of a trailer’s impact. Take the outstanding soundtrack for the teaser to Mad Max Fury Road (2015), which was the work of music supervisor Bobby Gumm at Trailer Park (and was nominated for a Guild of Music Supervisors Award). The music enhances a sense of drama and awe through the emergence of a powerful chorus from Mascagni’s opera Rustic Chivalry towards the middle, and maintains the intensity to the end via the skillfully edited “Days of Wrath” chorus from Verdi’s Requiem. These forceful opera choruses make a fitting backdrop for the teaser’s non-stop and spectacularly colorful action.
Equally effective, but in a totally different way, is Rogue Planet’s remarkable teaser trailer to Logan from 2016, which uses the Johnny Cash cover of Nine Inch Nails’ song “Hurt” throughout as a framing device. The music brilliantly furnishes psychological insight into Logan’s world-weary frame of mind and provides pacing for the visual elements, even for the images of the final intensifying montage. We know that Logan has been hurt and is hurting, so Cash’s track seems like the voice that the laconic Logan does not use in the trailer. Leaving the release-date hype for the next trailer, the teaser lets the acoustic guitar have the last word.
As seen in these two trailers, the use of cover songs and existing music remains a very strong presence among trailers, especially since the success of Mark Woollen’s imaginative retuning of Radiohead’s “Creep” in the second trailer for The Social Network (2010). It has become almost formulaic that a theatrical trailer will begin with production music or sound design and at about the one-minute or the halfway mark, the cover song enters, often reimagined slower and darker than in the original version, such as in trailers for Black Panther (“Legend Has It” by Run the Jewels), or San Andreas (“California Dreamin’”), or Geostorm (“What a Wonderful World”). Given this practice, (the better) trailer houses are looking for original ways to work songs— whether in original or cover versions—into soundtracks, plumbing the depths of musical history for vocal music that 1) is widely recognizable, 2) fits the trailer narrative, and 3) can be easily and inexpensively cleared.
The “how” behind the use of a particular cover song is almost as important as the specific choice: it could extend the whole length of the trailer like Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” for Logan or Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” for Suicide Squad. The original could also be integrated into the soundtrack like Ki Theory’s cover of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” for Ghost in the Shell, or the Beatles’ “Because” (teaser and first trailer) for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. For Ignition Creative’s teaser for Miss Sloane, Keaton Simons’ “When I Go” serves as a rough frame but the editors have stripped away the solo voice part and—for the second half—inserted a riff on the song’s rhythm and harmony, only to return to the opening at the end. As these examples illustrate, originality and creativity are crucial for the effective use of cover songs, especially as they saturate the market.
“Originality and creativity are crucial for the effective use of cover songs, especially as they saturate the market.”
There is a definite nostalgia factor in choosing songs that resonate with specific audiences, particularly when the film is an adaptation/remake/sequel of a movie that has its own associations. It stands to reason that the Alexander Courage theme for the original Star Trek series would figure in trailers, at least through the series reboot in 2009, at which point (after the teaser) it disappears from franchise trailer advertising. But then take a song like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which was released in 1975 and became popular in the ensuing years, and then experienced a second life after the 1992 release of Wayne’s World. Its subsequent use (augmented by The Hit House) in the trailer “Rhapsody” for Suicide Squad of 2016 garnered ASPECT a Golden Trailer nomination and occasioned considerable critical acclaim. Here we find trailer houses taking music that not only provides a hook for fans of the band and song, but that the audience may also remember from the film.
“Moving away from general covers and more into the “trailerizing” of already existing tracks. Those classic rock songs from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s never really went away, but they are being revamped with these modern, energetic, edgier overlays. Guitar and percussion are added to make them sound cooler, more epic, and larger overall. The clients seems to be going for more out of the box ideas too, which I’m personally very excited about.”
“Rhapsody” is a good example of “trailerizing” of an existing track, as is the trailer to Atomic Blonde, which features a mash-up of lyrics and instrumentals by Kanye West and Depeche Mode.
At the same time, composers continue to craft new tracks for trailers and—according to Ric Thomas, a trailer editor at Empire Design, UK—producers are “really starting to have fun with… original cues.” In an interview with The Verge’s Andrew Liptak, prominent trailer composer Frederick Lloyd, aka Ursine Vulpine, agrees that though the current trend is a slow, evocative rendition of a cover song, he hopes that the future will bring “a lean toward original work.” Lloyd has demonstrated this return to earlier scoring practices through his contributions to trailers for (among others) Mad Max: Fury Road, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
And if the success of (allegedly) Hans Zimmer’s BRAAMS (alternately spelled BRAMMS) sound from the trailer to Inception (2010) is any indication, the ability to convey “raw, ominous emotion in a very immersive way” will remain crucial to creating effective trailer soundscapes, as François Jolin of Eon Sounds proposes. Jolin highlights rhythmically driven sound and music as key to drawing audience into the trailer experience, as we see and hear in the ticking of the last Dunkirk trailer. The genre of horror has long relied upon such sound design to unify and structure trailers: just listen to the main trailer for Insidious (2011), which introduces the ticking of a metronome that transforms into the sound of a rocking horse, and finally a heartbeat, to make palpable the underlying tension and uncertainty. At the same time, the sound effect of a single repeated note on the piano (Trailer 2 to Dr. Strange, Teaser Trailer to Transformers: The Last Knight, Trailer 3 to Star Trek: Beyond, etc.) has become a cliché in trailers for films that rely upon suspenseful action.
Still, melody will remain the primary working tool of the trailer composer, though rhythm may set the basic pace of images and sound effects will add coloring to the finished product. A simple melody, working in conjunction with a striking—slow or fast—rhythm, can deliver audience attention, as was the case with Trailer Park’s teaser “Baby” for Baby Driver, where Martha Reeves and the Vandella’s “Nowhere to Run” drove through the highlights of action scenes and character reveals. This is also why many critics consider the trailer for Requiem for a Dream (2000) as one of the best, through the use of Clint Mansell’s now-iconic score. And this is why the use of production music can still be so effective in recent trailers like those for Dunkirk, Thor: Ragnarok, and It.
Freelance trailer editor Becci Jones (UK) well sums up what a number of her colleagues have expressed as the direction they would like trailer music to take: “The fast-paced tidal wave of sound and image can be overwhelming. I’d kinda like to see the more simple, intricate sound design and minimalist tracks come to the fore and subvert this. We’ll see!”
And we’ll be watching and listening!
This post was written by James Deaville (Lead Researcher at Trailaurality.com), in collaboration with Peter F. Ebbinghaus (Audio Team Agent at Eon Sounds and Editor-in-Chief at BehindTheAudio.com) and with contributions by Ric Thomas (Editor at Empire Design), Patricio Hoter (Editor at BOND), Lana Bui (Associate Music Supervisor at ASPECT), David Schumann (Editor at mOcean), Paul Cartlich (Editor at Wild Card AV), Becci Jones (Freelance Editor), Greg Dombrowski (composer at Secession Studios), Grace Sky Lee (Content Management & Communication at HiFive), and Francois Jolin (Audio Director at Eon Sounds).
Trailaurality are a Carleton University based research group dedicated to the study of music in film trailers. They have launched an exploration of trailer soundscapes to contribute to a multifaceted scholarship on trailers, identifying trends, themes and patterns in the sonic realm of trailers of the digital era.