Last year Trailaurality, a research group dedicated to the study of music in film trailers, took us through some of the key trends to watch out for in trailer music. In this follow up post, they look at the new techniques and musical styles being employed by those in the business.
Since our last review of directions in trailer music, the team at Trailaurality has screened quite a few trailers that follow paths that are now becoming cliché, such as the mood-reversed cover version of a well-known song in the second half. Already quite familiar from the soundtrack to The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Lorde’s grim, dark take on Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” gave voice to this trend in the second (“official”) trailer to Dracula Untold (2014), for example. Similarly inverting the meaning of the original was the slowed-down, eerie rendition of the upbeat “What a Wonderful World” by Sharon Van Etten and Juggernaut Kid in the teaser to Geostorm, providing the soundscape for global destruction after the trailer’s midpoint. If the pop song is in the process of getting slower – according to one source, from an average of over 110 bpm in 2012 to about 90 bpm in 2017 – then these covers of upbeat songs are just following trends in the music marketplace, whether we call the style dream pop, sadcore, shoegaze, or simply languid and haunting.
“If the pop song is in the process of getting slower, then these covers of upbeat songs are just following trends in the music marketplace, whether we call the style dream pop, sadcore, shoegaze, or simply languid and haunting.”
Disney has not been immune to the siren song of the altered cover, although when the studio dropped the teaser for A Wrinkle in Time last July, eight months before cinematic release, the shoegaze “Sweet Dreams” presented audiences with a different kind of adaptation. Brought on “to produce an intergalactic, trailer-ized cover version of the song,” LA composer/producer Mark Hadley enlisted Keeley Bumford (aka Dresage) in a re-imagining of the universally admired Eurhythmics’ performance from 1983. The fragmented song fills and shapes the trailer, at times subtly – the seemingly unrelated first twenty seconds are actually the newly composed intro to the song – in other places unmistakably, and at the end, mysteriously (the song fades out with the words “everybody’s looking for something” against the title card, cast run, and release information). And it’s given a dark hue throughout that’s uncharacteristic for Disney, so the last word of dialogue in the teaser-spoken by Oprah Winfrey as Mrs. Whatsit is “darkness.” Of course, the narrating voices of Winfrey and Chris Pine are worth their weight in gold as sonic hooks for potential theater audiences.
The New York Comic-Con trailer for Season 11 of the X-Files departs even further from the original song in its cover of “Zombie” by the Cranberries, using the version by The Void (Oumi Kapila-guitarist for Filter) featuring Bardi Johannsson. The producers may be counting on 90s nostalgia to link the show and the song, but the similarities between original and cover are so subtle that only an attuned ear might recognize the outline of the phrase “In your head” after 1:14 in the trailer. And in adapting the four-minute cover for the trailer, the music editor has abridged Kapila’s production, also removing the vocal track except for those three words. The Cranberries song is already slow; however, the opening of The Void’s version is downright inanimate in comparison, opening the floodgates of epic scoring only at about the halfway mark of the trailer. Demonstrating the mobility of such tracks, the cover can also be heard accompanying a TV spot for the video game Middle-Earth: Shadow of War.
That spot for the X-Files features a “micro-teaser” for the trailer that immediately follows. Such six-second trailers for the trailers remind us of Twitter’s defunct Vine app, which seemed to be flourishing just two years ago: the marketing for Wolverine, for example, made prominent use of Vines (and while Vine co-founder Dom Hofmann is considering restarting the popular app, Procter & Gamble is considering a two-second ad format). According to Chris Plante of The Verge, micro-teasers not only reflect the “event-ness” of a trailer release (as Vines did), but they also keep the online audience hooked for what is to follow so that they are less likely to click “skip ad.” In the compressed world of this type of micro-media, music doesn’t have much time to do its work: one musical idea or gesture is the most that can be squeezed into the frame, so it has to leave its mark as effectively as possible. The micro-teasers typically build in sonic and visual intensity to the title card that tells you this was only the prelude to the trailer.
“Micro-teasers not only reflect the “event-ness” of a trailer release (as Vines did), but they also keep the online audience hooked for what is to follow so that they are less likely to click “skip ad.”
One other growing trend is the use of hand clapping or finger snapping in trailers. The trailer to Inherent Vice of 2014 prominently made use of these simple, human sounds, which are typically recognizable when initiating or underlying the soundtrack. In a 2016 article for the Cuepoint website, Dalton Vogler drew our attention to the increasing use of clapping in pop music, which – according to his survey of the yearly Billboard Top 100 since 2009 – has grown by 31%, so that almost three-quarters of the top pop songs from 2016 feature some form of clapping. As François Jolin of Eon Sounds told Trailaurality, “the human factor… helps to give clapping a grounded, rooted feeling.” It stands to reason that this trend would transfer to trailer soundtracks, especially those that literally cover pop songs; however, even in production tracks the practice and its sounds have infiltrated trailer narratives. Trailer genres more susceptible to the “clap track” include the comedy and rom-com (Oceans 8, Barbershop: The Next Cut, Home Again), although we also hear it in such disparate film previews as those for Hidden Figures and the remake of Death Wish. Clapping and snapping figure most obviously and humorously in a 15-second spot for Ant Man from 2015, where Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas deliver a virtuosos’ performance.
Another quasi-musical sound that you can bet on hearing a lot more in the coming year is the ticking that Hans Zimmer deployed so strategically in the score to Dunkirk, but that was already foreshadowed in the teaser from August of 2016. Of course, the use of a (clock) ticking to build tension is nothing new in trailers: the trailer to High Noon (1952), for example, featured the pendulated clock sound in anticipation of the film’s most tense moment, while the insistent ticking in the trailer to Alien (1979) lent unity and drive to its otherwise chaotic, totally disorienting synthesized soundscape. As pointed out in our last Synchblog post, rhythmic ticking sounds have well served the horror genre, and Tyler Welch has observed in her review of the Dunkirk trailer, “the ticking-clock is a regular feature of [Christopher] Nolan’s and Syncopy’s trailers.” But since Dunkirk, the device has cropped up in greater frequency in more diverse trailer settings, such as for the heist-action film The Vault (Trailer #1) and for the Churchill biopic Darkest Hour (Trailer #2) and in the tv spot for The Shape of Water entitled “Ticking Thriller.” We’ll be listening for the various ways that trailer houses draw upon that familiar sound without descending into the realm of cliché, as an easy way to create tension.
We’ll also be watching and listening for how trailer (music) producers now and in the coming years meet the challenge of translating the experience of 3D and VR audiovisual material (films, video games) into standard 2D video and audio playback formats, such as afforded by smartphones and other mobile devices. A review of this year’s Sundance Festival in IndieWire made a powerful case for how VR is here to stay, as evidenced by sales of VR projects from the festival. Marty O’Donnell, Audio Director/Owner of Highwire Games LLC, recently talked to Trailaurality about video game trailers, observing that “trailers in 2D just don’t help people know what it’s like to be inside a virtual world. I don’t have a solution to this, but it’s a fascinating subject, and whoever figures it out will be sitting on a goldmine.”
“Trailers in 2D just don’t help people know what it’s like to be inside a virtual world. I don’t have a solution to this, but it’s a fascinating subject, and whoever figures it out will be sitting on a goldmine.”
– Marty O’Donnell, Audio Director/Owner of Highwire Games LLC
Finally, we thought it useful to provide our readers with some of the resources we use to identify the sources of music covered in trailers. One helpful site is Coversion, which serves as “a sync-focused high quality covers catalogue” and has been featured in prior postings of Synchblog. A more comprehensive identification tool is the WhoSampled website, which can help to find originals and covers but is reliant on the contributions of fans. Most valuable for quickly discovering details about specific songs used in trailers is the anonymously-authored enthusiast site (What’s the Name of) the Song? – however, the site has not been updated since July, 2017. And, of course, there are the fan comments on YouTube, which may well yield a performer name and a song title through the wisdom of the crowd, if the researcher is persistent. One of Trailaurality’s long-term goals is to establish an online database of trailer music-covers and production tracks, a daunting task given the number of trailers even just from the digital era (after 1995). Stay tuned for developments.
We would be remiss not to express our profound sadness over the loss of the extraordinarily promising film composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. Trailaurality came into contact with his work through the first trailer to Battle: Los Angeles (2011), which uses his moving song “The Sun´s Gone Dim and The Sky´s Turned Black,” in a case where the trailer is more effective than the film. His music added to whatever he touched, ranging from his contribution to this trailer to the full scores for Sicario and The Theory of Everything. Rest in peace!
James Deaville for Trailaurality.com
With additional material by Curtis Perry