Trailer music research group Trailaurality take us through the key trends and developments in trailer music over the past year, from the increasingly clichéd use of cover songs, to the new sonic devices and techniques designed to captivate and engage audiences.
Another year has passed, and we’ve experienced another full round of trailers, released according to season: if it’s Christmas, we’ll get a taste of summer, and if it’s summer, we’ll be prepared for the holiday season’s offerings. Like high fashion shows and magazines, film trailers tend to run one season ahead, so that we are introduced to summer blockbusters as the snow flies and to Christmas cheer in the midst of the warm months. So at the time of writing (December), we are seeing and hearing (first) trailers for releases in May (Godzilla 2: King of Monsters, Brightburn), June (Toy Story 4, The Secret Life of Pets 2), July (The Lion King) and August (Artemis Fowl, Playmobil: The Movie).
At year’s end, which trailers did we hear that particularly struck our aural (and yes, visual) sensibilities? The list of memorable trailer soundtracks would have to begin with the teaser for Godzilla 2, King of Monsters, dropped in mid-July. For this tribute to the kaiju, we might have anticipated the typical production track that establishes the monsters’ fierceness or the violence of their combat. Instead, the trailer house uses an orchestral/synthesized version of Claude Debussy’s delicate “Clair de lune”, which is the emotional opposite of the expected sounds of terror. Yet the music works and, like John Williams’ first theme for Jurassic Park, highlights the majesty of the creatures, while tipping us off that not all kaiju are created equal; not all are inherently destructive.
We also liked the trailer campaign for Bohemian Rhapsody. Yes, of course the trailers would showcase the band’s most recognizable songs, but the synchronization of music with visual clips and dialogue from the movie was especially skillful, even in the rhythmic linking of the micro-teaser to the main trailer. In the Mary Poppins Returns teaser trailer, the musical underscore by Marc Shaiman takes us on a journey, from a wistful uncertain opening reminiscent of its counterpart in the original Mary Poppins, to a reverberant climax at the only spoken words, the reveal of her name and character (both for those unfamiliar with her story and those who might worry about the film’s fealty to the original). In a departure from the usual musical disconnect between trailer and film, the theme that gradually unfolds here and receives full treatment in the “official” trailer serves as the principal motive in Shaiman’s musical re-imagining of the original soundtrack.
That all of these notable trailer scores occur in teasers is no coincidence: they are intended to capture the audience’s curiosity while exposing as little of the film as possible, in part because much of it has yet to be shot. (In fact, according to The Ringer, studios “have rejiggered their shooting schedules to front-load them with ‘trailer moments’.”) The later trailers in a campaign tend to play it more “by the book,” with more production (=stock) music at the expected points in order to support a fuller version of the film’s story. And unless you’re dealing with a franchise that has a signature branding theme like The Avengers or Mission Impossible, the music will vary between trailers for a given film: licensing fees may have prohibited re-use of a song, different trailer houses may have contributed to the campaign, or the studio desired a different vibe.
“That all of these notable trailer scores occur in teasers is no coincidence: they are intended to capture the audience’s curiosity while exposing as little of the film as possible, in part because much of it has yet to be shot. (In fact, according to The Ringer, studios “have rejiggered their shooting schedules to front-load them with ‘trailer moments’.”)”
In terms of novelties in trailer music, a few sounds caught our attention. The trend towards odd sounds in the horror genre intensified with the unnerving, densely-packed cluster of plucked (synthesized?) strings featured in one guise or another in trailers for mother!, I Am the Night, Apostle, and Lizzie. Apostle combines that sonority with the newly fashionable ticking sound, while Lizzie pairs the irregular high-pitched pizzicato effect with stridently bowed single notes on the bass. With sound design such a component of horror, trailer houses are challenged to find novel timbres and new combinations thereof to pursue the tradition of disturbing the underscore through unheard of sound effects.
If horror is seeking new sonic devices to entice its potential audiences, action/adventure, fantasy, and science fiction trailers seem stuck in a musical rut, heavily relying on covers of recognizable songs as musical underscore – and, in at least one case, they cover the same song. Slow-tempo, ironically sad versions of “What a Wonderful World” (with or without Armstrong’s unmistakable voice) have become so cliché as the incongruent underpinning for images of destruction that we feel compelled to request that trailer music supervisors not succumb to the easy path of simply overlaying it onto a visual montage of wholesale devastation. Recent trailers that deploy various renditions of “What a Wonderful World” include those for Geostorm, Wonder Park, Insurgent, Black Mirror (Season 4), and Dragon Age: Inquisition (video game).
Haile Kiefer of Vulture identified and critiqued the general practice in a blog from March, 2017, entitled “This Is Our Final Plea: Stop Soundtracking Movie Trailers With Somber, On-the-Nose Covers.” She observed that “there is a pervasive trend in modern movie trailers…:the solemn, slow cover of a very famous, well-regarded song,” and these “overly obvious elegiac covers have jumped the shark.” We at Trailaurality likewise decried this new trailer convention in our analyses of specific examples in the Synchblog feature from February of this year. Unfortunately, our voices seem not to have availed much with the forces behind the synching of trailers, given the seemingly unabated continuation of this tired musical formula.
This is not to say that all trailer cover songs are misguided, but the practice itself has become almost as cliché as the “In a World” narration and the Inception sound were in their days, with the difference that at times the song selections reflect forethought and not just “use the most popular song” marketing. One outstanding example is the skillful interweaving of the Fugee’s “Killing Me Softly”—sung by Lauren Hill—throughout the final trailer for If Beale Street Could Talk, creating a moving tribute to love in one short minute. Other noteworthy, sometimes thoughtful, sometimes amusing examples include Wendy Rene’s “After Laughter (Comes Tears)” in the Mid90s “official” trailer or Tommee Profitt’s “Wicked” (featuring Royal & The Serpent) at the end of the second trailer to The Girl in the Spider’s Web. We could also mention the song in the closing scenario of the teaser to Shaun the Sheep Movie 2: Farmageddon, which sounds like a cover but—given Shazam’s inability to recognise the song—is probably newly written for the soundtrack, as was the case with the first movie. But all too often, the cover song is nothing more than ear candy to add interest to a formulaic, unremarkable trailer.
“This is not to say that all trailer cover songs are misguided, but the practice itself has become almost as cliché as the “In a World” narration and the Inception sound were in their days, with the difference that at times the song selections reflect forethought and not just “use the most popular song” marketing.”
The use of cover songs has led to a structural shift in trailer form: whereas authorities like Kernan (2004) and Johnston (2009) once talked about the three-act scheme of film trailers, we now typically experience them in two parts, reflecting the use of the cover song beginning in its second half. A typical example is provided by the first trailer to Galveston, which builds to a climax of suspense at the midway point and then gives way to more revelatory scenes under fragments of “Lonely Ghost” by Phin. Exceptions to this two-part trailer structuring by the cover song are those cases where the music permeates the trailer as it does in If Beale Street Could Talk or Mid90s. A classic instance of the two-part trailer is that for The Hangover, which represents the blackout of the three groomsmen a little before the midpoint through a black screen and silence.
Speaking of clichés, both the micro-teaser—the Vine-like pre-trailer that sets up the trailer—and the ticking sound that we discussed in the last trailer music blog persist. What differs are the myriad ways trailer producers deploy to make the conventions seem fresh and relevant to the context in which they appear. If the paramount consideration for the preview’s preview is to capture the audience’s attention in a few seconds, the micro-teaser for the second trailer of Bohemian Rhapsody achieves this quite handily with its anticipation of the audience’s rhythmic clapping. Most micro-teasers, however, like those for Serenity (trailer #1), Brightburn (official trailer) and Captive State (official trailer), just provide the sights and sounds of the A-list actors with one key line of dialogue (like a turn phrase) and a visual montage of prominent action scenes accompanied by an intensifying sound, and all of that in less than six seconds. In comparison, the trailer feels ironically like a moment of repose, almost luxuriating in its ability to set up the narrative with a longer (or long-ish) scene at the beginning.
Regarding that ticking sound that Hans Zimmer foregrounded in Dunkirk, we won the bet from Trailaurality’s last Synchblog contribution that it was certain to become more prominent in the sound world of future trailers. It falls between music and sound effect, rhythmic but adaptable to a variety of real-world sources beyond clocks and time-measuring devices (engine noise, water dripping, rhythmic clapping). For example, the first trailer to Serenity accelerates a ticking of unknown source until it becomes the visible unreeling of an angler’s line, while the teaser trailer to the horror film The Prodigy makes conscious use of the sound through the “therapeutic” ticking of a metronome in a psychiatrist’s office. A long list of trailer titles feature a ticking-like sound for moments of tense action, to lend unity and forward motion to slow-paced suspense, or just to participate in the latest trend: Apostle, The Prodigy, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (Comic Con trailer), Bad Times at the El Royale, Lizzie, First Man, Downton Abbey (teaser), Triple Frontier, The Miseducation of Cameron Post (ticking and clapping), Bohemian Rhapsody (clapping), On the Basis of Sex (clapping). And this is just a selection of its occurrences!
“That the sound of the trailer significantly figured in the website’s assessment of the final vote reflects the importance of music and sound for the marketing of films through trailers.”
Finally, we should mention two public trailer competitions in the form of brackets, and at least one of them assigned a decisive role to the soundtrack. During the mid-summer of 2018 the sports website The Ringer ran a bracket “battle” over five days to determine the “best” trailer since 1990, resulting in the crowning of the Inception trailer (2010) as the best from the digital era, with The Social Network (also 2010) in second place. That the sound of the trailer significantly figured in the website’s assessment of the final vote reflects the importance of music and sound for the marketing of films through trailers. The storystream also generated interesting blog posts about the making of a trailer and “the best-ever movie trailer music cue” (not “Creep” from The Social Network but Ellie Goulding’s “Burn” from the official trailer for The Killing of a Sacred Deer. In contrast, Avengers: Infinity War came out on top for the “Battle Of The Marvel Studios Teasers” poll on Anton Volkov’s curated TrailerTrack preview website.
See you again in the summer with the line-up of trailer soundtracks for Christmas film releases!
James Deaville for Trailaurality.com
With additional material by Curtis Perry