Monday, October 5, 2015

What makes a shitty trailer? (Horrible music and comatose-sounding announcer copy)

The trailer for the Facebook movie should have just been footage of some right-wing lunatic reading his rambling and racist status update about Obamacare because that's how I would have known the movie's about Facebook.
Examples of the not-so-shitty work of Mark Woollen's trailer house (Photo source: New York magazine)

Movie trailers are a form of advertising I first became fascinated with in 2005, when I started experimenting with using '70s movie radio spots as interstitials to introduce the next piece of music on AFOS. For example, if the next tune on AFOS was the Love Unlimited Orchestra's "Theme from Together Brothers," it was going to be preceded by an actual Together Brothers radio spot from 1974.

A few months later, playing around with those old radio spots made me realize the audio from the spooky Batman Begins bat noises TV spot worked fantastically as a similar intro for any Batman Begins score track on the stream. This saved me the trouble of opening GoldWave and recording an intro to ID the composer and score album for every single track on the four different playlists AFOS consisted of at the time (today, AFOS consists of 56 different playlists).

From then on, I scoured the Interweb tubes for every single trailer or TV spot for a movie or TV show I could get my hands on and then re-edit into interstitials (and I continue to scour for trailer audio, as well as shorten them for radio because a lot of trailers contain huge chunks of wordless visual action or vague-sounding dialogue that would make no sense on radio). I wound up getting a few thumbs up in listener e-mails and on Twitter for this trailer-audio-as-interstitials approach. Someone tweeted that AFOS has a DJ Food vibe because of it. It was better than the occasional harsh criticisms I used to receive about the sound of my voice on AFOS.

By 2006, I had listened to so much trailer audio that I stopped dismissing trailers as annoying commercials that would always get in the way of my enjoyment of the feature presentation, whether I'm watching that feature in the theater or on disc, and I started to respect the art of producing and editing these trailers. I've become a fan of the Buddha Jones trailer house's laugh-out-loud funny trailer campaigns for 2011's The Muppets and Muppets Most Wanted, and I've grown to admire Hollywood trailer producer Mark Woollen and his eponymous trailer house's inventive work on the campaigns for films like Little Children, In the Loop and Gone Girl.

"Mark has the difficult task and very rare talent of finding a film's DNA in 120 seconds. Once he finds it, he translates it not by revealing its story but by expressing, in a clear but mysterious way, the film's emotional essence," said Alejandro González Iñárritu to New York magazine about Woollen, who crafted the trailers and TV spots for Iñárritu's Best Picture Oscar winner Birdman. Woollen has been pushing for stylish trailers that move away from extremely on-the-nose and frequently parodied trailer styles like the tired comedy trailer template The Simpsons once made fun of in its fake trailers for an Ed O'Neill sports comedy called Soccer Mummy and a Going Ape/Dunston Checks In-ish piece of shit called Editor-in-Chimp.

This is Ed O'Neill's worst screen credit, until that whole season of the new Dragnet he barely fucking appeared in.
The New York Post is, in fact, run by a chimp, which explains a lot of its content.

Some of my all-time favorite trailers, like the ones for Albert Brooks' Real Life and the 2002 documentary Comedian, don't even include any footage from the film and are amusing short films by themselves. I also started to respect the art of narrating trailers. I had listened to so much trailer audio by 2006 that I started to be able to identify the names of the voices behind the voiceovers. Before 2006, I used to often get Hal Douglas, the announcer who appeared as himself in the Comedian trailer, mixed up with Don LaFontaine, because their authoritative voices sometimes sounded the same. After 2006, I was able to tell them apart, and I can now do the same with any announcer who's become more prominent in the trailer voiceover biz since the deaths of LaFontaine and later, Douglas ("Yo, that's Ashton Smith in that TV spot. And that's definitely Keith David. Or is that Dorian Harewood, the voice of NBC? Nah, that's definitely David").

So when Childrens Hospital regular Lake Bell starred in and directed In a World..., an indie comedy about a post-LaFontaine trailer voiceover industry (as well as the Bell character's frustrations over that industry being such a sausage fest), I felt like she made that movie just for me. The movie's opening montage of archival footage of LaFontaine at work was excellent as an opening title sequence, and I especially enjoyed how a lot of In a World... took place in recording studios, a world I'm familiar with from my days of either being involved with college radio or recording content for AFOS inside a cozy and loungey studio.

It's also great whenever any publication takes an In a World...-like look at the trailer biz and discusses at length the unknown history of cutting together trailers or, in the case of the A.V. Club, the stylistic choices that go into making a standout trailer (one "AVQ&A" panelist says, "While I appreciate the art of a tasteful teaser, sometimes I just want to be told exactly what the hell is going on," while another panelist says, "My answer happens to be the opposite... I like a trailer that doesn't tell me anything about what's going on"). The A.V. Club's September 25 Q&A with its own staff writers about "What makes a great trailer?" inspired the bloggers over at The Solute--a film discussion blog founded by film lovers who became online friends in the surprisingly calm and civil comments section of Pitchfork Media's much-missed The Dissolve--to discuss examples of terrible trailers for good movies.

The Solute post scores points for not overlooking the most notorious recent example of coming attractions that are so atrociously made that they're incongruous with the word "attraction" and they wind up diminishing the attractiveness of whatever film they're hyping. That example would have to be the shitty trailers that caused the surprisingly enjoyable Edge of Tomorrow to get squished at the box office as if it were Tom Cruise's body getting run over by an Army truck.

But the king of terrible trailers for good or great movies has to be the American trailer for the Samuel Goldwyn Company release of Henry V, Kenneth Branagh's 1989 big-screen directorial debut. In 1989, the most talked-about trailer campaign belonged to Batman, not just because the footage presented a dark Batman who had never been depicted on screen before, but also because of the extremely minimalist approach of the Tim Burton film's 1988 teaser trailer: no voiceover narration, no music (Woollen's Little Children trailer became notable for also containing no music) and not even an appearance by either the title of the film or its about-to-be-ubiquitous, Anton Furst-designed logo at the end of the trailer. The minimalist approach was due to Warner Bros.' eagerness to rush a teaser trailer into theaters to intensify the buzz for Batman. It's funny how the Batman teaser's lack of narration ended up influencing a lot of trailers today when it was really a result of the trailer house not having enough time to record narration for the teaser. A similar minimalist approach also distinguished another trailer from 1989: the original U.K. trailer for Henry V, which opted for no narration and simply relied on Shakespeare's dialogue and Patrick Doyle's epic score from the film to sell the drama and gritty war-movie feel of Branagh's first Shakespeare adaptation for the screen.

Doyle's very first film score kicked off a long-lasting cinematic partnership with Branagh (before Henry V, Doyle had scored Branagh's 1987 stage production of Twelfth Night) that continued recently with Doyle's score for Branagh's version of Cinderella earlier this year. The Henry V score remains my favorite work of Doyle's. That's why selections from the Henry V score are in rotation on AFOS. "One of Pat's great gifts is for melody, and I wanted every tune to make an impact. The great set pieces needed underscoring as powerful and immediate as the words themselves," wrote Branagh in the Henry V score album liner notes.

Henry V's 14-minute St. Crispin's Day speech score cue, which Doyle has covered on piano in his recent Varèse Sarabande release The Music of Patrick Doyle: Solo Piano, is the Branagh film's most memorable example of underscoring that's as powerful and immediate as the words themselves. The Crispin's Day cue also became a staple of trailers or TV broadcast promos for feel-good movies in the '90s. But the Henry V cues that actually better sum up for me the drive and pulse of Branagh's film (recently reissued on Blu-ray by Shout! Factory) are "Opening title--'O! for a Muse of fire,'" which was used in most of the British trailer, and "'Once more unto the breach,'" which is in rotation on AFOS. So how did the trailer house that produced the American trailer for Henry V manage to fuck it all up? It stupidly didn't use "'O!' for a Muse of fire,'" "'Once more unto the breach'" or any other cue from Doyle's exceptional score. The chintzy synth music in Henry V's American trailer is, to borrow a line from Henry V, like a foul and ugly witch limping so tediously away. Cue Jean-Ralphio.

Why the fuck does the American trailer music sound like walk-in music at a 1988 Christian leadership retreat? The music that was chosen by the American trailer house is so atrocious and shoddy-sounding I actually removed as much as I could of it from the intro that transitions into either "'Once more unto the breach'" or "'Non nobis, Domine'" whenever they get streamed by AFOS. Also, the music, which doesn't sound like anything Doyle would ever compose, fails to convey that this is the kind of non-stodgy and visually interesting Shakespeare movie that's capable of a remarkable shot like the epic tracking shot Branagh came up with to powerfully illustrate the costs of war. To its credit, the American trailer doesn't omit Shakespeare's dialogue to make Henry V more palatable to American moviegoers who either are unfamiliar with the play or doze off whenever they hear Shakespeare. But unfortunately, it tacks on an announcer who delivers some of the most drab-sounding late '80s/early '90s trailer copy this side of the 1993 Batman: Mask of the Phantasm trailer ("It was one of history's greatest adventures, led by a soldier who wouldn't retreat").

Combined with that feel-good music that creates the notion that this movie is boring homework, the addition of a cheesy announcer totally kills the mood and the aura of political intrigue that were more effectively indicated by the film's British trailer, a trailer that, stylistically, is much closer to the largely voiceover-less, Woollen-style trailers that are being made today. Henry V's American trailer is exhibit A in how not to shape a trailer out of historical material that can be difficult to market to a non-art-house American crowd, as well as how not to make a trailer, period. "The Samuel Goldwyn Company presents a bold new film by Kenneth Branagh"? Nah, B, it should be "The Samuel Goldwyn Company misrepresents a bold new film by Kenneth Branagh."

Selections from the 1989 Henry V score are in rotation during "AFOS Prime."

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