by Dante Fumo
Learn how to transform your trailers into cinematic experiences with dynamic sound design.
The purpose of trailers and teasers is to convey maximum interest and excitement in a short amount of time, and sound design is a critical factor in getting (and holding) the audience’s attention. But trailers have evolved a lot over the years, and today’s audiences expect more than a deep voice, loud music, and big whooshes. Modern trailers are bite-sized cinematic experiences that can be dynamic, subtle, mysterious, funny, or terrifying – whatever it takes to draw people in.
By leveraging exciting, dynamic sound design, you can give your trailer a much better chance of getting viewers interested in your movie, show, or game. Whether you’re a video editor, an audio specialist, or an indie director cutting your own promo material, we’ve got the strategies (and the sound effects) to help your trailer stand out from the crowd and build your audience.
Types of Trailers
Trailers come in many shapes, sizes, and genres, but there’s one constant: they’re all short and sweet. The whole point is to convey the feeling of a larger experience in a small amount of time, but that doesn’t mean that all trailers are created equal. First of all, let’s distinguish between true trailers and short teasers.
Length and Context
True trailers average around two to two and a half minutes, providing just enough time to set up the story, show a few scenes to build interest, and end with a major setpiece or cliffhanger. In fact, many trailers follow the same three-act structure that full-length movies do. Whether they play to a captive audience in a theater or are posted to social media before a release, trailers are often watched in their entirety (especially when fans deliberately seek them out online). This gives you the opportunity to tell a miniature story with sound, using ear-catching effects to grab attention, provide context, and build toward a climax.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has this to say about movie trailers.
Teasers are much shorter than trailers, typically clocking in at 30 or 60 seconds to fit in a standard commercial spot. Because of their length, teasers don’t allow enough time to tell much of a story – instead, their purpose is simply to generate interest and give viewers a basic understanding of the media being promoted. But because teasers usually play during commercial breaks (on TV or during online videos), the audience isn’t usually very engaged. That means that every sound needs to stand out and stick in the viewer’s mind. In music terms, teasers need to be “all killer, no filler.”
6-second spots are extremely short ads that play before YouTube videos (although on other platforms they can be 5, 10, or 15 seconds). Due to their miniscule length, these are some of the simplest yet trickiest teasers to design. There’s often only time for a handful of sound effects, so each one has to be purposeful and memorable. In some cases, there’s only room for a line of dialogue or a snippet of music. Resist the urge to pile on sound effects, and your 6-second spots will be much more effective.
While trailers were initially conceived for marketing feature films, other types of media have gotten increasingly cinematic, and trailers are now used to market TV shows, streaming series, video games, and sometimes even products and live events. Although these genres (especially games) use sound in different ways, they require a similar approach when packaged into a trailer or teaser. However, there are still differences to be aware of when it comes to sound design.
Trailers for TV shows and streaming series fall into two categories: first, there are full-series trailers that give viewers a taste of the overall story and characters. These are fairly similar to movie trailers, so the approach to sound design doesn’t change much. Then, there are single-episode previews that typically play at the end of each episode to set the stage for the next. With previews, the viewer is already engaged, so sound can be used for storytelling more than pure hype.
Game trailers can be as varied as the many game genres that exist, from narrative cinematics for triple-A roleplaying games to flashy social media ads for addictive mobile games. In general, the more narrative emphasis in the game, the more you can treat it like a movie trailer. But some contexts require a completely different approach – take the trailer for Battlefield V’s “Defying the Odds” expansion, for example. Instead of telling a story, the purpose is simply to show off new maps, guns, and vehicles. To keep it interesting, the editors created a rhythmic track out of gunshots, explosions, and abstract effects that melds with the music, hyping up the expansion while effectively conveying the aesthetic of the game.
Setting the Mood
The most basic and direct function of sound in a trailer is to establish the overall aesthetic of the subject in a visceral way that audiences respond to before any of the story has been told. Regardless of any dialogue, sound can tell a story all its own, from the first sound that makes you perk up your ears to the final few seconds that leave you exhilarated and wanting more. Setting the right mood is critical to attracting the right audience, and each genre requires a different approach.
Action fans expect visceral, hard-hitting sounds, so you may want to “punch up” existing fight scenes, car chases, and shootouts featured in the trailer with additional sweetening layers. The tempo of the sound effects and music matters, too – if there are intertitles breaking up the action shots, you can keep the energy up by accentuating the cuts with additional impacts and whooshes. If the film is non-stop action, the trailer should be, too. If it’s more of a thriller with a few big action scenes, you can pace your sound design moments to reflect that.
Science fiction and fantasy fans are used to hearing a lot of high-concept sound design, so if you’re cutting sound for a trailer in one of these genres, you’ll want to spend a little extra time on creating interesting sound design. This could mean designing an immersive ambience for an establishing shot of an alien planet, adding a reverse reverb effect to a time travel sequence, or making a demonic-sounding voiceover with pitch-shifting and distortion.
Horror fans love abrasive, gruesome, and menacing sounds, so don’t be afraid to lay it on thick (just keep in mind that the general public will probably be seeing your trailer). The many subgenres of horror each have their own sonic languages, however, so try studying the sound design in similar media to get inspired. To immerse the audience, stick to a palette of sounds that makes sense for your subgenre – don’t just put a creaky wooden door in a trailer for a sci-fi horror game, for example.
Dramas, comedies, and documentaries tend to rely much less on sound design than genre films, so your approach to trailer sound design should respect that. In this case, restraint can be the best tool in your toolbox. A trailer full of whooshes and braams doesn’t exactly sell the vibe of a high school coming-of-age dramedy, but there are other ways to use sound to enhance the aesthetic. Consider highlighting the ambiences for a nature documentary trailer or adding a layer of sweetening to the Foley track in a steamy romance trailer.
The trailer for Alien creates an eerie mood of slowly rising tension.
Make it Unique
Just like movies and games themselves, trailers have plenty of tropes. There are certain sound effects that just work, and they work so well that they get used all the time. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with throwing in the occasional bass drop or record scratch, these sounds have become a kind of shorthand for audiences, which comes with both pros and cons. On one hand, they’re very efficient at communicating specific feelings. On the other, they’re not very creative and they won’t make your trailer stand out.
So, instead of creating a steady build-up of risers, whooshes, and impacts followed by a single high piano note, a big bass drop, and a massive braam when the title shows up, do something unexpected! Subverting expectations is a sure-fire way to keep your audience glued to the screen or recapture their attention if they turned to their phone in the first 30 seconds.
One way to keep the audience on their toes is to make an abrupt and dramatic shift in tone. The trailer for Get Out is a perfect example of this: it starts off with a light tone and a road trip vibe until the 30 second mark, when the car hits a deer with a loud impact and tire screech, letting you know that this is not the movie you may have thought it was. The rest of the trailer builds in unease and suspense, culminating in a collage of abrasive sound effects and tense dialogue that hints at the chaos of the third act.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the trailer for Alien gradually builds from eerie minimalism to outright panic, mirroring the flow of the film itself. First, a subtle ambience establishes the loneliness of space, while the music and sound design slowly builds tension around the image of an alien egg. The tone increases in intensity as we see a few disconnected flashes of scenes before a cacophony of sound effects erupts at the 1:40 mark. Then, the sound suddenly dies down to accentuate the famous tagline: “In space no one can hear you scream.”
Just like in cinematography, negative space can be an effective technique in sound design. For example, after about 30 seconds, the trailer for A Quiet Place goes mostly silent except for some muffled ambience and steady heartbeat sound. Then, the silence is shattered by a noisy toy spaceship: not a particularly scary sound by itself, but in the moment, it feels like a bomb just went off. From there, the mood of the trailer shifts to horror and suspense, made all the more terrifying by the previous silence.
These are just a few general strategies to help you make the most of your next trailer or teaser. But just like in filmmaking, there really are no rules to sound design. Try out your wildest ideas, do something unexpected, but always keep the spirit of your movie, show, or game in mind. Your trailer should feel like an abridged version of the real thing, giving viewers a taste of the experience but leaving them wanting more.
Ready to start cutting sound for your trailer? Check out our Colossal library for big, bold, and modern trailer sound effects; Dark Matter for horror, sci-fi, and suspense; and The Odyssey Collection: Design Elements for all the other material you need to create impactful trailers.
Dante Fumo is a Midwest-based sound designer, editor, and mixer via Super Natural Sound. When he’s not doing that or writing about sound, Dante composes instrumental and electronic music using spatial audio.