I have just watched the trailer for Christopher Nolan’s film, Dunkirk (2017):
I was particularly taken with the sound design. In the first half there are low drone sounds that I suspect were created from aircraft dive sounds. IMO these create a feeling of impending doom and dread that reinforces the trapped feeling. Then in the second half the action is supported by a heart-beat that for me went with a feeling of survival. It’s my hunch that these are the main narrative drivers for the film, but both of the sounds were very much larger than life and not very subtle, but worked brilliantly in the context of a trailer, where the themes need to be delivered in a short space of time. It will be interesting if these sounds are actually in the final film and if they are will they be in the same form?
I’ve never done any trailer work and I have heard that there are agencies that specialise in just doing film trailers. Does anyone have any experience with sound design for trailers? Are there any particular strategies or techniques that are employed?
The one thing I can contribute is that I have seen trailers where the sound design, for guns cocking for example, was very different to that used in the actual film.
Obviously I can’t be sure, but I’d guess that heart-beat won’t be in the film. It felt like as much of a musical device as a sound one to me, meant for the pacing of the trailer.
More often than not, there are companies that are dedicated to do trailers. As they don’t use the same sounds than the ones from the movie, I don’t think that the production team from the movie will be the same on the trailer.
I guess that it’s similar in that way to the music cues. Some companies are specialised in trailer music (for example X-Ray Dogs).
Whenever I do trailer sound design, it’s mostly for arthouse film or television, so no big blockbuster Hollywood style stuff. And I always work on the film sound design as well, so I’m well ingrained with the story.
With that in mind:
In my experience I get a trailer from the trailer editor (not the film editor, they don’t do that).
It comes with a variety of sounds (mostly libraries that are bought and licensed), risers and ofcourse set sound (in rough shape).
An important role of trailers is to make the potential audience curious to what the movie is about, so keeping things mysterious/suspenseful (story wise) is paramount.
My role is to incorporate the sound elements from the current sound edit (which I’ve been working on) and create a good sounding version of the trailer dialogue and effects (so cleaning up etc). I also add more options to the trailer hits and cinematic stuff to give the mixer (i don’t final mix, i only edit and pre-mix). So while I respect the sound edit from the editor, I also create my own (with the movie sound design in mind). These additional sounds sell the trailer story, but they don’t have to be in the actual film. It’s a different story, demanding it’s own style and sounds.
But it really differs a lot from case to case.. so I’m interested what other people their experience is.
update: refurbished phrasing/structure
What I have noticed, at least for most films, is that music drives most of what it is in scene. Risers and risers and hits are a common place but, the music tends to lead the way, although it is important to understand also that silence is key. For most drama, it is hard to find elements like guns and car chases and explosions, so most of the design falls on the pacing of the cut and a big wall of sound. They never want it to sound thin, and due to the increasing level of mixing, you’ll find yourself mixing a trailer louder, because otherwise, you’ll sound thin between the blockbuster trailers.
Also, risers have come to a trend since the voice off is getting old fashioned. You’ll see that now there is a lot of written information, that of course moves, hence the hits.
Companies that do trailers, and shorter television ads for films are different from the studio film team themselves. In fact, there are often many advertising agencies hired to do a trailer and/or tv spots for the same film, and the studio will then pick who to buy from after seeing the spots. The reason why you don’t usually hear the sound fx from the movie is because they’re usually not done yet. The post production sound process may be in its infancy at that point. The advertising agencies actually receive the dailies from the studio the same time the editors who are cutting the movie do. That’s why you’ll also sometimes see clips in a trailer or ad, that’s not in the film.
A lot of the initial sound design work is done by the film editor who cuts in sounds from a library the company has. Sometimes it’s all that makes it into the trailer/ad, and the mixer just polishes it all up and makes it compliant. For the bigger trailers, and audio house, usually one that specializes in mixing/designing sound for trailers, and ads, will design sound for the trailer. On a rare occasion, when the post production sound team on the actual film may have at least done a temp mix, they will be asked to send stems to the trailer house for them to incorporate into the trailer where they can.
Outside of that, trailers will usually follow a recipe, for better or for the worse, with regards to how they’re cut, told, and designed. They usually have to fit within the confines of a more generic tone, than that of the movie itself because they only have a few minutes to pump the audience up, and will use familiar sounds to do so. A good example is the heartbeat + tinitus tone we hear in the Dunkirk trailer heard in so many war films and more. Reversing various explosions, drums, etc is a very popular technique, and one hear a lot in the Dunkirk trailer. A cool thing they did, was reverse some music. Other popular sounds used in trailers right now are the bassy pitch dives, bassy brass hits, and flutter rises. Not to take anything away from these things. They’re usually introduced first in a trailer by a talented sound designer. Audiences then react so well to it, that producers will then say they want that sound in their other trailers, and it can end up being played to the point of exhaustion.
The majority of the work the audio house does, is mixing, as the trailer editors can cut in some cool sounds and music, but that doesn’t mean they did a good job getting it to sit well together. When an audio house has gotten a chance to do sound design themselves, that’s when you’ll hear more depth, and color, and hopefully some stingers that haven’t been used before.