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a critical and rhetorical look at the art and artifice of the movie trailer


Lady In The Water

At long last, we’ll take a look at some real live trailers to get first hand experience of what these things are, and how they do what they do. The first set of trailers we’ll look at are for the movie Lady In The Water – opening today – written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. There are three trailers currently available. While watching the trailers try to keep the following questions in mind:
  • What kind of movie is this?
  • Who is the audience for this movie?
  • What are the primary means for establishing tone and thematic content in the trailers?
Also, keep in mind that these three trailers have been released in close succession, and are quite possibly designed to work together in order to create an overall impression of the film. Each trailer can be viewed individually and still be successful, but taking the three trailers as individual parts of a total message may also suggest interesting things about the project of making an effective movie trailer.

Trailer #1

This was the first trailer released for Lady In The Water. For all intents and purposes, this was the “teaser trailer”, though we can assume that it contains sound and images that will appear in the movie itself.

In order to answer the questions we suggested at the beginning of this post, we may have to try to ignore what we know about the director, M. Night Shyamalan, and his body of work thus far. Keep in mind that his name does not appear until the very end of the trailer, and so anything we might assume about his writing or directorial style would not influence the way we might view this trailer when first seeing it in a theatre. We will examine that idea more clearly in just a few moments.

With that in mind, what is the overall impression that we get from this trailer? What type of movie is it? Is it a comedy? Is it a love story? The images that we see, particularly in the opening of the trailer, suggest a peaceful and idyllic setting. Our protagonist is a quiet and unassuming person, perhaps with a touch of sadness or loneliness. The lush orchestral music, with solo violin and then tenor voice – a la Andrea Bocelli, perhaps – suggests a romantic, if not lightly impressionistic atmosphere. Given the title of the film we may assume that Cleveland Heap – whose “life [will] change forever” – may yet find "happiness", strange and supernatural though she may be.

However, the end of the trailer suggests that “all is not as it seems” – something which should be, by now, entirely expected in the films of M. Night Shyamalan. There are a few things that help to suggest this change in tone. The first clue is the tag line – “a bedtime story” – which flashes onscreen just as the music takes a decided harmonic turn. The tonal/melodic palette, not to mention the mere choice of a solo violin with orchestra, has so far clearly suggested another symphonic “bedtime story”: Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. However, in these last few moments of the trailer, the violin is replaced by a solo piano playing a descending arpeggiated chord: a Major triad with the inclusion of the augmented fifth/diminished sixth, one of the universally accepted musical signifiers for mysterious and impending creepiness. Seconds later Shyamalan’s name appears below “bedtime story” clearly suggesting that all we have come to expect about the movie over the last couple of minutes may not be completely trusted.

Trailer #2

Though many of the images from Trailer #1 reappear in this trailer, the overall impression of the movie has changed dramatically. The two trailers begin in a very similar way – “I’m Cleveland Heap. Welcome to the Cove” – but by clever manipulation of sound, the trailer quickly departs from the tone of the original.

As we see a shot of girls jumping into a swimming pool – obviously “the cove” itself, and, if the trailers are any indication, the center of most of the action in the movie itself – delay is added to the sound of children playing, creating an echoing sound that suggests more depth than the image is able to portray on its own. Just after the obligatory inclusion of studio titles we see an overhead shot of the pool, unlit in the darkness of nighttime, accompanied only by silence and the soft chirping of crickets. At this point the sound and music aid a shift in tone. The words “in this ordinary place” are displayed onscreen and then there is a low mysterious rumble, followed by “the return” of the piano from the end of Trailer #1. Our feelings are confirmed by the text that is shortly displayed onscreen: “something extraordinary will surface”.

Much of the work in this trailer is accomplished by the clever mix of sound – musical or otherwise – and dialogue. Note the “disembodied” dialogue, removed from any real context and presented for maximum impact: “I hear splashing some nights”, “I don’t know who you are, but you did something to my thoughts”, and “what’s happening? I thought it was going to be safe”. Also note the impact of a simple sound effect: what is expressed by the enormous whooshing sound of overlarge wings, when accompanied by the image of butterflies flying in slow motion and a subtle double-exposure. All of these elements contribute to a subtly “trippy” feel that the trailer creates.

I also shouldn’t fail to mention the basso profundo Hollywood voiceover: “when the door (pause) to her world is opened…” It nothing less than comical how closely that bit of conventional trailer-ism resembles the unsalvageably clichéd voiveover we have heard a million times; as you hear the words “when the door” reverberating off of the theatre walls, you may instead be hearing the all too familiar intro: “in a world”.

In order to highlight this dramatic change in tone from Trailer #1 to Trailer #2 we need only examine a single line that, conveniently enough, ends both trailers. How does the context created by each trailer suggest a very different interpretation of Cleveland Heap’s final bit of dialogue: How many of you are there? Given the sci-fi horror movie tone of the second trailer this line may suggest an InvasionOfTheBodySnatchers or NightOfTheLivingDead sort of reading, while the “romantic” tone of the first trailer may leave us thinking that Cleveland Heap is really asking “How many of you are there, and do you have a sister my age?”

Trailer #3

This is our first clear example of an ethos-driven trailer. The voice-over is clearly trying to capitalize on M. Night Shyamalan’s previous success, and his reputation as a director, both in terms of his being hyped as “the next Spielberg” by Newsweek in 2002 and in terms of his well-established track record for making riveting thrillers with surprise endings. The dialogue chosen for this trailer also emphasizes this repuation: “there’s something strange going on around this building” and “sometimes it isn’t always what it seems”.

Many of the same tricks that were used in Trailer #2 reappear in Trailer #3: the de-contextualized samples of dialogue, creepy music, sped-up and slow-motion images often utilizing double exposure for a disorienting effect. The major difference between the second and third trailer, and between the first and second trailer, can be expressed in terms of pace. Taken as a progression from Trailer #1 through Trailer #3, appearing chronologically closer and closer to the film’s release date, it should be noted that the trailers do an excellent job of increasing the energy, and therefore anticipation, surrounding the film’s release.

In “The 150-Second Sell, Take 34”, mentioned in a previous post, trailer editor Art Mondrala outlines his philosophy on creating a great trailer: ''I think of a trailer as pulling back an arrow string. You let the arrow go, the trailer soars through all this material - but right before it hits its target, that's the end.'' It is worth mentioning that Mondrala’s views on the art of the trailer were recorded while he was in the midst of editing for a previous set of M. Night Shyamalan trailers: Signs. This tactic of withholding the final climax suits Shyamalan’s films exceedingly well, as it highlights what must be the most difficult aspect of creating a trailer for a movie that is generally expected to live and die in its twists and turns: how much do you conceal, and how much do you reveal?

Enter, the “SUPER-ROUGH SCALE OF MOVIE TRAILER VIEWING”. Given this unique dynamic, how can we judge trailers for Shyamalan’s films in terms of persuasion and manipulation? No one wants to see a trailer that tells all of a movie’s best jokes, or gives a film’s entire plot away, but isn’t there something sort of dishonest about what these trailers say and don’t say? Perhaps we should refer to Kevin Smith again?

That is to say, there are many things about the trailers for Lady In The Water that are undeniably “artistic” and that transcend the crass manipulation of a transparent bid for your disposable income. I’m inclined to say that they are persuasive insofar as they are artfully manipulative. But what was that about Kevin Smith? The deceitfulness of Shyamalan’s trailers can be overlooked on the grounds that full-disclosure would be dishonest in this context. The trailer should accurately represent what we can expect to see in the film itself, and we can well expect that Shyamalan’s films will walk this highwire between concealing and revealing, just as much as the trailers that attempt to sell them to a movie-going public.


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