Cutting It: Paul Cartlich Talks a Career in Trailer Editing
Trailers. The announcement of a project is one thing, but it’s not until a trailer gives form to the fantasies in our heads that the anticipation and excitement really begins to take root.
Once confined to the cinema screen, trailers have been given new life. Exploding at Comic Cons and taking over computer screens, we now have the means to watch and re-watch them, devour and dissect them, react to them, and write about them, all without ever giving thought to the people who put them together…
Without ever realizing it, we’ve been following the work of Paul Cartlich for a long time. He’s worked on trailers for some of the finest TV shows around including, The Walking Dead, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, along with major movie campaigns for the likes of Prometheus, Jason Bourne and Kick Ass. Currently a Senior Creative Editor at a leading New York advertising agency, Londoner Cartlich began his career in the world of reality television before an offer from a friend led him into the world of movie trailer editing. It wasn’t long before he was picking up awards (including a Golden Trailer, “like the Oscars for trailers”) for his work.
I sat down with Cartlich to talk about the changing role of the trailer and the techniques of his craft.
How did you get into editing trailers?
I originally started as a TV editor 15 years ago then got into the trailer industry 11 years ago. Cutting movie trailers wasn't something I intentionally ever thought about doing, I got a lucky break from a friend who got me an interview at Empire Design in London and I've never looked back.
These days millions of people watch trailers on a daily basis, but back then trailers were predominantly in the cinema rather than online. It was a different entity. I loved film and wanted to be a documentary or film editor, do long form; but I'm now really happy I got into short form.
So you came in at the cusp of trailers leaving cinemas and going online. Did this influence a major change in how trailers were made?
Don't get me wrong, trailers are still very much an "in cinema" experience and every trailer editor wants to see their trailer in a movie theater. But there has definitely been a shift. The sheer volume of people a trailer can reach today means there's inevitably more pressure than there was a decade ago.
It's not uncommon working on bigger movies to be competing against four or five other agencies, especially in the domestic market. The online aspect is one thing that's hugely changed the trailer world. The good news is trailers are going from strength to strength. It's an exciting time to be an editor and your work is seen by a larger audience than ever before.
I’ve cut three trailers for The Walking Dead for Comic Con and it's insane the amount of people that watch these things. The Season 5 trailer got around 15 million hits, which granted isn't the 70 odd million The Avengers or Star Wars get, but to know your trailer has been viewed by that number of people is crazy. With The Walking Dead, because it's a comic book, there's a lot of anticipation. People even film themselves viewing your trailer and the reaction videos have a popularity and fan base all of their own. When the comic book scene really took off when Marvel started it's "universe" with the release of Iron Man in 2008, the online viewing figures went stratospheric.
What specifically about Marvel and IRON MAN’s release in 2008 caused a change?
I think the level of interest increased tenfold because comic books and graphic novels have a dedicated, loyal fan base and giving the fans instant access to the trailer the second it went online meant they could - and did - start blogging about it, which helped create a buzz and expectation and drive traffic to the trailer. This achieves in seconds what a trailer that's only in cinemas could take weeks to accomplish.
As movie blogs took off, the level of expectancy increased and in my opinion the fans with a powerful online presence have had a hand in informing the way blockbuster trailers are perceived, and maybe even made. These fans have really bolstered viewing figures and Marvel have done especially well creating a world where each film leads into the next one and the next. Pre-release there’s so much pressure for a film like that, they'll have maybe three trailers and usually a teaser too, so expectations are high for every new Marvel film. The whole trailer world is constantly evolving and I definitely think that comic book movies as a whole have helped propel viewing figures on trailers across the board.
So, as the creator, is there pressure on you now to get a certain number of hits?
There isn't pressure so to speak, but it's definitely talked about. It’s still predominantly about the box office takings at the opening weekend of the film and getting bums on seats. The opening weekend is still vital. A film is marketed towards it and at the end of the day box office takings are how the studios make a lot of their money.
What’s definitely changed, especially for the bigger films, is if you have your first trailer or teaser for a film you have a lot of pressure as the editor to get it out and get it made as it's the first footage or taste of a hugely anticipated film. Sometimes you’re working on dailies, getting footage as they’re filming. What we would do for a job like that is an assistant would be getting dailies as they come in and we would be cutting an ‘assembly”, which is all the raw footage in order, and they would follow the script. So basically they would be cutting a rough version of the film.
But it’s obviously in its rawest state with rough audio, no sound effects and in most cases lots of green screen. Then as the editor you go to that assembly to cut the trailer, so it’s quite hard to envision your end product on a job like that but also challenging and exciting. Especially when it's a film like Prometheus or Jason Bourne.
In that scenario, when you’re making the trailer as the film is being made, does the director have any creative control?
That's actually changed a lot in recent years. Directors have a lot more input on trailers now, especially the bigger ones. They may not necessarily have final say but some are involved in the early part of the process, and feedback to the first few cuts and sometimes they don't get involved until the very end. It really does vary from project to project. Weirdly the indie directors can sometimes have more say on the trailers for their films.
Why is that?
I think it’s because indie films have become cool now and the arthouse world is more respected by a mainstream audience than it ever used to be. Also the directors of these types of films usually have a closer working relationship with the smaller distributors.
Personally I love working on indie films, and I think indie trailers have become like a work of art, poetic almost. A24 is a good example, they’re a really cool distributor who distribute great indie films such as Ex Machina, Swiss Army Man and Green Room.
I think that the indie world is considered more of an art form and you have a bit more control as an editor to do something more out there and take chances and create something stylistic.
Recently people get very vocal about spoilers and trailers showing the entire film’s plot. Why does this happen?
As the editor you obviously want to use the best bits because you want to showcase the movie and make your trailer the best you can. But actually more often than not you’re asked not to show things. When I worked on Prometheus, we couldn't show the Xenomorph for example and also sometimes certain plot points or shots are saved for different phases of a campaign.
The most visually exciting stuff is typically going to appear at the climactic battle at the end of a movie. Would you have any qualms about showing that?
Not if it will help the trailer no. With Prometheus for example, you know everybody wants to see the Xenomorph. So even if the guy above hasn't told you, sometimes you take a risk and put it in there see what the client says. Your gut feeling tells you not to use some things but sometimes you just try it and see what happens and sometimes the studios do change their mind on how they want to market a movie, that's also constantly evolving. It’s such a long process from doing your first cut to having it finished. It involves screenings and test results and then sometimes results from screenings or testing can inform the way a studio will market the second half of their campaign and you can even be re-briefed so it’s an ever changing thing.
To use a recent example, SUICIDE SQUAD seemed to have been changed due to the BATMAN V SUPERMAN reaction, and then Margot Robbie was positively received in the first trailer so they shifted the focus to her in the next one. Can you see these things evolving and do you feel it's a direct reaction to trailers?
I didn't work on it but that's a good example of how a campaign can get shifted midway. The first Suicide Squad trailer for Comic-Con used that great cover of the Bee Gees "I Started a Joke" which was a pretty serious but cool trailer. Then later in the campaign they used Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" to make it more fun and in the end of the campaign "Ballroom Blitz" by Sweet, which was even lighter in tone. There were also rumors of re-shoots to make it more fun in direct reaction to how Batman Vs Superman was received. I’ve worked on films where campaigns have shifted and more often than not it totally makes sense. But this is another thing that has changed over the last 10 years or so, which I again believe is due to increased viewing figures online.
Testing trailers online is quite a normal thing now for the bigger films also. At the request of the studio, marketing companies will test trailers with targeted age groups, and ask questions after, a bit like a focus group. Then sometimes the results can inform the trailer or TV spot or even the whole campaign.
How much does the original footage inform the trailer? Basically, how hard is it to make a good trailer from a bad film?
Obviously you want to make the best trailer you can and no one sets out to make a bad film or a bad trailer. But yes a film can be challenging. You have to do the best you can with the footage you have. Sometimes we’ll cheat, take a film without much action in it and make it have more action, or use glossy graphics and less footage.
Sometimes films that don't have great dialogue for example, will force us to come up with alternative ideas so we may make it more of a stylized piece. Sometimes it can be a challenge but that's more rewarding when it pays off.
There’s an increasing trend in modern trailers to use big pop songs for the soundtrack, Queen in SUICIDE SQUAD, for example.
Music trends in trailers are fascinating. Some stick around for a long time. Yeah, recently old rock has definitely become a trend. The use of Queen in Suicide Squad being a good example. Led Zeppelin released their music on Spotify as few years ago and they became a trend for a while, being used on trailers such as Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, American Hustle and The Big Short.
Then there's the trend in cover songs, which has been around for ages and seems to keep growing. Dracula Untold had a cover of Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" and a cover of “California Dreaming” was used in San Andreas. This trend isn’t going anywhere fast.
The French band M83 were massive a few years ago; in fact I put them on a trailer for a film called Rust and Bone then it was used in Cloud Atlas and many other trailers and even again recently in the A Monster Calls trailer. Inception was a classic trailer that caused a new movement in music; it had those deep bass power noises that were coined "Braams", that was then a thing for a few years. Oh, and the amazing Daft Punk soundtrack from the film Tron. The cue from that soundtrack called "Fall" was used in the Tron trailer and that in turn spawned a whole new sound of music cues for trailers. I could go on, but It’s funny and fascinating how one good trailer, or cue or even sound in a trailer can inform a trend in the trailer world.
As an editor, do you get to choose the music?
All editors are different. Sometimes we have music supervisors who will do an initial pull for us, sometimes not. And some editors like to choose their own music whilst others don't. I usually like to choose my own music, but I was also fortunate to work with a great supervisor while I was at Empire Design, a guy called Will Quiney who introduced me to so many cool new bands.
I think music is key to trailers, especially if you’re trying to appeal to a certain market. For Prometheus I used this song called Sarajevo by Max Richter, and that kind of informed the way I put it together. It was an international trailer so we were allowed to be a bit more emotive, I mean the domestic Prometheus trailer was amazing but a lot more action heavy.
I wanted to talk about a couple of trailers that have stood out in the past couple of years. First up, GHOSTBUSTERS took a lot of abuse…
I think that was a classic example of people reacting to the news of the film and the level of expectancy, I didn’t think it was the trailer itself. As a kid, I was obsessed with the original movie in 86’, so I had high hopes for this. There was so much hype for this movie and they have been talking about a "Ghosbusters 3" for so long. I’ve been reading about this on blogs for years, and first it was going to be the original guys then it was going to be a new cast, and then four women. I think it went through about 2 or 3 different scripts. I don't think it fell flat because of the trailer itself but because of the expectancy and the hype and the way the world is now.
I was blown away by the GODZILLA remake and MAD MAX trailers...
All the Mad Max trailers were amazing. There was the Comic-Con trailer that was really well sound designed and then there was a teaser with a classical cue and then a main trailer.
I remember really liking the teaser for Godzilla what happened in that again?
It was the scene of them dropping from the sky….
Yeah that was the teaser. It did exactly what teasers should do. Often now teasers act as the first trailer and are two and half minutes long. Back in the day teasers were released when there was little or no footage, sometimes just revealing the title or just showing a scene from the movie. That felt like a proper teaser.
What’s your favorite work that wasn't your own?
I loved the domestic Prometheus trailer. That was amazing. I loved The Revenant Teaser trailer recently too. It had a slow build of Leonardo DiCaprio’s breathing throughout the back end. When you work on a film like that, because it’s an indie film, you can sometimes pick an element from the movie or you’ll hear something like a sound and think, “I can base a trailer around this” That trailer used his heavy breathing all the way through the back end of the trailer and it gets bigger and bigger and bigger and it really intensifies and it makes it so atmospheric. It was the perfect use of an element.
Old trailers? I love the original trailer for Alien. Amazing.
What about your own?
Kick-Ass. I like because it was so much fun to work on and Rust and Bone is one of my favorite ever trailers. Frost/Nixon I really loved and that won a Golden Trailer, Award which was nice. Louder than Bombs I really loved because I'd been saving this song called "Glas Green" by a British band called Solomon Grey for months and had been waiting for the right project to come around and It worked perfectly. When that happens it's even more rewarding.
Is there a genre that you prefer to work on?
I like working on all genres really, but I know that’s not a good answer! So if I had to pick, I think I would say indie films because of the creative experimentation.
Trailer editors have different techniques for different genres. In Foreign language films music is usually key to the piece, so it can be about finding a great cue to elevate the trailer. Horror trailers tend to be structured around sound design, so it’s heavy stylizing and also finding that moment from the film to drop out for are key. There are so many genres and sub-genres and they all have their specific trailer styles. That's what I love about being a trailer editor; the sheer range of content you get to work on and that each genre and job is different.
Ultimately, nothing beats sitting down in a movie theater and seeing your trailer come up and thinking, "Man, I cut this" I still get a little giddy every time.