Twentieth century philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce claimed that “all the evolution we know proceeds from the vague to the definite.” According to Peirce, the evolutionary process is a progression from the question to the answer and, ultimately, the fog is lifted from our eyes. Despite Charles’s innovative theory, he clearly has not seen any movie trailers within the past thirty or so years. Similar to their 90-minute counterparts, movie trailers can conceptually and stylistically evolve over the years and have done just that within the past few decades. In the 1970s, movie trailers were straightforward advertisements, attempting to persuade viewers to watch the movie. Movie trailers have evolved over the years to become works of art in themselves. Viewers are no longer told directly what the movie will be about. Instead, movie trailers have become ambiguous and mysterious, enticing people to watch the full movie in order to discover the rest of the film’s content. When it comes to movie trailers, Charles Sanders Peirce is wrong. The evolution of movie trailers has not progressed from the vague to the definite, rather the very opposite.
In earlier decades, watching a movie trailer required little to no effort. Most viewers could watch the two-and-a-half minute clip and could generally walk away with an understanding of what the movie would be about as well as the names of the actors and director of the film. Copious amounts of third-party narration were utilized in movie trailers of the 1970s. The trailer for Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese 1976) exemplifies the vast extent of information narrators gave audiences in only a couple of minutes. In just three minutes, the narrator highlights Robert De Niro’s acting credentials and the plot of the movie. “For his performance in The Godfather Part II, they gave [De Niro] the Academy Award. Robert De Niro creates a terrifying portrait of life on the edge of madness.” Narration in Star Wars’ (George Lucas 1977) movie trailer provides an even more in depth plot summary for viewers. The narrator describes Star Wars as “the story of a boy, a girl, and a universe. It’s a big sprawling space saga of rebellion and romance. It’s a spectacle light years ahead of its time. It’s an epic of heroes, and villains and aliens from a thousand worlds. A billion years in the making.” Movie trailers combined movie clips with heavy narration to inform viewers precisely what the film was about.
Not only was narration as means of communicating the plot of the movie trailer, but also to tell audiences how they should feel about the movie. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s (Tobe Hooper 1974) trailer informs audiences how they will feel upon watching the film. “This is the film is positively ruthless in its attempt to drive you absolutely out of your mind. This is the horror movie to end them all.” This targets audiences’ curiosity and their willingness to accept a challenge. Audience members will question what about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that makes it the most terrifying horror movie of its time, and whether or not they have the courage to witness it.
Stylistically, movie trailers of the 1970s were as straightforward as their narration. The movie clips are moderately paced with little to no music. Taxi Driver’s movie trailer contains no music, rather, just clips of dialogue between characters paired with third-party commentary and narration. Star Wars’ movie trailer alternates between a black screen with “Star Wars” in blue type during the narration and clips of action scenes. Although the clips shown in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s movie trailer are shown at a relatively faster pace than the previous two movies discussed, the duration of the clips are longer unlike many trailers for horror films today.
Much of the narration that dominated movie trailers in previous decades disappeared by the 1980s. Instead, clips of dialogue amongst the movie’s characters replaced the third-party narrator, and indirectly informed audiences about the characters and the movie’s plot. When viewing movie trailers during the 1980s, audiences could still walk away with a clear understanding of the movie’s plot; only the messenger had changed. Top Gun’s(Tony Scott 1986) movie trailer mashes together several clips of dialogue amongst the characters, which reveal the film’s plot to audiences. Audiences infer from the series of clips in Top Gun’s trailer that the film is about a fighter pilot named Maverick (Tom Cruise) who wins the opportunity to attend an elite aviation school and strives to beat the school’s top pilot, Iceman (Val Kilmer).
This new method of storytelling causes 1980s movie trailers to become faster paced than in previous decades. Trailers showcase more of the movie’s clips within a few-minute time span. Music and sound effects also play more prominent roles in movie trailers and reveal the tone of the movie. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick 1980)has the shortest movie trailer at one minute and forty-five seconds, yet the combination of the fast-paced violent clips and music reveal the terror experienced by the characters in the film. Although movie trailers cut-down on the use of narrators, they still offered a pretty straightforward account of what was to come in the movie.
During the 1990s, movie trailers started to develop into an art form. Rather than communicating a movie’s plot, movie trailers used music and symbols to unsettle audiences, targeting their curiosity. Movie trailers’ content was aimed to raise questions in audiences’ minds and entice them into watching the movie so their questions could be answered. The trailer for It (Tommy Lee Wallace 1990) uses imagery and music to bewilder audiences into watching to movie. It’s trailer contains no dialogue; just a series of clips while clown-esque plays the entire two-and-a-half minute duration. In the beginning of the trailer, a young girl stands in her yard curiously looking at and smiling toward the clown. The camera cuts to a low-angle shot of the yard and shows white sheets hanging on a laundry line blowing in the wind with trees and the sky in the background. Images of the child and the white sheets symbolize innocence while the trees and the sky symbolize life and endless opportunity. The music becomes louder and faster and the trailer cuts to clips of the clown in a sewer and digging a grave, which symbolize darkness and death. No narration tells audiences who the clown is and audiences are left wondering “was this clown once good and then turned evil?” and “what are his motives for terrifying people?” Watching the movie is the only way to decipher the symbols provided by the trailer.
By the 2000s, the art of movie trailers and its symbolism transformed into something even more vague and abstract. Movie trailers of the 2000s are characterized by lots of music, dialogue, and rapid cuts with intricate images and symbols. Trailers do not directly inform viewers of the movies’ exact plot; instead, the audience is supposed to infer or derive the supposed plot on their own. Tree of Life (Terrence Malick 2011)is a somewhat extreme example of this phenomenon, but spotlights how movie trailers have reached an all-time high in ambiguity. The trailer begins with cuts to various images of the earth, ocean waves, trees in the beginning with the main female character’s voice. She explains that “There are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you will follow.” Images of church pews, stained glass ceilings and other objects with religious connotations are juxtaposed to the previous cuts. The audience takes away from the trailer that the movie is about a man whose parents have opposite ideologies (his father’s ideology being the way of nature, his mother’s being the way of grace), however no information is given beyond that. Audiences are left to wonder how this influences the character and his pursuits, and questions what the man’s pursuits actually are. Movie trailers of the 2000s are a step up in ambiguity from the 1990s and a far cry from the straightforward 1970s.
Charles Sanders Peirce is wrong when it comes to the evolution of movie trailers. Movie trailers have evolved from straightforward advertisements to ambiguous works of art. Albert Einstein claimed that “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world stimulating progress and giving birth to evolution.” In the current era of trailers, communicating the plot is less important than in previous times. Now, the emphasis is placed on provoking viewers’ imaginations.
Recut movie trailers are similar to Einstein’s claim that imagination is more important than knowledge. The whole purpose of watching recut trailers is to momentarily disregard our previous knowledge about a movie’s original plot and use our creativity to imagine the same characters and same scenes used in a different context.
Just like regular movie trailers, the recut trailers averaged between two and three minutes. Recuts communicate their new plotlines through establishing shots, voice overs, and extensive typography. Many recut trailers utilize an establishing shot in the beginning of the trailer to help set the tone for the new plotline of the movie. For example, in a recut trailer for School of Rock, the editor uses clips of the school and its empty hallways where Dewey Finn (Jack Black) teaches in order to set the tone for the terror that will happen later in the trailer. Also, the editors the audio of a character speaking from one clip and use it as narration for a different clip in the movie to give it a different meaning. This technique was used frequently in the Superbad recut trailer, which turned the comedy into a horror movie. It is difficult to turn funny scenes into scary ones so taking certain lines out of context and placing them in other scenes is necessary. Finally, extensive typography is used to facilitate the viewers’ understanding of the new trailer. Every recut trailer that I watched used typography to reveal the movie’s new plot. In the It recut trailer, typography was used eight times to describe the happenings in the trailer. Charles Sanders Peirce was wrong when it came to movies. Whether a regular movie trailer or a recut, editors have moved from obvious storytelling to pieces in which the viewer needs to use their imagination.
Trailers: Taxi Driver, Star Wars, Top Gun, The Shining, It, Tree of Life.
Recut Trailers: Superbad (comedy converted to horror), It (horror converted to family film), School of Rock (children’s film converted to horror).