Stop/Eject: December 2012

It’s high time for an update on the progress of Stop/Eject, my magical and moving fantasy-drama about a tape recorder that can stop and rewind time.

First up, thanks to the auctioning-off of a hat worn by lead actress Georgina Sherrington (The Worst Witch), our fundraising total has crossed the £1,200 mark. That means we’re over 80% of the way to our £1,500 target. It also means that the last in our series of behind-the-scenes podcasts from the set of Stop/Eject has been released.

Down in Hay-on-Wye, editor Miguel Ferros is hard at work cutting Stop/Eject itself. I went down there on Tuesday and had a sneak peek at the first few minutes, which is already streets ahead of the version I edited. A fresh pair of eyes is indeed a very valuable thing at this stage in a film’s creation.

Meanwhile, I’ve also been editing – editing Record & Play: The Making of Stop/Eject, a 30 minute documentary which will form the centrepiece of the DVD and Bluray’s bonus features. Several brand-new interviews have been filmed for this, including one with Georgina. At the same time we interviewed her on another subject, and we hope to be revealing this soon as an exciting new reward for sponsors.

Press kit outside cover by Alain Bossuyt
Press kit outside cover by Alain Bossuyt

Alain Bossuyt, who won our poster design competition earlier in the year, has adapted and expanded his eye-catching design into a folder for the press kits. Although it will probably be quite a while before these kits are needed, it’s always useful to have them around just in case. You can find out more about Alain and his work (with the help of Google Translate) at

Another designer, Andy Roberts, who did all the graphics for the Worcestershire Film Festival, is busy laying out the illustrated script book for those sponsors who selected the Unit Publicist reward. I’m looking forward to seeing what he comes up; I’m sure it will be a fantastic souvenir. Andy’s website is at

Press kit inside cover by Alain Bossuyt
Press kit inside cover by Alain Bossuyt

This afternoon I was interviewed by Toni McDonald on BBC Radio Hereford & Worcester. If you missed it, you can listen to it online. My part is about 2 hrs 45 mins into the programme.

And on Tuesday, Stop/Eject’s trailer will be screened at the Underwire networking event in Wolverhampton, along with the trailer for producer Sophie Black’s own short film, Ashes. Tickets can be bought online for £5.

Remember – apart from the hat, which was of course a one-off – all of the sponsor rewards mentioned above are still available. So if you want to secure yourself a copy of the DVD or Bluray, bag a ticket to the premiere or get one of the illustrated script books, head on over to and make your contribution.

Stop/Eject: December 2012

Double Vision

When I first started making amateur films with my grandad’s Video8 camcorder, the only “actors” I had available were me, my friend David Abbott and occasionally my sister. Even a little later on, when I managed to rope in a few extra friends, there were still far more characters than actors. The solution? Each person – with the addition or subtraction of a hat, jacket or pair of glasses – portrayed multiple characters.

While this massively confused the audience (which fortunately consisted of only my parents), it did teach me a thing or two about how to shoot scenes in which one actor plays two characters. Below is a run-down of the various techniques you can use next time you shoot a script featuring time travel, parallel universes or uncanny doppelgängers. Back in the nineties, when I was making amateur films, there was no way of combining two separate video images on screen at once (without a hugely expensive video mixer), so only the first two of these techniques were available to me. Nowadays they can all be done with a green sheet, a decent home computer and the right software.

1. Ordinary cuts

The simplest method is to block your shot so that one doppelgänger’s face is not seen, be it out of focus, turned away from camera, in shadow or whatever. Simply dress a stand-in in the right clothes and make sure their hair matches. Two over-the-shoulder shots, each with a stand-in providing the foreground shoulder, can be edited into a very natural conversation.

Katie Lake (foreground) doubles for Georgina Sherrington (background) as the character of Kate steps into her own past in Stop/Eject.
Katie Lake (foreground) doubles for Georgina Sherrington (background) as the character of Kate steps into her own past in Stop/Eject.

2. Hidden cuts

It’s possible to pan from one doppelgänger to another, without any post-production effects, so long as the pan is very fast – a “whip” pan. There is so much motion in a whip pan that the eye will not detect a cut in the middle of it. Alternatively, track the camera so it passes close behind a foreground object or character; use the moment of darkness as this object wipes frame to hide a cut.

A quick camera move behind a foreground wall masks a cut from Johnny Cartwright to Johnny Cartwright in The Picnic.
A quick camera move behind a foreground wall masks a cut from Johnny Cartwright to Johnny Cartwright in The Picnic.

3. Split screen

As long as your camera is locked off, it’s the work of seconds in post to create a simple split screen effect using your editing software’s crop tool. If a straight vertical line doesn’t suit your shot, more unusual matte lines can be created with a garbage matte filter. Watch out for changes in lighting when you shoot the two elements, particularly when filming outdoors, and beware of shadows crossing the matte line. If you can afford to hire a motion control rig for accurately repeatable moves, your camera doesn’t even need to be locked down.

Elizabeth Shue plays both old and young Jennifer in a split screen shot from Back to the Future Part II (1989).
Elizabeth Shue plays both old and young Jennifer in a split screen shot from Back to the Future: Part II (1989, dir. Robert Zemeckis).

4. Green screen

If you try to use technique 3 for a shot where one doppelgänger passes in front of the other, you’ll quickly find it a post-production nightmare of painstaking matte animation. Instead, shoot the foreground doppelgänger against a green screen. As always with green screen work, light carefully to reduce spill and match the background plate.

Peter Kay is green-screened over an element of himself and Patrick McGuinness in the 2005 Comic Relief music video "(Is This the Way to) Amarillo".
Peter Kay is green-screened over an element of himself and Patrick McGuinness in the 2005 Comic Relief music video (Is This the Way to) Amarillo.

5. Face replacement

This is the only suitable technique when your doppelgängers are in close physical contact and both faces are visible. The action is performed by the actor and a stand-in, who may wear a green hood with tracking marks on it. Later, the actor performs the second character against a green screen, wearing a green body suit, with the angle and lighting carefully matched to the earlier shot. This isolated face, or the entire head, can then be tracked onto the stand-in. (Alternatively, on a big budget, the actor’s head may be cyber-scanned and a CG version of it tracked onto the stand-in.) Beware that only experienced VFX artists will be able to pull this off convincingly.

One of the many face replacement shots in the climactic fight of the dimension-hopping Jet Li vehicle The One (2001, dir. James Wong)
One of the many face replacement shots in the climactic fight of the dimension-hopping Jet Li vehicle The One (2001, dir. James Wong)

The best approach is to mix as many techniques as possible, relying mostly on the simpler ones but hitting the audience with a more effectsy one every now and then to sell the doubles. Happy sci-fi shooting!

Double Vision

Stop, Collaborate and Listen

Operating camera, directing and even monitoring sound on The Beacon. Photo: Mark Evans
Operating camera, directing and even monitoring sound on The Beacon. Photo: Mark Evans

Cooking MCs like a pound of bacon, and so on and so forth.

This week’s FilmWorks session was called “How to Succeed at Not Doing Everything” – i.e. how to collaborate. This session really chimed with me. Like many low budget filmmakers, I suspect, I can be something of a control freak and have only recently been letting go of certain key roles within my productions.

On my 2002 action movie The Beacon I was writer, director, producer, director of photography, camera operator, focus puller, editor, visual effects artist, sound designer, sound mixer and colourist. Since then I’ve been gradually letting go of roles and almost without exception the results have been good. Giving someone a job to do and getting results that exceed my expectations is one of the most enjoyable aspects of filmmaking for me now. Neil Douek’s sound mix of Soul Searcher was light years beyond my efforts on The Beacon, and on The Dark Side of the Earth when I turned over both sound design and mixing to Henning Knoepfel, I was rewarded with a soundtrack beyond anything I could have imagined.

The roles I’ve clung onto the longest are (co-)writing, (co-)producing, DPing and editing. The writing and producing are down to the necessities of unpaid filmmaking; I’ve always hated both of these roles. I kid myself that the same is true of DPing, but it’s probably more due to an over-inflated opinion of my own abilities. Yes, I’m fairly certain that I’m a better DP than I am a director, but to think that no-one else could have DPed Stop/Eject to a good standard with limited time and equipment was somewhat egotistical.

Filming Stop/Eject with a minimal rig
Stop/Eject, and I still haven’t learnt my lesson. Photo: Paul Bednall

This year, for the first time ever, I’ve handed over the editing of a project to someone else – Miguel Ferros is now working on a cut of Stop/Eject. Although I was initially resistant to the idea, I now feel like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders and I eagerly anticipate Miguel’s cut.

Gratifyingly, I’ve recently been hired by a couple of different writer-producers to direct their shorts. I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to direct and only direct. (More on these projects on the blog in due course.)

To close with, here’s a simple example of the perils of not collaborating. This week I recorded a line of ADR on my Zoom H1. Coming from a technical background, when faced with a technical task and an artistic task to do simultaneously, the former gets priority unless I make a conscious effort otherwise. So I was focused on the technical quality of the recording, and only noticed on playing back the material at home that I had failed to give the actress an important piece of direction. Had someone else been operating the recorder for me, I would have caught this mistake.

Fortunately the main ADR session is yet to come. At which someone else will be pressing the buttons.

Stop, Collaborate and Listen

Editing Stop/Eject

Since I’m about to hand over the Stop/Eject editing reigns to Miguel Ferros, now seemed as good a time as any to share a little insight into some of the kinds of things an editor has to think about while shaping a sequence.

This is the £700 public reward for Stop/Eject. (If you haven’t got a clue what that means, visit to find out.) The total is actually up to £906 now, so there are two more public rewards coming your way: a podcast covering the third day of the shoot, and a breakdown of how the visual effects shots in the trailer were accomplished.

Here’s a little about Miguel, the man who will be taking my edit and polishing it up into a final cut. Miguel is the technical director of the Hay Film School, and indeed organised the Stop/Eject talk I gave in Hay last weekend. He’s also the director of Digital Film and Post, a consultancy company that advises on post-production workflows, helping to navigate the ever-changing landscape of tapeless acquisition formats, ingesting, off- and on-lining, distribution and archiving. His experience includes editing, VFX, producing and directing, mainly in the genres of documentaries, promos and commercials.

Stop/Eject marks a welcome foray into drama for Miguel, and I’m sure he’ll bring all his eighteen years of post-production experience to bear in fine-tuning the film. I’ll leave you with an award-winning Diesel Jeans commercial he edited.

Editing Stop/Eject

Converting 24P Cine Mode Footage to 25fps

This is a pretty esoteric post, I’ll warn you now.

Some of the Stop/Eject behind-the-scenes footage was shot on a Canon camcorder set to “24P Cinema Mode”. It took me ages to figure out how to convert this material to 25 frames per second without the motion becoming very jerky. So I’m going to set down how I eventually did it, in case it can help any other poor souls in the same situation. I was working on an iMac with Lion and FCP Studio 7.

The 24P footage I converted includes a dual interview with Kate (Georgina Sherrington) and Copy-Kate (Katie Lake).
The 24P footage I converted includes a dual interview with Kate (Georgina Sherrington) and Copy-Kate (Katie Lake), shot by Laura Iles and Kurt Baker.

What is 24P Cinema Mode? It’s aimed at American users, and emulates how “real” movies look when they’re broadcast on US TV. Real movies are shot at 24fps and telecined to 30fps (actually 29.97fps, but we’ll say 30 for simplicity’s sake) which is the standard frame-rate of American TVs, DVD players and so on. 24P Cinema Mode captures 24 frames per second and converts them, as the camera is recording, to 30fps. It essentially does this by duplicating every fifth frame and using interlacing to smooth out the motion. This is known as 2:3 pulldown. More expensive cameras embed metadata in their 2:3 pulldown footage so that software like Final Cut Pro can automatically restore it to genuine 24fps, but the material I was working with had no such metadata. I believe it was shot on a Canon Vixia HF10 or similar.

Step 1: Converting to 1080i60 Quicktimes using Adobe Media Encoder
Step 1: Converting to 1080i60 Quicktimes using Adobe Media Encoder

The other problem I had with the footage in question was its format: AVCHD (identified by a .MTS file extension), which Macs don’t really like. Final Cut Pro will convert them via the Log and Transfer window, but only if they’re on an SD card or a disc image of an SD card. But I’d been given the footage on a data DVD, and copying it to an SD card did not fool Final Cut. After much trawling of the magical interweb and trying various free applications that didn’t work very well, I discovered that Adobe Media Encoder accepts MTS files. (If you don’t have the Adobe suite, you can buy an application called VoltaicHD that will apparently do the job.)

So here are the three transcoding stages I went through to convert the material into editable 1080P25:

Step 2: reversing the telecine effect using Compressor
Step 2: reversing the telecine effect using Compressor
  1. I used Adobe Media Encoder to convert the source files to Quicktimes. I chose the HDV 1080i60 codec and retained the interlacing, field order (upper first), frame size (1440×1080 anamorphic) and frame rate (29.97fps) of the original material.
  2. I followed the method on this web page using Apple Compressor. In a nutshell, you take an existing preset – say one of the ProRes ones, if that’s the format you like to edit footage in – and alter two things: the frame rate, found by clicking the video Settings button in the Encoder tab, and the deinterlace option, found in the Frame Controls tab. Set the former to 23.976 and the latter to Reverse Telecine (after first enabling the Frame Controls by clicking the small gear next to the on/off pulldown menu, and selecting On from said menu). At this stage you can also resize the image to true HD, 1920×1080. The resulting video file should be genuine 24fps with no interlacing.
  3. Next bring your 24fps file back into Compressor and drop another preset onto it. Again, use ProRes or whatever your codec of choice is, but this time make sure the frame rate is set to 25fps, deinterlace is NOT set to Reverse Telecine and, at the bottom of the Frame Controls tab, where it says “Set Duration to”, click the last radio button, “so source frames play at 25.00 fps”. What this does is to speed up your video about 4% so that it runs at 25fps. This is the smoothest way to convert 24fps to 25fps, and the speed difference will not be noticeable on playback. In fact, whenever you watch a movie on UK TV it is sped up like this.
Step 3: retiming to 25fps with Compressor
Step 3: retiming to 25fps with Compressor

If you’re in any doubt as to whether it’s worked, step through the video frame by frame in Final Cut and see if there are any duplicated, skipped or interlaced frames.

Of course, after all this transcoding, the image quality will have suffered a bit, but at least the motion should be smooth. Has anyone out there found a better method of doing this? I’d love to hear from you if so. Alternatively, if you want any more details on the steps above, just leave a comment and I’ll be happy to share them.

The moral of the story is, if you’re in the UK, don’t use 24P Cine Mode. Just like shooting 24fps on celluloid, it unnecessarily complicates post-production. Stick to 25fps and everything will come up smelling of roses.

Converting 24P Cine Mode Footage to 25fps

The Power of Post

Ray Bullock Jnr. as Joe
Ray Bullock Jnr. as Joe, preparing to fight the marauding demon

As we search for an editor for Stop/Eject, here’s a demonstration of the power an editor wields.

A few weeks before the premiere of Soul Searcher, my fantasy-action feature about a trainee Grim Reaper, I showed the film to my flatmates of the time. One comment concerned a scene in which the trainee reaper, Joe (Ray Bullock Jnr.), fights a demon (Shane Styen) while drunken revellers cheer him on.

As scripted, the scene covers only the start of the fight – enough to show how cocky Joe has become in his new role. (On the day of shooting we decided to extend the scene to show Joe killing the demon, but after a couple of shots Shane injured himself, forcing us to revert to the shorter version.) My flatmate wanted to see Joe kill the demon, and I decided he was right.

I certainly wasn’t going to do a reshoot at that stage in the game, but nonetheless I was able to alter the scene to have the demon die. I did it in three steps, and these conveniently illustrate the three prongs of attack you can use in post-production to change and improve your story.

  1. Re-purpose existing footage. The demon knocks Joe’s scythe from his hand early in the scene, so my first challenge was to get the hero his blade back so he could strike the fatal blow. Fortunately I had left the camera running while shooting a series of takes of Joe’s scythe hitting the ground. Therefore I had also caught the scythe being picked up on camera. This was never intended to be used, but it worked a treat.
  2. Visual effects. I’m no fan of digital fixes, but there’s no denying they can get you out of a tight spot. The existing cut of the scene had a shot of Joe walking up to the demon, but now I needed to put the scythe into his hand, so I cut out the scythe from a freeze-frame of another shot and motion-tracked it to Joe’s movements.
  3. Sound. This is the most commonly-used tool for changing things in post. Any time in a movie that a line of exposition is delivered without the speaker’s mouth being clearly seen, chances are that it’s Additional Dialogue Recording (ADR). It’s far easier to get the actor into a recording studio to perform a new line than to go back to a location or a long-struck set and reshoot. But in this case all I needed to do was put in some slicing, crunching sounds and a grunt, which I ran over a handy shot of the drunken revellers.

Here is the original scene followed by the bits I changed and then the final version:

Remember that with great power comes great responsibility. I’ve heard of actors who’ve found themselves edited into scenes they’d never shot. If you’ve substantially changed the character with your tinkerings, or placed an actor into a sensitive or controversial scene, be sure to discuss it with them just as you would have done beforehand if it had been shot conventionally. The same goes for the writer if you’ve made a big change to their script.

Some might look at all this as cheating, and I confess I have mixed feelings about it myself. I believe in getting things right in-camera, but the reality is that all films are prototypes, and you’re often well into post-production – at least – before you really figure out what the best way is to make this particular movie.

The Power of Post

Test Screenings

Over the last few weeks, four test screenings of Stop/Eject have been held, at Hereford College of Art, at a friend’s house, at a book club and at The Rural Media Company‘s youth filmmaking group Shoot Out. Thanks to all the hosts and audiences for making these possible.

Test screening report form
Test screening report form

Although these screenings were all small in scale, none of them having more than a dozen attendees, it’s still a large number of screenings, certainly more than I’ve ever done before for a short or even a feature. That fact reflects the level of difficulty in editing Stop/Eject. It’s probably the toughest thing I’ve ever edited. It has very little in the way of plot, but instead relies on a single character arc to propel the film forward. So the audience is dependent on very subtle cues – facial expressions, shot juxtapositions, music – to follow what’s going on. Get one of those wrong and they won’t follow it, and they won’t engage emotionally.

The Stop/Eject screenings revealed the usual things – which scenes were unnecessary or slow, and which moments were confusing. One thing that caught me completely by surprise is that a few people thought one cameo female character was male, which gave them an utterly incorrect interpretation of that scene.

That's when you need to put yourself to the test / And show us a passage of time.
That’s when you need to put yourself to the test / And show us a passage of time.

The passage of time is something else that the test audiences have struggled to pick up on; many people thought the film was set over a few days. It transpired that seasonal costumes, Christmas lights in the background of a scene and a shot of autumn leaves falling into the river were not sufficient cues. With each successive screening I added more and more cues, and people still weren’t getting it. In the end it was clear that I either had to flash up a title card (“Three months later…”) or take the advice of Team America and use a montage.

As this song suggests, montages are pretty cheesy, but to my mind they’re less of a cop-out than a title card. Plus a montage allowed me to incorporate shots from deleted scenes, and I always get a kick out of finding new and unexpected ways to use otherwise discarded footage.

I can think of no caption for this image which is intelligent, informative or entertaining. Photo: Paul Bednall
Photo: Paul Bednall

The montage was inserted for the final test screening, and it must have worked, because no-one thought the events of the film happened over too short a time span.

But many of the issues that arose in the screenings were very much foreseen because they came up at script stage. Clearly they weren’t addressed adequately enough back then. One day I’ll learn that you can’t get away with ignoring any problems in your script. They will all come back to bite you in post.

Anyway, the edit as it currently stands is pretty good, and I think all involved in the project would be proud of it if I went ahead and locked it now and turned it over to the sound, music and VFX guys.

But I don’t think it’s reached its full potential. I think it could be even better, and so does Stop/Eject’s brand new executive producer, Carl Schoenfeld (who will be known to my long-term followers as the producer of The Dark Side of the Earth). So we’re now on the hunt for another editor who can take the film to the next level. This means post-production will take longer than anticipated; the film won’t be finished in 2012, but it will be the best it can possibly be, and that’s the most important thing.

Always fade out at the end of a montage / If you fade out it seems like more time has passed in a montage….

Georgina Sherrington as Kate
Georgina Sherrington as Kate
Test Screenings

The Value of a Full Crew

A rare moment to consult the script. Photo: Sophie Black
A rare moment to consult the script. Photo: Sophie Black

Col constantly ribs me about the lack of a first assistant director on Stop/Eject, and the consequent lack of adherence to the schedule. But as I edit the film, I’m appreciating more and more the other duties of a first AD and the consequences of those duties going undischarged.

Because part of the first’s job is to literally assist the director – to help them keep track of things which can easily get forgotten amidst the chaos of filming. Things like crossing the line, getting enough coverage and not missing out bits of the script. (Two other crew members that a big budget production will have who will also be looking out for those things are the script supervisor and the editor – because the editor will be cutting the material the day after you shoot it, and may be able to tell you before you leave a location that you need an extra shot.)

So here are some examples of the moronic cock-ups I made, which might well have been avoided if I’d had a first and/or a script supervisor looking out for me:

  • Tommy Draper wrote a great stage direction in one scene: “She opens the fridge. It’s as empty as her life.” Unfortunately I chose to shoot it in a way that made it impossible to tell the fridge was empty, because I didn’t pay close enough attention to the script during filming.
  • In another scene, I wrote that the cellophane is torn off an object before it is used. I included that detail in the script because, as a writer, I knew that otherwise the audience would not necessarily understand the important point that the object was brand new and unused. Somehow this got dropped from the scene during rehearsals, and it wasn’t until I saw the film edited together that I realised how crucial the cellophane was.
  • In scene seven, the most complex of the film, we decided during rehearsals to alter the timing of an incident. One side effect of this – which again I didn’t notice until I saw the edit – was that the shots I had storyboarded (and thus the shots that I filmed) no longer established satisfactorily the whereabouts of one of the characters at a critical moment.
  • In scene 24 I crossed the line. You can see this at the very end of the trailer.
The Dark Side of the Earth's 1st AD Andrew McEwan (right) on set
The Dark Side of the Earth’s first AD Andrew McEwan (right) on set. Photo: Richard Unger

The omission of things in the script are particularly annoying (a) because I co-wrote the bloody thing and should have noticed, and (b) because any good writer takes care to be economical with words and only put in things which are important.

Some of these things can be fixed with pick-ups. For example, I filmed a close-up of my wife’s hands unwrapping the cellophane in our flat recently. But others have no solution beyond a major reshoot, which would be very hard to justify. So what you end up with is a subtle erosion of the quality of the film, and this is one of the reasons that a more expensive film looks more expensive. A bigger crew does mean more attention to detail and thus higher production values in every respect.

I share these thoughts with you not because I’m any less proud of Stop/Eject or feel like I need to make excuses for it, but simply to pass on a lesson the project has taught me. It’s very easy to think of a first assistant director as merely a time-keeper, but if you work without one you should appreciate that there are other strings to their bow, and your project may suffer more lasting effects than just a tired cast and crew.

The Value of a Full Crew

Stop/Eject Post-production Update

I hope you enjoyed last week’s Stop/Eject lighting breakdowns, but you’re probably wondering by now how post-production is going on the film.

Shoot stuff
Our hallway after the shoot. Photo: Katie Lake

The first month after the shoot was spent recovering, catching up on non-Stop/Eject stuff and getting everything ready for the launch of the second crowd-funding campaign – building  the website, editing the trailer (and doing some VFX shots for it), filming the pitch video and creating the first public rewards. So it wasn’t until about five weeks after wrapping that I had a first assembly. This ran to about 24 minutes and was very slow and clunky, as first assemblies usually are.

Since then I’ve been gradually making the film more watchable, tightening it up, adding temporary music and sound effects. Yesterday I reached the stage where I was ready to get some feedback on it, so I showed it to my wife Katie and to the producer, Sophie Black. They had some good suggestions which will inform how I proceed as I try to get it to a stage where it can be shown to some people not involved in the project, who can watch it with fresh eyes and really tell me whether the story and character arcs are working.

More pick-ups
More pick-ups

My list of pick-ups to shoot is being added to faster than I can cross them off, and every time I show the edit to a new viewer there is potential for more to be suggested. Luckily most of these can easily be shot in my living room with Katie’s hands and existing props. (I’ve never been a big fan of insert shots, but they were unavoidable when so much of the film is about pressing buttons, and they’ve proven extremely useful when it comes to pick-ups.)

Eventually I’ll be able to lock the picture, meaning that no further changes are made to the picture edit from then on (theoretically). It will then be down to the composer, the sound designer, the mixer, the visual effects artists and the colourist to put the flesh on the skeleton and complete the movie. Needless to say, you will hear plenty about who these people are and what they get up to right here on this blog.

P.S. Don’t forget to spread the word about our crowd-funding campaign at

Stop/Eject Post-production Update

Trailer Tips

Watching the Soul Searcher trailer
Lara Greenway and Ray Bullock Jnr. watch the Soul Searcher trailer for, like, the gazillionth time.

For independent filmmakers, there was a time when trailers were something you didn’t worry about until the movie was finished and you were looking to get it distributed. Maybe you cut a basic one during or just after production to show the cast and crew some of the fruits of their hard work. (This proved a massive morale booster during Soul Searcher‘s six-week principal photography slog.)

But times have changed. Now the saturation of broadband has made video on the web an everyday thing, and a trailer for your short film or micro-budget feature posted on-line has a good chance of reaching some kind of audience and starting to build word of mouth about your project. Not to mention the rise of crowd-funding, for which having a pitch video – typically consisting partly of a trailer – is essential. Indeed, shooting a trailer before you’ve shot the film, in order to raise finance, has become extremely common.

So today I’m going to share some advice on editing trailers. I can’t claim to be an expert on trailer editing – it’s not an area of editing I’ve ever been able to specialise in – but the trailers I’ve cut generally get a good reaction, so I must be doing something right.

By the way, these tips assume that you’ve actually shot the film. If not, you’re more in the area of a teaser trailer, which is a whole other subject.


The first trailer I cut for Soul Searcher – the morale-booster – used Mark Mancina’s theme from Speed. Since it was just for cast and crew and wasn’t going on the internet, the copyright thing wasn’t an issue. But these days you’ll definitely want to put your trailer online, so make sure you have the rights to use the music.

If you already have a composer lined up for your film, it may seem logical to have them score your trailer. This is what I did for Soul Searcher’s second trailer, edited primarily for a preview screening at 2004’s Borderlines Film Festival. Unfortunately this didn’t really work. The composer dutifully reflected every little change in the on-screen action. But that’s not how trailer music works. Trailer music needs to be driving and insistent, and should only change moods at two or three carefully planned points. So here’s the tip:

ALWAYS CUT YOUR TRAILER TO MUSIC. Never edit first and try to add music later or have music written to fit.

Watch the Dark Shadows trailer and notice how they use music to pace the edit and underline the transitions. Also note how they punctuate the comedy by stopping the music for the bigs gags, then bring it back in over a reaction shot.


Everything you need to know about how to edit a trailer can be learnt from simply watching trailers. You’ll notice that they’re structured into well-defined acts, with a key plot point and a change in the music between each act. Like an actual film, the first act will normally set up the world and characters, the second will present a sticky situation and the third will be about trying to resolve that situation, although of course in a trailer no resolution will come.

These days the studio logos tend to be a few shots in, or even at the start of the second act. If you don’t have a motion graphic logo for your production company, now’s the time to sort one out because it won’t feel like a trailer without it.

At the end of the third act will be the title and the “button”. This is a final beat – a sort of exclamation mark at the end of the trailer’s sentence – and is usually comedic. That’s followed by a couple of brief screens of credits (SFMoviePoster is a useful font to get hold of here) and a release date.

Look at the structure in The Dicator’s trailer below: a prelude building mystery, a first act setting up the character, a second act showing the kidnapping predicament, and a third act in which hilarity ensues. Possibly.


Two stylistic things that have been pretty big in trailers for a few years are speed changes and lines over black.

Speed changes work best on tracking or craning shots, and quite simply involve speeding up the first part of the shot for no other reason that it looks kind of cool. Slow motion is used a lot as well, often because you need to emphasise a dramatic point in the trailer more than the director felt was necessary for the film itself. For the same reason, adding a digital zoom-in to a key close-up is quite common.

Running lines of dialogue over a black screen is another emphasis tool. Typically these come at the transition points between acts. We get a montage of shots and music, then everything goes black and silent except for one key line of dialogue, then – BOOM! – a new piece of music kicks in and we’re assailed with moving images once again.

Similarly, fades to black get used a lot in trailers. These can help hide continuity issues caused when you compress a scene, but also aid generally in pacing.

Strobing has become popular lately too – cutting black frames into shots to break them up. It adds pace and makes the viewer feel like they’re not getting to see everything. See the end of this Prometheus trailer for an example.

Text and Voiceovers

Keep these to a minimum. In fact, don’t do a voiceover at all unless you can afford to hire the actual Trailer Voice Guy. Anyone else voicing over your trailer will immediately make it sound amateurish, unless it makes sense for one of the characters in the film to do the VO.

And don’t put your cast’s names up in big letters in your trailer, unless they’re genuine name actors.

Taglines are fine as on-screen text. Check out trailers for films in a similar genre to help you choose a font. There was a time when every trailer had text which moved towards you, with the letters simultaneously separating out. That fad seems to be over now, but look out for things like this in big movie trailers which you can emulate. Dramas and chick-flicks tend to have their captions over a background of out-of-focus points of light – easy enough to shoot with a DSLR and some Christmas lights if you can’t get hold of a stock motion graphic.

Take This Waltz, below, uses this kind of text background.


Sound is just as phenomenally important in a trailer as it is in any other moving image format. Bad sound can instantly ruin all the hard work you’ve put in to make your trailer look like a “real” trailer.

It can be difficult, especially if you’re cutting your trailer early in post-production. You haven’t done your ADR yet and you don’t even have a post-production sound crew on board.

The solution? Download Audacity – a free piece of audio editing software – and use its noise removal filter on any troublesome production sound. It won’t work miracles, but if you have background noise like traffic, hiss or mains hum it will seriously reduce it. As a side effect you will get digital artefacts, but these will be inaudible once you’ve mixed in your music.

Make judicious use of good sound effects. Get hold of some nice, chunky whooshes to underscore your speed-changes, or your captions zooming on. If your film is a comedy, maybe throw in a record scratch effect when your music jars to a halt for an act change.

Check out the use of loud, whooshy, slammy noises (technical term) in the Men in Black III trailer:

And finally…

In case you somehow missed it, here’s the trailer for my new short film, Stop/Eject:

Trailer Tips