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14 Secrets of Movie Trailer Editors

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Decades ago, Hollywood used to put previews of their coming attractions after the conclusion of their theatrical releases. The teasers earned the nickname “trailers” because they followed the feature film.

Today, trailers aren’t such an afterthought. Studios spend millions of dollars stirring up anticipation for their big-budget movies by releasing trailers that promise consumers something worth the hassle and expense of a ticket. The responsibility for taking the most dazzling 120-odd seconds from hours of footage and splicing it into a coherent—and compelling—mini-movie falls on trailer editors, who screen films months in advance in order to create previews that will build the viral buzz filmmakers look for.

To better understand the job, mental_floss spoke with several editors at three of the most highly respected firms in the business. Here’s how they get you excited about the next blockbuster.

1. YOU NEED TOP-LEVEL SECURITY CLEARANCE.

If you think studios are worried about rough cuts of their films falling into the wrong hands, you’d be correct. As some of the few pairs of eyes outside of the production to see a movie months before release, trailer houses must make sure their offices can’t be tapped by potential pirates. Ron Beck, the owner and creative director of Tiny Hero, says that only employees at Fort Knox might be able to relate to the level of security that trailer editors deal with. “There are cameras everywhere,” he says. “We have sensors that record everyone who goes in and comes out of a door.” Rough cuts of movies typically get delivered on encrypted hard drives and are edited only on hardware that’s inaccessible to an open network.

“All of [the studios] are careful, but Marvel leads the pack,” Beck says. “Their stuff is super-strong. That’s why you rarely see their movies pirated.”

2. THEY MIGHT BE SEEING AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT MOVIE THAN YOU DO.

In order to begin work on marketing campaigns, trailer firms are usually given extremely early footage that has yet to be polished and edited. Rough cuts might emphasize plot points or characters that wind up getting minimized by the time the picture is done, or “locked.” David Hughes of the UK-based firm Synchronicity says he’s seen a few movies that he barely recognized once they hit theaters. “Bridget Jones's Diary was quite dark at one point,” he says, “and I recall a totally different opening to Bowfinger where the film-within-the-film was called Star Wars rather than Chubby Rain because the accountant who wrote it was so stupid he didn't know a film called Star Wars actually existed."

Since films continue to get pared down right up until release, it’s also common to see scenes in trailers that don’t ultimately make the final cut. “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels [is] my favorite example, because someone wrote to complain that they had waited the whole film to see Steve Martin push an old lady into a swimming pool, as seen in the trailer, only to find that the scene wasn't in the finished film.”

3. THEY CAN ASK FOR SPECIAL EFFECTS TO GET PRIORITIZED.

Because editors see films so far in advance, they’re often looking at footage full of green screens and unfinished effects work. But if an editor feels like a scene would bolster the trailer’s impact, they can request the studio fast-track the CGI. “We can’t ask what they shoot first, because productions usually revolve around an actor’s schedule,” Beck says. “But we can ask for visual effects stuff we need to be done first.”

4. THEY MAY CUT A TRAILER YOU NEVER SEE.

Daniel Lee, who spent 10 years at Mark Woollen and Associates before migrating to the buzzed-about firm Project X, says that editors are often called upon by directors or producers to splice together a “sizzle reel” made out of stock or existing footage in order to sell a studio on a movie. “It’s becoming increasingly common to do,” he says. “It’s an inexpensive way to sell someone on the vibe of a movie.” Director Joe Carnahan commissioned a reel when he was looking to direct a theatrical version of Daredevil (above).

5. THEY DON’T LIKE SPOILERS ANY MORE THAN YOU DO.

For last summer’s Terminator: Genisys, fans who viewed the trailer were slightly annoyed to learn—spoiler—that perpetual victim John Connor was a Terminator in yet another revision of the franchise's confusing canon. But those edicts usually come down from the studio, according to Beck. “I like to tease, not tell,” he says. “In certain movies, though, you have to give it up, or the trailer won’t even be good. Revealing a twist is ultimately the studio’s decision, though.”

6. THE 2003 TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE REMAKE REWROTE THE RULES.

Trailers are often the result of other trailers that studios noticed were particularly effective in engaging an audience emotionally. One example: the preview for 2003’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake. “The one that always comes to mind is the trailer for the Michael Bay-produced remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, where black frames were inserted off the beat to disorienting effect,” Hughes says. “This technique has been borrowed for many horror trailers since, including some that we've made.”

Another trend-making trailer: the one for 2010's Inception, with its thunderous "braam" sounds that seemed to influence every heavy action/drama film that followed.

7. THEY CAN’T HAVE PEOPLE POINTING GUNS AT OTHER PEOPLE.

Because trailer content is subject to many of the same ratings restrictions as the feature film itself, editors often have to cut around some of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) mandates. If a trailer is a “green band,” or suitable for general audiences, that means no threatening people with firearms. “There’s a lot of minutiae, like where a gun can be pointed,” Beck says. “You can’t have someone pointing it straight at the camera, for example, or at anyone in the same frame. Sometimes we blow up [zoom] a frame to hide stuff like that.”

8. TRAILERS GET FOCUS GROUPS.

Studios looking to reach the widest possible audience sometimes like to hedge their bets on campaigns and enlist two different trailer vendors to create edits for the project. They’ll focus-test each and back the one with the most support. That’s not unusual, but what irks editors, Lee says, is when a studio’s marketing department decides to split the difference and create a trailer based on ideas from two different creative entities. “They might combine trailers,” he says. “We call that Frankensteining.”

9. THEY CAN GET ACTORS TO SAY ANYTHING.

Because editors have precious little time to communicate the theme or premise of a movie, having a line or two of dialogue that summarizes a character’s motivation can make all the difference. Unfortunately, not all movies come stocked with exposition. If a trailer needs a clarifying line and the actor isn’t available to record dialogue, Beck can go in and splice together sentences from words he’s already said. “We might use a sound-alike actor, or we might see if we can form whatever sentence with the lines we have. We could make ‘I need to find her’ from someone saying ‘Find her’ and ‘Need to.’”

If all else fails and an actor is needed, Hughes says there’s one relatively quick fix. “If you've seen a film in the last five years, you've probably seen a film in which at least one line of ADR [Additional Dialogue Recording] was done on an iPhone after the actor had left the set.”

10. THEY LIKE TO LEAVE PRIVATE EASTER EGGS IN TRAILERS.

Studios love when fans of film franchises dissect trailers to spot hidden references or clues. So do editors, but sometimes the Easter eggs they drop in are going to be hard for anyone outside of their family to catch. “I know a few editors, myself included, who try to slip in their voice in a piece,” Lee says. “That’s only if you have enough time to fiddle with it.” Lee’s two kids lent their voices to a sound mix for World of Warcraft: Looking for Group, a documentary about the game. “I don’t know if they made the final cut, but they’re in there.”

11. COMEDIES ARE HARD.

Of all the film genres he’s overseen, Hughes believes comedies that don’t hit the mark are his worst assignment. “I've made trailers for comedies where there were literally not enough jokes in the film to fill a trailer,” he says. “Going back in the mists of time, I remember the trailer for Beverly Hills Cop III having one joke in it, Serge saying something sarcastic about Axel Foley's shoes, and then they cut that joke out of the film.”

12. SOMETIMES YOUTUBE AMATEURS CAN BREAK IN.

Fall down the YouTube rabbit hole and you’ll find thousands of movie trailers cobbled together by hobbyists outside of the industry. While many might underestimate the work and craft involved in doing it professionally, a few have been able to use it as a launching pad to get noticed. “I know one or two editors who got careers because of their YouTube channels, where they were uploading stuff completely as a hobby,” Lee says.

13. THEY LISTEN TO A LOT OF MUSIC—SOME OF IT UNRELEASED.

Beck believes the majority of a trailer’s impact can be chalked up to how the images fit with the music selection. “Music is at least 50 percent of any trailer,” he says. With access to unreleased tracks from music labels, Beck will go jogging with his earphones in to sample tunes, even though he might not find a perfect visual fit for a song for months. “I’ll picture a scene and maybe see something like it a year or so later. And then I’ll go, ‘Oh, I’ve got just the song for this.’”

14. RYAN GOSLING AND MORGAN FREEMAN ARE TRAILER GOLD.

Ever since voiceovers for trailers largely went out of style, editors have needed to keep viewers oriented in other ways. But that doesn’t mean they can’t cheat a little. Beck says that editing a trailer for anything containing Morgan Freeman is like having a narrator. “We did Now You See Me 2 recently, and when I knew we had Morgan Freeman in the movie, I knew the whole trailer was going to be driven by him saying his lines. He’s like the voice of God.”

Another go-to performer: Ryan Gosling. Why? “He just nails it,” Beck says. “He can convey a meaning or moment so quickly that you can use it in the trailer. You’re trying to do so much in a short amount of time, and when an actor is emotive, it makes my job easier.”

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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