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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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13 Secrets From the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London
Christine Colby
Christine Colby

Christopher Skaife is a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, an ancient fortress that has been used as a jail, royal residence, and more. There are 37 Yeoman Warders, popularly known as Beefeaters, but Skaife has what might be the coolest title of them all: He is the Ravenmaster. His job is to maintain the health and safety of the flock of ravens (also called an “unkindness” or a “conspiracy”) that live within the Tower walls. According to a foreboding legend with many variations, if there aren’t at least six ravens living within the Tower, both the Tower and the monarchy will fall. (No pressure, Chris!)

Skaife has worked at the Tower for 11 years, and has many stories to tell. Recently, Mental Floss visited him to learn more about his life in service of the ravens.

1. MILITARY SERVICE IS REQUIRED.

All Yeoman Warders must have at least 22 years of military service to qualify for the position and have earned a good-conduct medal. Skaife served for 24 years—he was a machine-gun specialist and is an expert in survival and interrogation resistance. He is also a qualified falconer.

Skaife started out as a regular Yeoman Warder who had no particular experience with birds. The Ravenmaster at the time "saw something in him," Skaife says, and introduced him to the ravens, who apparently liked him—and the rest is history. He did, however, have to complete a five-year apprenticeship with the previous Ravenmaster.

2. HE LIVES ON-SITE.

The Tower of London photographed at night
Christine Colby

As tradition going back 700 years, all Yeoman Warders and their families live within the Tower walls. Right now about 150 people, including a doctor and a chaplain, claim the Tower of London as their home address.

3. BUT HE’S HAD TO MOVE.

Skaife used to live next to the Bloody Tower, but had to move to a different apartment within the grounds because his first one was “too haunted.” He doesn’t really believe in ghosts, he says, but does put stock in “echoes of the past.” He once spoke to a little girl who was sitting near the raven cages, and when he turned around, she had disappeared. He also claims that things in his apartment inexplicably move around, particularly Christmas-related items.

4. THE RAVENS ENJOY SOME UNUSUAL SNACKS.

The Ravenmaster at the Tower of London bending down to feed one of his ravens
Christine Colby

The birds are fed nuts, berries, fruit, mice, rats, chicken, and blood-soaked biscuits. (“And what they nick off the tourists,” Skaife says.) He has also seen a raven attack and kill a pigeon in three minutes.

5. THEY GET A LULLABY.

Each evening, Skaife whistles a special tone to call the ravens to bed—they’re tucked into spacious, airy cages to protect them from predators such as foxes.

6. THERE’S A DIVA.

One of the ravens doesn’t join the others in their nighttime lodgings. Merlina, the star raven, is a bit friendlier to humans but doesn’t get on with the rest of the birds. She has her own private box inside the Queen’s House, which she reaches by climbing a tiny ladder.

7. ONE OF THEM HAS EARNED THE NICKNAME “THE BLACK WIDOW.”

Ravens normally pair off for life, but one of the birds at the Tower, Munin, has managed to get her first two mates killed. With both, she lured them high atop the White Tower, higher than they were capable of flying down from, since their wings are kept trimmed. Husband #1 fell to his death. The second one had better luck coasting down on his wings, but went too far and fell into the Thames, where he drowned. Munin is now partnered with a much younger male.

8. THERE IS A SECRET PUB INSIDE THE TOWER.

Only the Yeoman Warders, their families, and invited guests can go inside a secret pub on the Tower grounds. Naturally, the Yeoman Warder’s Club offers Beefeater Bitter beer and Beefeater gin. It’s lavishly decorated in police and military memorabilia, such as patches from U.S. police departments. There is also an area by the bar where a section of the wall has been dug into and encased in glass, showing items found in an archaeological excavation of the moat, such as soldiers’ discarded clay pipes, a cannonball, and some mouse skeletons.

9. … AND A SECRET HAND.

The Byward Tower, which was built in the 13th century by King Henry III, is now used as the main entrance to the Tower for visitors. It has a secret glass brick set into the wall that most people don’t notice. When you peer inside, you’ll see it contains a human hand (presumably fake). It was put in there at some point as a bit of a joke to scare children, but ended up being walled in from the other side, so is now in there permanently.

10. HE HAS A SIDE PROJECT.

Skaife considers himself primarily a storyteller, and loves sharing tales of what he calls “Victorian melodrama.” In addition to his work at the Tower, he also runs Grave Matters, a Facebook page and a blog, as a collaboration with medical historian and writer Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. Together they post about the history of executions, torture, and punishment.

11. THE TOWER IS MUPPET-FAMOUS.

2013’s Muppets Most Wanted was the first major film to shoot inside the Tower walls. At the Yeoman Warder’s Club, you can still sit in the same booth the Muppets occupied while they were in the pub.

12. IF YOU VISIT, KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR MONEY.

Ravens are very clever and known for stealing things from tourists, especially coins. They will strut around with the coin in their beak and then bury it, while trying to hide the site from the other birds.

13. … AND ON YOUR EYES.

Skaife, who’s covered in scars from raven bites, says, “They don’t like humans at all unless they’re dying or dead. Although they do love eyes.” He once had a Twitter follower, who is an organ donor, offer his eyes to the ravens after his death. Skaife declined.

This story first ran in 2015.

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11 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of TV Meteorologists
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The first weather forecast to hit national network television was given in 1949 by legendary weatherman Clint Youle. To illustrate weather systems, Youle covered a paper map of the U.S. in plexiglass and drew on it with a marker. A lot has changed in the world of meteorology since then, but every day, millions of families invite their local weatherman or weatherwoman into their living room to hear the forecast. Here are a few things you might not know about being a TV meteorologist.

1. SOME PEOPLE JUST NEVER MASTER THE GREEN SCREEN.

A view of a meteorologist as seen on-screen and in the studio against a green screen
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On-camera meteorologists might look as if they’re standing in front of a moving weather map, but in reality, there’s nothing except a blank green wall behind them. Thanks to the wonders of special effects, a digital map can be superimposed onto the green screen for viewers at home. TV monitors situated just off-camera show the meteorologist what viewers at home are seeing, which is how he or she knows where to stand and point. It’s harder than it looks, and for some rookie meteorologists, the learning curve can be steep.

“Some people never learn it,” says Gary England, legendary weatherman and former chief meteorologist for Oklahoma’s KWTV (England was also the first person to use Doppler radar to warn viewers about incoming systems). “For some it comes easily, but I’ve seen people never get used to it.”

Stephanie Abrams, meteorologist and co-host of The Weather Channel’s AMHQ, credits her green screen skills to long hours spent playing Nintendo and tennis as a kid. “You’ve gotta have good hand-eye coordination,” she says.

2. THEY HAVE A STRICT DRESS CODE.

Green is out of the question for on-air meteorologists, unless they want to blend into the map, but the list of prohibited wardrobe items doesn’t stop there. “Distracting prints are a no-no,” Jennifer Myers, Dallas-based meteorologist for KDFW FOX 4 writes on Reddit. “Cleavage angers viewers over 40 something fierce, so we stay away from that. There's no length rule on skirts/dresses but if you wouldn't wear it to a family event, you probably shouldn't wear it on TV. Nothing reflective. Nothing that makes sound.”

Myers says she has enough dresses to go five weeks without having to wear a dress twice. But all the limitations can make it difficult to find work attire that’s fashionable, looks good on-screen, and affordable. This is especially true for women, which is why when they find a garment that works, word spreads quickly. For example, this dress, which sold for $23 on Amazon, was shared in a private Facebook group for female meteorologists and quickly sold out in every color but green.

3. BUT IT’S CASUAL BELOW THE KNEE.

Since their feet rarely appear on camera, some meteorologists take to wearing casual, comfortable footwear, especially on long days. For example, England told the New York Times that during storm season, he was often on his feet for 12 straight hours. So, “he wears Mizuno running shoes, which look ridiculous with his suit and tie but provide a bit of extra cushioning,” Sam Anderson writes.

And occasionally female meteorologists will strap their mic pack to their calves or thighs rather than the more unpleasant option of stuffing it into their waistband or strapping it onto their bra.

4. THERE ARE TRICKS TO STAYING WARM IN A SNOWSTORM.

A young TV weatherperson in a snowy scene
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“In the field when I’m covering snow storms, I go to any pharmacy and get those back patches people wear, those heat wraps, and stick them all over my body,” explains Abrams. “Then I put on a wet suit. When you’re out for as long as we are, that helps you stay dry. I have to be really hot when I go out for winter storms.”

5. THERE’S NO SCRIPT.

Your local TV weather forecaster is ad-libbing from start to finish. “Our scripts are the graphics we create,” says Jacob Wycoff, a meteorologist with Western Mass News. “Generally speaking we’re using the graphics to talk through our stories, but everything we say is ad-libbed. Sometimes you can fumble the words you want to say, and sometimes you may miss a beat, but I think what that allows you to do is have a little off-the-cuff moment, which I think the viewers enjoy.”

6. MOM’S THE AUDIENCE.

Part of a meteorologist’s job is to break down very complicated scientific terminology and phenomena into something the general public can not only stomach, but crave. “The trick is … to approach the weather as if you're telling a story: Who are the main actors? Where is the conflict? What happens next?” explains Bob Henson, a Weather Underground meteorologist. “Along the way, you have the opportunity to do a bit of teaching. Weathercasters are often the only scientists that a member of the public will encounter on a regular basis on TV.”

Wycoff’s method for keeping it simple is to pretend like he’s having a conversation with his mom. “I’d pretend like I was giving her the forecast,” he says. “If my mom could understand it, I felt confident the general audience could as well. Part of that is also not using completely science-y terms that go over your audience’s head.”

7. SOCIAL MEDIA HAS MADE THEIR JOBS MORE DIFFICULT.

Professional meteorologists spend a lot of time debunking bogus forecasts spreading like wildfire across Twitter. “We have a lot of social media meteorologists that don’t have necessarily the background or training to create great forecasts,” Wycoff says. “We have to educate our viewers that they should know the source they’re getting information from.”

“People think it’s as easy as reading a chart,” says Scott Sistek, a meteorologist and weather blogger for KOMO TV in Seattle. “A lot of armchair meteorologists at home can look at a chart and go ok, half an inch of rain. But we take the public front when it’s wrong.”

8. THEY MAKE LIFE-OR-DEATH DECISIONS.

A meteorologist forecasting a hurricane
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People plan their lives around the weather forecast, and when a storm rolls in, locals look to their meteorologist for guidance on what to do. If he or she gets the path of a tornado wrong, or downplays its severity, people’s lives are in danger. “If you miss a severe weather forecast and someone’s out on the ball field and gets stuck, someone could get injured,” says Wycoff. “It is a great responsibility that we have.”

Conversely, England says when things get dangerous, some people are reluctant to listen to a forecaster’s advice because they don’t like being told what to do. He relies on a little bit of psychological maneuvering to get people to take cover. “You suggest, you don’t tell,” he says. “You issue instructions but in a way where they feel like they’re making up their own minds.”

9. DON’T BANK ON THOSE SEVEN-DAY FORECASTS.

“I would say that within three days, meteorologists are about 90 percent accurate,” Wycoff says. “Then at five days we’re at about 60 percent to 75 percent and then after seven days it becomes a bit more wishy-washy.”

10. THEY’RE FRENEMIES.

The competition for viewers is fierce, and local meteorologists are all rivals in the same race. “When you’re in TV, all meteorologists at other competitors are the enemy,” England says. “You’re not good friends with them. They try to steal the shoes off your children and food off your plate. If they get higher ratings, they get more money.”

11. THEY’RE TIRED OF HEARING THE SAME JOKE OVER AND OVER.

“There’s always the running joke: ‘I wish I could be paid a million dollars to be wrong 80 percent of the time,’” Sistek says. “I wanted to have a contest for who can come up with the best weatherman insult, because we need something new! Let’s get creative here.”

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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