Trailer editing is an art form unto itself. And editing a trailer for a short film can be especially difficult. In this article I’ll share my approach, philosophy and workflow for short form trailer editing to help you on your creative journey.
I’ve cut many trailers for both short and feature films, and have always found feature trailer editing to be easier. Mainly because there is so much more raw material to work with, which leaves more options to create an arc without giving away the entire story.
With a short film, there is so much less to work with, and the footage itself is usually not as dynamic as a feature. There are fewer key shots to highlight, fewer critical lines of dialogue to shape the story with, and fewer characters/scenes to tease.
Ultimately this creates a unique set of challenges that makes short film trailer editing especially tricky.
Below, I’m sharing a number of short film trailer editing principles that I think will be helpful to your workflow. In some cases, these overlap with advice I might have for feature film trailer editing too, but there are many important distinctions.
Trailer runtime = 1 Minute
While short films can be up to 40 minutes long (technically speaking), the average short film runtime is about 12 – 15 minutes.
If you were to create a theatrical trailer (2min 30sec) from a 12 minute short, you would be using about 20% of the movie in the trailer. Clearly this isn’t optimal for most short films, especially those with even tighter runtimes.
With that in mind, I suggest setting a runtime goal of 1 minute.
It’s way better to tease the audience than to bore them, and a 2+ minute trailer for a short film is usually just too much. Do yourself a favor and set the the runtime at 1 minute to make your life easier and avoid an uphill battle.
As we’ll explore later, I also think even shorter trailers can be effective. But to start, aim for 60 seconds.
Story, mood, execution
Before cutting any trailer, I like to think about these three elements:
Ultimately, the trailer only needs to really deliver on one of these elements, so long as it’s executed well. But ideally, it will deliver a combination of all three.
I like to begin by analyzing the strengths of the short film from each perspective above. And then determine which qualities would best sell the film to the audience.
Is the story the most unique part of the film? Or is it the execution?
Maybe it’s the performances or the camera work or the visual effects.
Every film you make will have a different strong suit. Your job is to figure out what it is and how you can showcase it so that you put your film in the best light.
For a moody art film, this could mean lingering on a single shot for 60 seconds. But for an action thriller, it could mean using 100 cuts to convey the intensity.
Knowing what your film is (and isn’t) is crucial if you want to accurately represent the movie and get your audience on board at the same time.
Sound > visuals
With a clear vision for your trailer, you can now gather the best assets that will highlight the film’s strengths.
There is no one workflow for this, but I can make a suggestion based on what I do –
I watch the entire film (often at 2x speed so I can repeat multiple times), and take note of any audio clips that stand out to me.
At this point I’m not worried about visuals at all.
The goal is simply to find the best dialogue or natural sound, according to the criteria I’ve already laid out.
I’ll usually end up with an array of sound clips that include; dialogue with plot details, dialogue that creates intrigue, and natural sound for breathing room.
Next, I will refine these audio clips, pairing them down one by one. I keep shaving away anything unnecessary, and re-arranging clips until they tell the best story themselves.
Optimally, I’m left with an audio track that sets up the big idea / question / mystery of the story, but without giving too much away.
From there, I drop in a music cue (or two), and make any final audio adjustments to match / sync up with the new music track.
At this point in my workflow, 90% of the heavy lifting has been done. The hard part (crafting the story and mood) has mostly concluded.
Now it’s time for the easy part – adding visuals.
I like to start with the most obvious shots first. For instance, I’ll match all the dialogue with the original visual coverage it was pulled from. And then I’ll bring in the most critical b-roll shots that are essential to the story.
Finally, any gaps in b-roll can be filled by choosing the most alluring visuals from the unused footage, and cutting them into the edit intuitively.
This is an iterative process of course, so there’s always a lot of trial an error involved. But with the sound mostly locked in place, the process tends to move very quickly.
Add title cards
Depending on your film and the needs of the trailer, you may need anywhere from 1 – 6 title cards.
At a minimum, you need to have a closing card. The viewer expects to see the name of the film and info on where they can watch it at the end… So that one is a given.
But in some cases, you will want to add additional title cards throughout the edit to give the story more context.
This is especially helpful when you can’t find the right sound clips to convey an important plot point or story detail. Title cards let you shape the narrative however you like.
That said, I don’t suggest writing them or dropping them into your edit until the picture edit is complete. It’s too easy to use them as a crutch.
Challenge yourself to do the best job you can with just raw audio, footage and music. And then enhance an already good cut with well written (and cleanly designed) titles as needed.
Assess runtime & lock
While I believe 1 minute is generally the best runtime for a short film trailer, you can always go shorter if need be. Personally, I’ll always take a great 30 second trailer over a sluggish 1 minute cut.
Make the best 1 minute version you can. But by all means – if it drags, feels sluggish, or lingers too long on a shot just so you can hit the 60 second mark – cut it down to 45 seconds.
If that’s still too long, don’t be afraid to cut it down to 30 seconds. It may sound really short (and it is), but the runtime does not matter nearly as much as the impression you leave.
Once you experiment with a few different versions, the best trailer will reveal itself… And with that, you can hit export and share it with the world.
When you’re ready, here are 3 ways I can help you:
1. Make a feature film today: The No-Budget Feature Film Blueprint
2. Build your network and sharpen your craft in our community: The Backlot
3. Color grade & polish your footage with my post-production tools on: Cinecolor