Ponder this for a minute…
“When I hire people, I look for those who are exceptionally passionate about films. It is crucial they have good taste, you can’t really teach that but you can teach everything else.” – David Coultas / Creative Producer.
Having good taste. That’s not a prerequisite you hear much about at your normal job interview. But then, working in film & entertainment isn’t exactly a normal job.
Today, we’ll be going behind-the-scenes of a busy London post-house with Creative Producer David Coultas and learning a number of important attributes and skills you’ll need to consistently create great work, build a talented team and thrive in a highly competitive industry.
FEP: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
DC: I’m a Creative Producer at LipSync Creative, which is a post-production facility in London providing a complete range of services. LipSync was one of the first companies to work on digital intermediates, which has become an area of expertise. We focus on slightly more niche films such as Great Expectations, Testament of Youth and We Need to Talk About Kevin. We also recently completed two radio campaigns for 20th Century Fox – Alien Covenant and Hidden Figures.
FEP: How did you start your career?
DC: I was a runner at Creative Partnership (London, UK). I found that the easiest way for me to get into the industry was through copy-writing. You could do it in your own time and there was no need for special equipment. I started working on radio commercials, which were around 30 seconds. The next step was to produce them. Work came over from the US as 15 or 30 second advertisements, and I needed to cut them down to 10 or 20 seconds. At the time it was all tape based. You needed to think ahead in terms of creative. What story would you like to tell? We used to have lots of arguments with the editors because you couldn’t easily try things like you can now with digital. You had to be very sure about your choices because it was expensive to fix mistakes!
Later on, I started editing trailers under the guidance of the creative director. Not only did you have to master the creative but you also had to do the same on the technical side. The cuts would go to an optical house to remake the trailer on 35 neg. It was extremely important to make sure that the piece was perfect, you needed to test every single shot. No joints, and the grading, fades and dissolves had to be flawless because you couldn’t ask the optical house to re-do it. It was stressful, tricky and you had to work fast. Now things are completely different. I can hire someone who is 20 years old to edit and they’ll be good.
FEP: Tell us about some of the recent work you’ve done at LipSync.
DC: We recently worked on the trailer for Breadwinner, an animated film by the same studio who did Song of the Sea. It is about a Taliban girl who has to disguise herself as a boy to fend for her family. The biggest challenge was that we had to cut it together but the animation team was still working, so certain sequences weren’t finished. Our aim was to tell a tender, uplifting and moving story while capturing the different styles of animation. You had to be sensitive with the subject. Music was key, we used production music and library music, as we needed that ‘trailer feel’.
Another project we worked on was Una (based on David Harrower’s play ‘Blackbird’), which contains tricky subject matter. We needed to tread lightly but still give the audience a clear picture of the story. The film had lots of good reviews from critics, so we decided to use caption cards.
One of the most common products we make at LipSync are trailers. They are typically the first thing that anyone ever gets done for film markets. The most recent one we did was Steel County for Bankside. Trailers are fun because nothing has been done before, so you have a clean slate.
I also worked on Ethel and Earnest, which was nominated for the Golden Trailer Awards.
FEP: What do you think is the biggest mistake trailer editors can make?
DC: I think the biggest mistake is to try and tell the entire story of the film in the trailer! You need to find what’s most engaging, be that a character, a feeling, or the atmosphere itself and build on it. It can be very difficult, the marketing team might be imposing a strategy on you, or client’s positioning versus your view doesn’t line up. With indie trailers, it’s very important to be open-minded and you have to grab people’s attention in a genuinely interesting way.
I think the biggest mistake is to try and tell the entire story of the film in the trailer! You need to find what’s most engaging, be that a character, a feeling, or the atmosphere itself and build on it.
FEP: What is one high value thing you must always get right and one thing you should never get wrong?
DC: The most important thing you can do is to find the heartbeat of the particular film you are working on. Very often filmmakers can give a clue, it’s good to hear what they think is the main message. The downside can also be that they know their story too well and sometimes need a fresh perspective. Your job is to interpret the message and find a creative structure to hold the material together. There is a fine line with creating a good product and getting people in seats at the theater.
The one thing you should never do is follow the same formula over and over again. You need to make your work different to stand out, especially in the Indie film business. Getting people’s attention can mean the difference between having a film distributed or nothing at all!
FEP: What makes someone a good trailer editor and how do you find them when you are hiring?
DC: Trailer editors are a separate breed! Filmmakers and feature editors can be too deeply involved with the project and sometimes loose sight of its strongest, most basic attributes. Trailer editors are the fresh pair of eyes looking at it from the outside.
They usually start as runners, a lot of them actually come from film school. When I hire people, I look for those who are exceptionally passionate about films. It is crucial they have good taste, you can’t really teach that but you can teach everything else such as how to use software, how to create structure, how to edit scenes, what music choice would work, or how to use punctuation – but you cannot teach natural instinct.
You also need a strong will and confidence. It is a collaborative work environment. I need to be able to let them take the lead, overcome difficulties, and construct their own narratives. It requires a certain drive. Trailer editing is like solving a puzzle! Having to defend all your decisions is not easy an you can find yourself in a very tough spot, when there are a lot of stakeholders involved.
FEP: What are some common mistakes that usually bug you in trailers?
DC: Personally I find that sound design is very important. Understandably, a client would like as much impact as possible, but at what cost? It is not effective if it it feels overdone. Tradition is to use three cues to establish a story but you don’t always need to follow that rule. Look at the recent Logan trailer. There was only one cue that held everything together! Breaking the formula can sometimes be very effective.
Another problem I often come across is TV commercials which are extremely busy. A TV spot is usually very short but it’s one of the most costly forms of advertising. If a client asks you to put 12-15 shots in, I think it’s way too much. I don’t know if it’s even effective! What you need to focus on is the flow of the piece. It is a house of cards – once you start taking things out or putting too much in, the rhythm breaks. Energy and rhythm is hard to quantify when very often the client is contractually bound to ask for certain things such as cast order, but nonetheless essential.
A trailer is basically a 2-minute view of a film which is entirely manufactured. It’s a puppet show where you are not meant to see the strings. There is a difference between a good trailer vs. an interesting film. A good trailer works invisibly. Upon watching a trailer you might say it’s an interesting film, but you won’t mention what a well-crafted trailer it is.
FEP: What is the one thing you should never get wrong?
DC: Putting something in a trailer that gives the client a chance to say no! For example, don’t use a tragedy or death explicitly, it can put people off. Translate that tragedy into something moving and powerful that will want to make the client say yes.
FEP: What is your favorite editorial technique?
DC: Fade into back is quite useful. It allows you to jump around the material more easily and cut things together that may not seem natural at first. It can also fix the punctuation, which is very important. There is rhythm and musicality to trailer making and if you get it wrong your trailer won’t be effective enough. When I cut trailers or create radio spots, I try be as open minded as possible. I like to look at other trailers for inspiration of tone and feel – and to see how other editors may have worked through difficult situations!
There is also something I call ‘the gift’. That’s when a character delivers a really good line that summarizes everything you need. Rule of thumb is to show those things mentioned in the line and naturally introduce elements of the film that way. This often leads to the spare scene situation. As a trailer editor you use that one great line of dialogue which may be perfect but the filmmakers decide to cut it from the final feature. Or sometimes they cut the film differently after you’ve made your trailer and some of the previously used scenes simply don’t make sense anymore.
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This article was written by FEP contributing author, Zsófi Szemerédy. Zsófi studies Marketing & Distribution at the National Film and Television School in London, UK. She also produces the Indie Film Distribution Summit. She’s been an ardent Star Wars, Harry Potter, and sci-fi lover since the age of 5.
You can learn more about trailer music and sound design editing techniques in this free 3-part video training series.