It’s been five years (wow, five! It doesn’t feel like that long) since I made my first book trailer, for Give Up the Ghost. So it seems like a good time to make an updated post about how an author might go about making their own trailer, for those of you so inclined. I’ve picked up some new techniques over the years that went into creating the trailer for Earth & Sky (if you want to check out the actual book early, by the way, the book trailer giveaway is still on!):
Concept and script
Obviously it’s a good to have some idea what you’re trying to accomplish before getting into any project, but I think it’s especially important with a trailer, because you’re trying to get maximum impact out of a very short span of time.
The first question I ask myself is, what is the one key feeling from the story that I want people to come away with? For The Way We Fall, it was the sense of catastrophe made personal — that this could happen to you. For Earth & Sky, it was the frightening realization that outside forces could alter the past to set your life on a totally different course, for better or for worse.
Then I have to figure out how to convey that idea as quickly and clearly as possible. (I try to keep the story content of a trailer to about 30 seconds — Earth & Sky‘s is 40 seconds long, but most of the last ten seconds are simply displaying the cover and release info.) I wanted to get across that people from another planet had been studying Earth and manipulating its history, that they weren’t concerned about whether we were hurt by their experiments, and to illustrate the impact this might have on one person’s life. As with everything else I write, I started by jotting down various ideas for content and phrasing, then narrowed that down to the first draft of a script, and revised it after feedback.
For example, in the early version of the script, the first line in the trailer was, “For centuries they’ve been watching us.” A couple of people noted that this could make the visitors sound like benevolent observers rather than uncaring experimenters. Rather than add extra lines trying to clarify this, I changed that line to, “For centuries they’ve been studying us like lab rats.” Only a smidgeon longer, but it manages to capture two of my three main points in one sentence fragment.
To sum up:
1. Pick one key idea or emotion from your story that you want to communicate to the viewer (preferably one that you think will be particularly engaging and/or attention-catching.)
2. Brainstorm ways to express that idea or emotion with as much brevity as possible, adjusting as you get feedback.
One of the biggest jumps I’ve made since working on Ghost‘s trailer is the switch to video. A great book trailer can be made using still photos, but I find video footage makes the trailer feel more active and thus more compelling. The downside is that stock video is more expensive than stock photography, but to me it was worth it to get the look I wanted. To reduce the cost, pick imagery that you can repeat throughout the trailer using different parts of the same clip, instead of using additional clips — as I did with the beginning and end of the Earth & Sky trailer.
Deciding on the imagery was a process that happened simultaneously with the final stages of scripting — mainly because, since I was using stock video footage, I was somewhat limited in what I could convey based on what video was available. Depending on your concept, this might not be as much of an issue. The biggest difficulty with Earth & Sky was that I needed clips featuring the same people doing different but related things to show to possible versions of reality. My original idea for the second of those sequences, for example, was to have the former friends to have become outright bullies, but I couldn’t find a clip showing a teen being bullied with a clip that matched well enough of the same or at least similar looking teens happily hanging out.
While looking for the most fitting clips, don’t be afraid to check a bunch of different sites — there’s some overlap but the major stock photography sites all have some unique footage too — and to experiment with different search terms, to give you the widest range of options to consider. Also remember that most sites allow you to download a free watermarked file that you can play around with before you decide if it fits well enough that you want to pay for it.
There are of course alternatives to using stock footage, though they require a different set of resources or skills. If you have experience with filming or have friends who do, you can record your own footage to fit your story exactly, as in Adrienne Kress’s trailer for The Friday Society. Or, if you’re artistically inclined in other ways, you can animate a trailer like Maggie Stiefvater’s for Shiver. I stick with stock footage mainly because my talents do not lie in those areas.
To sum up:
1. If using stock video, confirm you can find clips that match your script or adjust your script to fit.
2. Use sections from the same clip where you can to reduce the cost.
3. Be flexible in where and how you search for clips to find the best possible matches.
Anyone who’s watched much TV or film knows that music can make a huge emotional impact on the viewer. So picking the right music will allow you to more easily capture the idea or emotion you want to convey in your trailer.
Along with the mood of the music, you should keep in mind the pacing and beats you want to hit. Visualize your ideal trailer — do you want the music to escalate at certain points, or at a certain frequency? You’ll want to listen for this when choosing your song. For example, I knew I wanted a rising sense of urgency and a striking end to the music rather the melody simply petering out.
I still use Shockwave-Sound for trailer music. Its in-depth search function makes it easy to narrow down the type of music you want, and you can download full length versions of most tracks with an audio watermark, so you can try them with your visuals before you pick which one to buy.
The other big change from my previous trailers is that I used a voice-over rather than text in Earth & Sky‘s. I wanted the viewer to be able to focus on the images without having to read words over them at the same time. First I practiced without recording, following along with the edited video and music. Then I recorded the lines with a basic USB microphone and my laptop, going into the quietest room in my house to reduce background noise. It took several attempts for me to get the pacing and the intonation right. Experimenting with putting the emphasis on different words helped a lot.
I could have simply used my own vocal track, but my agent suggested it might be even better with a teen voice-over to fit the novel’s protagonist. I mentioned I was looking for a teen who’d be willing to give it a shot on Facebook and had several people express interest in helping out. So if you want to do a voice-over and don’t like the sound of your own voice, go ahead and reach out! Having already done the lines myself was still a great tool for showing how I wanted the script to sound.
To sum up:
1. Figure out what mood and what type of pacing and beats you want to hear in the music before you search for the right track.
2. Download a few possible samples to try them with your visuals and see which one fits best.
3. If doing a voice-over, experiment with pacing and emphasis to help you find the ideal delivery.
I now use Adobe Premiere for my video editing, and I find it’s pretty intuitive. It isn’t software everyone has available to them, I realize (I have Creative Cloud because I also design my own website and print materials like bookmarks). I’ve worked a little in iMovie and it seems comparable; I also edited the original version of The Way We Fall‘s trailer in Premiere Elements, which is the budget option from Adobe. It had all the functions I needed at the time, but I did find that the Mac version crashed regularly (not sure if the Windows version does too, or if this may be corrected now, as that was in 2011), so YMMV.
Whatever software you use, the internet is your friend. Especially Youtube. There are about a gazillion tutorials you can access for free, many of them very detailed and easy to follow. I watched one basics tutorial on setting up a project before I started, and searched for tutorials on more specific techniques, like how to balance vocals with music and how to create a flashing visual effect, as I went.
My strategy with this particular trailer for Earth & Sky was:
1. Get all my video clips in approximate order.
2. Run them while talking through my script to adjust them to approximately the right length.
3. Try out the music samples I’d downloaded and pick the one I wanted to use.
4. Adjust the length and placement of the clips to fit the beats in the music.
5. Record the voice-over and edit it in with the rest of the video.
6. Add transitions and video and audio effects.
You may find a different process works better for you — perhaps you might want to start with the music and place the clips following that, for example — but I do think it’s best to save the smaller details like transitions and effects for the end, because otherwise you can end up doing work that you have to scrap and do over again because you realize you need a clip to be a half second longer or you’re changing a line in the voice over.
Once you have your trailer approximately in order, it’s a good idea to share it with a few trusted people who can give you feedback, as with your script. I adjusted some of the voice-over pacing and changed one of my video clips after hearing what people thought.
To sum up:
1. Use free tutorials to get comfortable with your chosen editing software and pick up needed techniques.
2. Get the most important pieces (video footage, music, vocals) in place before worrying about details like special effects.
3. Get feedback and adjust the trailer as necessary before sharing widely.
And then you have a trailer ready to share with the world!
I hope that’s been helpful. Feel free to share your own trailer-making tips! And I’d love to hear what some of your favorite book trailers are.