Article: How I made a trailer (part 1 of 2)

Those posts have been in the queue for a while, but I’ve never had the leisure to properly edit them before putting them online.

Basically, I thought I’d share my experience in making book trailers. It’s limited: I made my first book trailer in 2009 in the leadup to the release of Servant of the Underworld, and reiterated the process a year later when I made the trailer for Harbinger of the Storm. To my surprise, the HoU trailer was highlighted on a number of websites as being attractive, which proves that at least I got something right.

As usual, I’m not saying this is the way to go: just pointing out what worked for me, and what I learnt in the process. I’d be delighted to hear other people’s experience on the subject.

A reminder of the Harbinger trailer (so you can actually see what I’m talking about):

Step 1: Assess Resources
The first thing I did was assess my resources, which boiled down to how much time and money I wanted to devote to this. Because writing is a side-gig and my day job is fairly demanding, I don’t have oodles of time; and as to money–it’s not a matter of how much I’d be prepared to pay, but how much I’d be prepared to pay compared with possible returns. What I have seen still tends to indicate that word of mouth and covers still sell far more books than spiffy things; and in terms of career prospects, going to cons and raising my visibility (through events, FB, twitter, my blog) seemed to me more effective than a book trailer.

I therefore had a small budget (around 100-200 euros); a small amount of time (the equivalent of three full-time days); and finally, a small amount of material and personnel resources, so to say (ie, it was just me and a computer).

This ruled out a number of awesome but costly things, such as trailers with live actors or animation.

First, I did some legwork to find out about trailers; watched a few; and finally decided on the simplest formula of a montage (images or videos plus text).

Step 2: Write the Script
One very important thing I learnt when I wrote the Servant of the Underworld trailer (courtesy of my fabulous agent John Berlyne) was: keep it short. In the age of the Internet, most people’s attention span is very limited. You can extend that attention span if you have flashy effects, but–as you can see above–my budget precluded those. For what was basically a bit of blurb with accompanying text and music, I judged that I had about 1:00-1:10. Of those, about 15-20 seconds needed to be alloted for presenting the book itself, and for the credits. That left less than 1 minute of actual script.

In the first trailer I made, I didn’t yet master the tools of the trade (more on that later), which means I put text and images side by side and wasted space. For the second trailer, I went about it a little more methodically, assuming that I would have images and text sharing the screen, which allowed me a longer and more complex script.

The idea was to have a number of striking sentences, which I could later associate with images. Each sentence would remain onscreen long enough to be read; I estimated that I could have around 10-14 such sequences, with an average screen time between 2 and 6 seconds depending on text length.

FYI, here’s the script for the Harbinger trailer. I left out what I call “the cap” at the end, which tells you what book it is and when you can get it. This is just the 50 seconds of “action”, so to speak.

The Year is Two House, and the Aztec Empire teethers on the edge of extinction.
The Revered Speaker, ruler of the Empire, has died.
The magical protections of the Empire are crumbling.
Any summoning could irreparably damage the world.
The High Priests, protectors of the Empire, are too busy with the political infighting of the succession to keep watch on magical practitioners.
Until star-demons start killing noblemen.
There is a summoner in the palace, and he will not stop until the Aztec Empire is no more.

It’s not prose, since there is a distinct lack of transition between sentences. But that’s OK, because the video itself will manage the transitions. What I did was write down a succession of important plot points and setting points, designed to be as showy and as attractive as possible. It is quite short (fewer than 100 words). And notice how some of the sentences are really long? Those will need to stay on screen longer, or to be cut in two at appropriate moments.

Step 3: Get Pictures
When I had the script above, what I did was tweak it until it was cut into significant units. Basically, I needed my bits of texts on screen to be manageable. Some sentences were just plain too long; some were OK, but I thought they could be cut in two for dramatic effect. This is what I came up with at the end:

The Year is Two House
And the Aztec Empire teethers on the edge of extinction
The Revered Speaker, ruler of the Empire, has died
The magical protections of the Empire are crumbling
Any summoning could irreparably damage the world
The High Priests, protectors of the Empire
Are too busy
With the political infighting of the succession
They do not keep watch on magical practitioners
Until star-demons start killing noblemen
There is a summoner in the palace
And he will not stop
Until the Aztec Empire is no more

The idea is that each line here gets associated with a picture. For instance, the very first line gets a reconstitution of Tenochtitlan, as a way to set the story in space (a complement to the text, which sets it in time). Note that this is my final lineup, after I found the pictures: my original cut-up script was slightly different, but I couldn’t always find the pictures I wanted, so I tweaked a bit, back and forth, until things fitted.

Ideally, for a budget as small as mine, I wanted royalty-free pictures (royalty pictures have you pay a small, or large, amount of money every year for the right to continue using them). I was ready to pay a reasonable amount of money for each picture, but as I wasn’t going to be making money from the trailer (or only very incidentally), I preferred to pay once and for all. Your mileage might vary (and I almost made an exception for a great image, but the royalties they asked were way above my budget, more suitable for a large company than a private author).

There’s a couple nice websites that have royalty-free pictures and videos: most of my stuff came from istockphoto, which has lots and lots of stuff. I also used Getty Images (its images come in rights-managed and royalty-free flavours). In my experience, images from Getty are a lot prettier, but they’re also significantly more expensive. You do get what you pay for, no surprises there.

If you look at the Harbinger trailer, everything came from istockphoto, except the Aztec statue lit by candles, and the door at the end of the dark stairway (the one just before the statue). Those two Getty images cost me twice as much as all the other images and video combined, but they were worth it for the extra atmosphere and mood they brought to the whole endeavour.

You can also search flickr for Creative Commons pictures (they have something called The Commons now, which has nice pictures from public archives). I used flickr for my website and was very happy with it; but my trailer needs were adequately covered by istockphoto and Getty, and so I never came back to it.

Be careful with licenses: most pictures require attribution, and some pictures on flickr can’t be tinkered with (if you intend to run image filters on them through photoshop, for instance).

I had to get really creative at some points: the “star-demon” line was particularly troublesome (there are codexes depicting star-demons, but they are not very scary); in a lot of cases I went more for atmosphere than for an actual representation of the script line. This is most evident in the “High Priests” sequence, which, strictly speaking, is more a palace montage than an actual display of High Priests.

I also made a policy of using one video sequence, as a way to induce a bit of a break from all the still images: in the Harbinger trailer, that sequence is the dust being blown away by the wind (in the Servant trailer, it was the blood running into the furrows of the earth about 3/4 of the way through).

Sizes? I wanted to upload the video to youtube, where the format is around 600 pixels in the largest dimension (around 600×480, or 600×400, depending on the actual video format). So ideally, image formats around 600 pixels in the largest dimensions. When in doubt, I went for slightly larger pictures rather than smaller ones (the “small” size of istockphoto was often enough for my needs). You can get smaller images and resize them, but they’ll be blurry (which might work for some images, but not for those with details); and I’m not sure all licenses allow this kind of manoeuvre.

That’s it for today! Next post: getting music, putting everything together, and dealing with video formats.


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