Welcome to our new series, Between Two Speakers, where we chat with editors who are breaking boundaries in trailer audio and redefining the rules of entertainment advertising. We’re bridging the gap between the artists who craft and compose audio and the editors who use their work to build award-winning, game-changing trailers.
From working on the Fast & Furious franchise to navigating the evolving industry, Dave Rosenthal lays out some serious wisdom when it comes to music and sound design for trailers. When you’ve been doing this as long as Dave, you’ve almost seen it all. Read his interview below or listen to it here.
Would you say there's pride in finding a gem of music or sound design?
Absolutely, that’s definitely the goal. I think music is so important to what we do. I mean, it's probably one of the most important things. Whatever emotion you get from the images or from the dialogue is boosted by music. So everyone wants to have that cool cue or that great piece of music, and other editors will be like, “Oh man, I wish I had done that kind of thing.” So it’s always a great feeling. But also you can’t let the idea of being that person that finds that cue get in the way of being open to other suggestions, and someone else finding that cue for you. Ultimately, whatever works best for the piece is great, because if that piece is great, then the company looks great. It's definitely one of those things where it’s an ego boost, but it's also something you have to keep in check.
Can you talk about your approach to sound design? How do you go about building a sound bed and how have you seen that process change over the years?
Well, now we have so many tools that are at our disposal. Thousands upon thousands of hits and whooshes and all this wonderful stuff that we didn’t have when I started. We were lucky to have a sound guy who could create stuff. Also, back then, a spot solely designed on sound design was very rare. One of the earliest examples I can think of was a great editor who did the trailer for the Island of Dr. Moreau. I still have the stem somewhere, and it’s so great. All this stuff was completely created just for this project. He didn’t have a library of sounds. We had some whooshes and some things like that, but nothing as sophisticated as we have now. Then, when we were working on Absolute Power, the idea was a cool, creepy teaser with some kind of sound design element, to give it a more industrial feel. I remember the editor looking through sound design ideas for jackhammers and pile drivers, things that you could now throw a rock and find right away. It’s changed quite a bit. Again, there are so many tools, which is great but can also be overwhelming.
Do you have any thoughts on how streaming is affecting the gold standard in the industry?
A trailer is a trailer, no matter what. You still have to tell a story. You still have to find what it is about that movie that’s going to hook people. You want it to stand out. Whether it's a Netflix trailer, or even something theatrical, it's all online now. So you can see anything and you can watch it over and over. When it comes to cutting a trailer I don't see it as cutting for streaming or cutting for HBO. It’s about the material. We’re limited with certain companies with what music we can use. Like HBO has a bunch of artists they’d like us to choose from. That obviously changes the bigger the show. For example, Game of Thrones will probably have a bigger budget and can use anything they want, more or less. In that regard, for me personally, that's where things have changed. As far as the process goes, it's still the same. What's our story? What’s our in? Where do we want to end up and how do we cut it together? Usually music plays a big role, or lack of music. Maybe it’s purely sound design. I think the idea of a purely sound designed spot is wonderful. There’s so much you can do with it. It becomes a puzzle where you figure out where all these nifty sounds fit. Are you doing it because it sounds cool or does it help the story? Because you can get carried away.
When you're stuck with limitations, based on the music that you can reach from, what is your creative solution to that?
Stems. If we can break down a piece of music to its intricate pieces, sometimes there are ways to re-cut it and either add something, take it out, and make the mood change a little bit. Also, layering different cues to get that feeling you need and a whole bunch of free sound design if you can find it. Again, there are libraries out there for sound design, sound ideas, and whatnot. Over the years, I just collected tons of various effects here and there and they come in handy. So it's just a matter of building and also knowing when not to do something and when not to use something. Trusting the music you do have. You can always find booms or something like that for cheap or for free to enhance the piece, but you end up having to be really creative with some of that stuff. You have to make it work double time.
Do you feel like audiences are hyper-sensitive to marketing these days? Does this force you to have to be even more unique, or has it always been that way?
It's always been that way. I think with marketing it’s about what's going to get attention. What's going to fill the most seats? You have times where you have a movie that you can only promote a certain way for it to make sense and for it to do justice to that movie—to make it less stuffy or to try and broaden it a little bit. You might have a graphics package that’s more noticeable than white and black text, whether it works with the movie or not. But sometimes, It's more like, “Oh, look, there is a budget for this movie that takes place in one room.” In that case it's two tiered. It's what the editor feels like the movie needs and it's also what the client feels it needs. There are a lot of movies out there. Whether they're good or bad doesn't matter. They have a certain trailer to them that you might have seen 100 times. We've got this opening, some piano music. Then, it slowly builds and it ends up nice and big, and heroic. We've all seen that. Sometimes it's awesome, no matter how many times you've seen it, and sometimes, it’s like, “Well, I've seen that.” There might have been a missed opportunity to do something. But if you weren’t in the editor’s chair, you don't know what the client necessarily wanted. There are certain movies where, no matter what you do with that trailer, the movie is just going to overshadow it all anyways because it's either a sequel or something that people wanted for a long time. So, you can get away with a trailer that doesn't strive to be anything more than what it is.
Would you say there’s less heavy lifting with a well-known franchise film, or is it even more difficult to try a new angle on something like that?
I think it's a combination of both. When you have name recognition for something huge,
you already have a built-in audience. Then the trick is to get people who might not necessarily want to see a movie like that. So you might have great effects, great acting, and just a lot of cool stuff, but if it's a superhero movie, there's a certain audience that’s not going to be turned on by that. So, what can you do to make it seem more interesting? At the end of the day, the built-in audience will carry it. But when you have a smaller movie you’re always pushing to get more butts in the seats. No matter what baggage it has, every movie is its own thing. You really can't rest on laurels, because there's also that chance that people aren’t excited for a sequel. Then it could work against you or you’re on the tenth sequel and you're like, “Wow, I’ve heard this song in every version of this trailer, and when are they going to do something different?” You have to change it up.
What’s your process when you feel like you have to nudge a client in a different direction?
Luckily as an editor, I have a producer who can do that. It depends on your relationship with the client. If you’ve been working with the client for 20 years, you guys obviously know each other and you can say, “I don’t know about that.” But sometimes the client’s boss or the director of the film wants a certain song and you have to suck it up, and use that song. Now, you can give it an overlay, give it a remix, or even mess around with it in certain ways, just to make it sound a little bit different to lead you into another piece of music. So you get the best of both worlds: you pleased the client with what they want, and you're able to break off and do something else.
Do you find yourself creating overlays or trailerizations to appease recent campaign trends?
I think it's a big part of it. Like we were just talking about it's like, “Oh. I've heard this song so many times and I know exactly where it's going to go.” It's still a great song, but if you can augment that with something, then you go. “Wait, this is kinda cool.” It’s why people have been remixing songs forever. Anyway, it's just a new take on something solid. Not to make it better or worse, just a new way.
Are you finding the trend as of late is to lean more towards commercial songs and away from library cues?
It all depends on the project and the budget. If you have two trailers out there in competition from two different vendors, usually the one with the song will beat out the one with the library music. As good as library music is—and these days, there’s phenomenal stuff out there—sometimes it still has the bones of a library cue. There’s much more creative ways to do it, and those are the ones that stand out. What it comes down to is the recognizable factor. The clients really want something that makes people comfortable. They also want it brand new. So they want a recognizable song that no one's ever heard before. That’s what ends up winning the day. Not all the time, but you may have lost out because you didn't use a song. Or your trailer is going forward, but you have to use the music that the competition found.
Do trailers often change hands from one editor to another or one vendor to another?
Not often. Again, I can't speak to the bigger companies where you have so many people, and so many trailers, even for the same movie. In our shop, if someone's working on a trailer, then they have a vacation coming up, someone else will jump in. Sometimes editors need to be pulled in, someone needs to take over, and take it to the finish line. But it's not something we try to do. We’re never like, “Oh, I wish we could get another take on that.” As far as vendors go, it's always different. Some films don't have a budget to have more than one vendor on, then some films have every vendor in town. But it's not uncommon to inherit a trailer from another company. You’ll either put part of yours on, or improve it in a way the client thinks that your shop is better able to.
How do you balance the need to keep the musical spirit of what you've done with the client’s mandate to get certain lines or scenes in there?
It's all a matter of trying to preserve whatever you can. A piece of music that you've cut heavily to can be more difficult. But sometimes, you can recreate important punctuations and that can be great or the client may say, “It doesn't feel like it did before.” Well, there's a different piece of music. You can't recreate certain accents or they stand out too much because the beat of the music is changed. Especially if you go for playing with a heavy percussion beat to something that doesn't have that. Then you're creating your punctuations and they have to fit with the music that's underneath there and you might lose some energy.
Are there certain genres that are more musical for you as an editor than others?
Yeah. A horror movie is much more dependent on sound design, but there's still a musical element to it. Whereas with a comedy, if you're not going to use a contemporary song, then you have to find some piece of music that drives the comedy. That gives a message that you'd want a song to give. Is it a whimsical comedy? Then you'll find some whimsical music, or is it a David Holmes kind of funky comedy? I think with every genre the music is still the most important. The question you have to answer is how musical it is. Some things use a drone or just a very long rise for the entire piece. That can work for drama and it can work for horror, it’s not going to work for comedy unless it’s something you’re being comedic about.
Do you have a genre that you prefer to edit or you find yourself strong in?
I prefer action and thrillers just because that's what I enjoy watching the most. I think comedy is the hardest to do because everyone's sense of humor is different. Again, I don't mind working on that, but my sense of humor is much different than some of the people I work for. So I'll make a joke, and they just won't get it. But there’s also a moment where it’s like, “Wow, that joke is hysterical.” Then 30 versions later it’s like. “Why is it not funny anymore?” So I prefer stuff where you can play with the music more, where you can cut through the music, and that kind of thing is more appropriate.
Is there a trailer that you've done that sticks out in your memory for how the music changed the project?
Sometimes things don't get started until you finally find that piece of music. I remember way back cutting the first Fast & Furious movie. I wasn't a green editor, but this was the biggest movie I had at that point. Back then the libraries were so small, but this wasn't the kind of movie where you wanted to use a library. You wanted to make it stand out, so we had this song from Limp Bizkit, who was actually in the movie for a little bit. So we used his song and we wanted to make it stand out and not just be a B-movie car racing film. My boss at the time suggested using lightning crashes live. We used that and it changed the entire trailer. It made it something more solemn. It wasn't just a B-action movie filled with car crashes and accidents, it had a little more oomph to it. There was something more down to earth about it and that made the characters more real, oddly enough. I remember specifically that was what tipped us over the edge of the competition. I think at the time, the competition might have used something a little more rock and roll, like heavier rock. So, the teaser used a Limp Bizkit cue, which is cool. We did something that instead of being action-oriented had more drama to it. After our trailer was picked to move forward, they ended up changing the music anyways to another Limp Bizkit song that they felt fit the movie more. We still ended up finishing it. But it was kind of like, “Wow. We did this thing that changed the whole feeling of it and you loved it. Now we're going back to where we were before.”
Do you find that when you're cutting action and thriller you’re looking for the hidden emotion that isn't necessarily surface level?
It all depends. In an action movie, more so than a horror movie, you want to find that way to make these characters and the situation more three-dimensional. Whereas, in horror, of course you want that but, everyone knows what a horror movie is for the most part—unless you have something really special. The emotion you're looking for is unease and fear and sometimes you'll do that with sound design. Sometimes you'll make a creepy version of a recognizable song. It’s less about emotions like pulling at the heartstrings or even caring about the characters because you know they're all going to get slaughtered anyways.
What's the greatest needle drop in the history of movie trailers?
Naked Prey by Immediate Music.
Wow. That's the fastest answer.
If you heard it now, you'd be like, “Oh, my God, I can't believe you're using that music” It’s been in so many trailers, but I think The Mummy used it. If not in the trailer, Giaronomo did a TV spot way before I was even there, that used it and it was awesome. That spot was all action and cutting. It didn't really need a story. It was great. I also think it was used, oddly enough, in a movie that I think was called The Passion. It was about a Napoleonic era soldier who gets lost in the desert and befriends a leopard or some sort of wild cat or something like that. The editor used Naked Prey to make it much more exciting than the movie actually was. Which was cool because at that time it was a drama, so why would you use an action cue?
In all of existence, what trailer in general do you feel has the best use of a piece of music?
Die Hard with Ode to Joy and Pulp Fiction, just because the music was from the film. But, it really helped make that trailer what it was. So, I think those are the two that really stand out. I always like to see what they've done with the Star Wars themes and all the different Star Wars movies that come out. Those are neat that they've been able to keep the same thing yet augment it just enough that it still feels special.
About The Speaker
A New York-native, Dave moved out to LA once he graduated college to try and make it as a screenwriter. While he didn’t find his place in the screenwriting business, he decided to follow his passion for editing. In college, he had interned at Giaronomo Productions during his junior year and fallen in love with trailer editing. He landed a job in LA as an Assistant Editor at Creative Domain and worked there for about a year, cutting on the side on nights and weekends. Eventually he was promoted to an Editor, moved over to Craig Murray for a few years, and then decided he wanted to make his way back to New York. He was hired by Giaronomo as an Editor and the rest is history.