All booming voices and foreshadowing, film trailers are contemporary art. A research group at Carleton analyzes the previews.
In the topsy-turvy world of movie make-believe, where trailers come before the main event, one man is on a mission to unlock their sonic secrets.
Meet James Deaville. He’s a Carleton University musicologist with a fascination for the art and craft of the movie trailer—and especially the ways its largely anonymous practitioners are using sound in this digital age to lure us back to the local Bijou. It’s a project he calls Trailaurality.
Deaville and a trio of student researchers are parsing the often-overlooked soundscapes of what they’ve identified as the seven different genres of movie trailers. Those aural elements include voice-overs, dialogue, vocal timbres, sound effects and music. “It’s something we often experience but don’t take note of,” he says.
So far, the Trailaurality team has analyzed everything from the overly determined voice-over styles in slapstick comedy trailers to the primacy of sound effects in horror promos to the use of catchphrases (“Hasta la vista, baby!”) in actioners.
For Deaville, it’s a logical extension of his broad-ranging interest in 19th- and 20th-century music, which has included studies of Franz Liszt, African-American entertainers in fin-de-siècle Vienna and Nordic composers during the Third Reich. He has also taken on more contemporary subjects, such as the ways music is used in television news. “I’ve always been interested in things beyond the notes,” he says, “in issues that reflect thought and culture.”
Trailers are certainly timely. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first actual movie preview, a silent spiel for an upcoming Chaplin flick at Loews Seventh Avenue Theatre in Harlem. A year earlier, the Loews chain had run a cinematic promo for a Broadway stage production, but this marked the first time one had been used to draw attention to a coming movie attraction. A star was born.
But, of course, moviegoers hadn’t heard nothin’ yet. Sound, except maybe for laughter, coughing and your neighbour’s extemporaneous commentary, didn’t become part of the picture until Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer in 1927.
By the 1930s, exhibitors realized that audiences would be more disposed to sit through a trailer if it was the herald of the evening’s entertainment and not a postscript to it. Trailers—the old name stuck like shoes to a theatre floor—quickly became indispensable to the movie-going experience. And remain so.
In recent times, trailers have shaken their cinematic restraints to become the third most-viewed video content on the internet. Or so it says on the internet.
“Some of my colleagues who do trailer research argue for them as a two-and-a-half-minute art form in and of themselves,” says Deaville.
Join one musicologist’s ongoing trailer journey at trailaurality.com.