This episode was written and produced by Abigail Barr.
Movie trailers have undergone a huge evolution. They’ve gone from those cheesy voice-of-God narrators in the ‘80s and ‘90s, to boojes and bwaas. Professor James Deaville delivers the history of trailers, and Youtuber Craven Moorhaus offers a hilarious takedown of the sounds and dialogue that are common in the modern trailer style. After you hear this episode, you’ll never be able to watch a blockbuster trailer the same way again.
MUSIC FEATURED IN THIS EPISODE
Flare by Chad Lawson
Falling in by Shawn Williams
Furies by Ryan Taubert
Absolute Zero (Instrumental) by Evan Giia
Miracle Caught on Camera (Instrumental) by Icelandia
Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound and hosted by Dallas Taylor.
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This episode was inspired by the following Youtube video:
View Transcript ▶︎
You're listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz. I'm Dallas Taylor.
[SFX: Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon trailer]
When you think about how a “movie trailer” sounds, what comes to mind? Does it sound something like this?
Don LaFontaine: In a land of eternal beauty and infinite mystery, a legend was born...
This is the trailer from the 2000 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In it, you have all of the ingredients of a classic trailer.
Don LaFontaine: The story of a warrior...
Including the legendary voice of Don LaFontaine.
Don LaFontaine: Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
The only thing that could possibly take this trailer over the top is the classic intro “in a world”.
Don Lafontaine: In a world without gas…"
Don Lafontaine: In a world that's powered by violence…
Don Lafontaine: In a world of falafel…
This is the classic recipe for a movie trailer, right? Well, not really. Movie trailers don’t really sound like that anymore. A boomy voice of god is pretty rare nowadays. Trailers now really sound a lot more like this:
[SFX: Cinematic Effects]
And you’ve got this sound that can only be described… as the booj.
You know. The booj.
You usually hear it before or after the more obvious bwah.
And after listening to this episode, you’ll start hearing the booj…
Craven: The booj is a term that, I think we just made it up. It's the term that we use for the subwoofer shaking, low frequency drops that usually happen at about the peak of some catastrophic event in a trailer.
That’s Craven Moorhaus, co-creator of the Auralnauts. It’s a YouTube channel that uses sound to make fun of and re-contextualize films and trailers.
Craven: We like to make sound a little more transparent to the point of creating something comical. But also to highlight how important sound can actually be.
The booj can also be called a bass drop or a sub drop.
Today you can count on the booj occurring in just about every suspenseful action movie trailer.
[SFX: Montage of booj noises]
Craven: To us in the trailer, that's when you're seeing the biggest thing happen.This would be a planet exploding [SFX: Explosion] or a building collapsing [SFX: Building Collapse].
So why do so many trailers use the booj and other super aggressive sound effects?
James: You have to consider that trailers are a form of advertising.
That’s James Deaville, a music professor at Carleton University. His project is called Trailaurality, and it studies the effects of music and sound in movie trailers.
James: As a form of advertising, they’re convincing people of going to movies. Sometimes they’re good. Sometimes they’re not so good, though, and people should be aware of the power of music and sound in trying to persuade them.
The movie industry brings in around 40 billion dollars a year. And that’s in the US alone. It’s a giant, highly competitive business. Every second of sound and music is maxed out to keep your attention.
To really prove how much sound can change the tone of a movie trailer, you don’t have to go very far. Simply searching for a recut trailer on YouTube brings up a ton of amazing fan-made trailers. Some of these are serious, but tons are taking a film in one genre, and making it seem like it came out of another. Take for example this Elf trailer, where it’s turned into a thriller. [SFX: Elf clip] ...and here’s a trailer for Dumb and Dumber, but with the score from the Inception trailer. [SFX: Dumb and Dumber clip] On the other end of the spectrum, here’s a trailer that perfectly parodies 90’s family drama trailers, but it’s for The Shining.
[SFX: Shining trailer- narration]
Narrator: Meet Jack Torrance.
Jack: I’m outlining a new writing project.
Narrator: He’s a writer looking for inspiration.
Jack: Lots of ideas, no good ones,
Narrator: Meet Danny, He’s a kid looking for a dad.
Danny: There’s hardly anybody to play around with here.
Dick Halloran: Naah, whats up doc?
These parodies prove just how critical sound is in a trailer. However, trailers obviously didn’t always sound like this. [SFX: Rewinding Reel] So let’s rewind and go on a journey from the very first trailers to the ones we know today.
[SFX: Old trailer music & film reel]
The very first trailer in a movie theater came in 1913 in New York City. Interestingly, this trailer wasn’t even for a movie. It was for a Broadway musical called The Pleasure Seekers. But, this idea of creating a trailer quickly swept the movie industry. Soon theater projectionists everywhere were adding them to the end of their film reels. Hence the word trailers. They were traditionally at the end of the main feature.
Early on, before sound could be married to picture, trailers were accompanied by music with big lines of text appearing on screen between key scenes. These giant lines of text were the early form of a narrator. It gave all of the necessary plot points. Of course, this was mainly because films didn’t have dialog yet, but even after dialog came to films trailers kinda remained the same. That was because, basically, only one company was making all of the trailers.
James: In the 1920s, even before sound, there was one company that managed to gain a monopoly by signing various studios to create trailers, The National Screen Services, NSS. So by the time sound comes, they're creating most of the trailers.
With the addition of sound in films, the NSS added an iconic element to trailers: voiceover narration.
Narration: Casablanca - city of hope and despair, located in French Morroco in North Africa. The meeting place of adventurers, fugitives, criminals, refugees lured into this danger swept oasis by the hope of escape to the Americas.
But the NSS was formulaic. Their narration, music, and titles all looked and sounded the same.
James: There was a fairly strong uniformity across the boards, and the kind of music that they would use starting in the 30s then tended to be very dramatic, but these were also tracks that would wander from one trailer to another.
Everything changed when the NSS lost its monopoly. This was around mid 50’s when boutique trailer houses started popping up. This new competition pushed trailer editors to get more creative.
Pink Panther Narrator: Pardon me sir, but what are you looking at? Is that by any chance, the picture called The Pink Panther?
James: They would contract out sound and music from independent producers of music. The trailer house, then would license the music they need for the trailer. They would produce the trailer, and then send it to the studio.
Fast forward to the 80s and suddenly the same booming narrator voices are popping up everywhere.
James: There were two voiceover artists who had probably 90% of the market in the 80s and 90s, and in the 2000s, Hal Douglas and Don LaFontaine.
I’m sure you’ll remember these voices. This is Hal Douglas.
Hal Douglas: Men In Black. Protecting the Earth from the scum of the universe.
And this is Don LaFontaine.
Don LaFontaine: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Terminator 2 Judgment Day, this time he's back for good.
These two voices dominated trailers for decades. But from the year 2000 to 2010 these voice of god type of narrators pretty much disappeared. The movie industry had used this formula for so long. It was becoming so obviously cliche to both the public and the film industry. It was Jerry Seinfeld that might have been the one to finally kill off the classic movie trailer voice. The trailer for his 2002 film Comedian basically made fun of the entire trailer industry. It starred none other than Hal Douglas poking fun at himself.
Hal Douglas: In a world where laughter was king -
Producer: Uh, no “In a world,” Jack.
Hal Douglas: What do you mean “No in a world?”
Producer: It’s not that kind of movie.
Hal Douglas: Oh? Ok. In a land that -
Producer: No “In a land” either.
Hal Douglas: In a time
Producer: I don’t think so
Hal Douglas: In a land before time
Producer: It’s about a comedian Jack.
The other thing that killed narration in trailers was the internet. Before YouTube, people only really saw trailers at the movies. They only had one shot. The narration helped audiences get the story in a single viewing. Today we tend to watch trailers multiple times. There’s a lot less need for narration.
So now, because of all of this. The sound effects and music started to take a more prominent place in trailers.
For example, that iconic bwah noise you’ve heard in every trailer since Inception…
[SFX: Inception trailer bwah noise]
It has a ton of variations.
[SFX: Montage of different bwah noises]
Pair these epic effects with the cover of a well-known song, and you’ve got yourself some movie-trailer-magic.
[SFX: Lorde cover, "Everybody Wants to Rule the World"]
Craven: To get people on board with this trailer, we're going to re-contextualize something to get you excited, so oftentimes people will do orchestral or symphonically trailerized versions of a popular song, and usually an unexpected song.
The cover song trope started becoming popular around 2010. Here’s a Belgian girl’s choir cover of Radiohead’s Creep for The Social Network.
[SFX: Choir: I don't care if it hurts..."]
James: That was perhaps the cover song that really started that revolution.
This trailer was so popular that Producers hired the same choir to do covers for many other trailers. Here they are covering Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” that was featured in the Zero Dark Thirty trailer.
[SFX: Choir: "Forever, trust in who we are..."]
And here’s Gang of Youth’s cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” in the Justice League trailer.
[SFX: Gang of Youths: "We can be heroes..."]
...and here’s Destiny’s Child “Survivor” in the Tomb Raider trailer.
[SFX: Destiny Child: "I’m a survivor..."]
James: Now when I hear it, I think, "Not again."
These movie trailer cliches are so common that it’s easy to parody. ...and it’s not just the booj or the bwah or the cover song, but it goes even deeper.
Craven: I think what happened was, we just started noticing certain tropes that were used so ubiquitously that it was becoming funny to us.
Trailers have become so formulaic that Craven and his Auralnauts partner Zak Koonce decided to pack them all into one glorious mega-parody trailer. We’ll deconstruct that trailer as well as teach you how to make your very own booj… after this.
We are in an age of the biggest and boomiest trailers ever. These trailers sometimes try so hard to be so epic that they border on self parody. Craven Moorhaus and Zak Koonce make silly videos using sound on their YouTube channel. They’re collectively known as the Auralnauts.
Craven: In some ways we're trying to make a commentary that does have some comedic value but also gets people possibly interested in what the function of sound is.
In the 80’s and 90’s trailers were dominated by deep gravelly voiced narrators. Now, we’re in a sea of BWAH’s and BOOJes.
Craven: We just were thinking that people were leaning on that sound effect just too hard. But there is no denying how cool it can be when it happens. You know you feel it in your core.
Our brains are wired to have a survival response to strong low frequencies. Low frequency sounds trigger fear responses. Like rumbling thunder [SFX: thunder] or a lion roar [SFX: roar].
But how exactly is this sound made? The fundamental of most boojs are made by some sort of basic wave. A common choice being a sine wave which has no harmonics. Then, you give it a nice smooth pitch down.
[SFX: Sine wave drop low pitched]
But you could also use a square wave [SFX], sawtooth wave [SFX], or a triangle wave [SFX].
But that’s just the bones of booj creation. Sound designers can make them a bit punchier by adding a kick…
[SFX: booj with kick]
… a bit more aggressive by adding distortion…
[SFX: Booj with Distortion]
… or a add a chorus or double it.
[SFX: Big long booj with chorus]
The Booj possibilities are seemingly endless.
[SFX: 3 unique boojes]
Craven and Zak made a YouTube video called “How To Make A Blockbuster Movie Trailer.” In it, they explore all the tropes you tend to see in a trailer. Of course we have the booj, but as they dove deeper into these sonic tropes, they discovered more and more.
Craven: So right out of the gate we start with the single note trope, which feels like a good way to get the viewer on board with something that is possibly foreign to them.
[SFX: Auralnauts Trailer Video]
Craven: So right at eight seconds, we introduce another sound effect beyond the single note which is the low bwah.
[SFX: Auralnauts Trailer Video]
Craven: Usually the low bwah is sort of the call and response to the single note trope.
Dialogue has its tropes too.
Craven: So the thing that we're trying to juggle here, obviously, with adding dialogue is to give the viewer the impression that this template crosses many levels.
[SFX: Movie Hero - "Have you ever wondered about this particular thing?"]
[SFX: Movie Hero - "Because it turns out that that thing is real."]
Craven: At about this point in the trailer, the music that has been following the action thus far in the trailer than blossoms into what is a recognizable cover of a song that typically has not been covered before.
[SFX:"You spin me right round baby right round. Like a record baby right round round round."]
Craven: We landed on “You Spin Me Round" because that song is so hyper ridiculous and awesome. The idea that it would be used as the most dramatic song for a trailer was about as abstractly ridiculous as we could get.
Craven: It just immediately felt perfectly stupid.
Craven: You get people hooked and then you do some sort of tonal shift that introduces a problem or a bad guy or some sort of conflict.
[SFX: Villain- "You didn’t think it’d be that easy did you?"]
Craven: When you have a rhythm, a pulse going, and then it's duh duh duh duh duh. The triplet can be really effective, but for some reason in trailers, that's the hottest thing ever is a triplet locked to visuals snapping in at the same moment.
The climax of the trailer is punctuated by not one, but two boojs.
[SFX: Movie Hero - "I don’t think I’m the one, I don’t think I’m the one that can stop this thing."]
[SFX: Hero’s friend - "You are that person. Now take my hand. RUN!"]
Craven: It's like, why a second booj? That's as ridiculous as it can get.
After the double-booj rise, it’s time to start bringing the trailer home.
[SFX: Auralnauts Trailer Video]
Craven: So of course everything has to build to a head where the music will pause. And usually within that breath, sonically, there's a character bite.
[SFX: Movie Villain - For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction..."]
Craven: We went with a secondary statement from a bad guy.
[SFX: Movie Villain - "I am the reaction."]
Craven: And then give you that last single note smash in the face for the title reveal.
Craven: One final iteration of the chorus.
[SFX: Song playing "Like a record baby right round round round".]
Craven: Which feels even more stupid.
While trailers are boomier than ever before, this certainly isn’t the first time time they’ve all sounded the same. The 30s had many of the same overly dramatic music tracks. The 80s and 90s were dominated by two deep aggressive voices. Today’s trailers have the bwah and the booj. With that in mind, what will future trailers sound like?
James: I'd like to see more original music, and music that doesn't sound like it's taken off of the shelf and reused.
Craven: Usually what happens is somebody does something way outside the box and then people latch onto it and then it just becomes the new thing that people are doing. I can almost imagine some movie trailer producers watching that video and saying… "Okay, these guys just blew it for the next six months for us."
Hrishikesh Hirway: ...and now here’s How to Make a Blockbuster Movie Trailer, by Auralnauts…. in its entirety.
[Play How to Make a Blockbuster Movie Trailer]
Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound, a sound design team dedicated to making boojes and bwahs for television, film, and games. Find out more at defactosound dot com.
This episode was written and produced by Abigail Barr, and me Dallas Taylor, with help from Sam Schneble. It was edited, sound designed and mixed by Jai Berger.
Thanks to our guests, James Deaville and Craven Moorhaus. James’ trailer-dissecting project can be found at Trailaurality.com. Craven Moorhaus is one of the co-creators of Auralnauts, and you can find their channel at Youtube.com/Auralnauts. You can find their fake movie trailer that inspired this episode on our website, 20k dot org. Thanks to Hrishikesh Hirway from the podcast Song Exploder for reading the introduction to the full Auralnauts trailer. Song Exploder is a podcast where musicians take apart their songs, and piece by piece, tell the story of how they were made. I’ve been a huge fan from the very beginning and you should totally go subscribe to it.
The music in this episode was from our friends at Musicbed. Check them out at Musicbed dot com.
Lastly, what’s your favorite booj, bwah, or a reimagined cover song from a trailer? Tell us on twitter, facebook or by writing hi at 20k dot org.
Thanks for listening.