Saturday, August 6, 2011

Irritating Trailer Cliche Du Jour: Incessant Fade In/Fade Out

In a summer where Hollywood has given us a heavy does of sequels, remakes, reboots and adaptations of already existing material (i.e. every summer...), there have been many people voicing the tired complaint that Hollywood is out of ideas. And as anyone familiar with how Hollywood works knows, the problem is not so much that they're out of ideas (the thousands of un-produced original scripts that get sold to studios every year negate that myth) but that they're worried that original works won't make money. A script might be great, but if doesn't have built-in name-brand recognition how will they know how to sell the movie? In short, Hollywood is timid about marketing.

This being the case, it should come as no surprise that movie marketing is perhaps the most cliche and unoriginal facet of the Hollywood machine. Even movies  that are all quite different from one another will appear to be the exact same movie in promotional materials. For example, take note of some annoying poster trends that others have pointed out, such as "Floating Celebrity Heads", "Just Add Sparks", "Everything Must Be Diagonal" or any other trend that made's list of "16 Movie Poster Traditions That Need To Die In A Fire." And if you haven't seen the "Trailer For Every Academy Award-Winning Movie Ever"yet, you really ought to click on that link.

Similarly, within a particular genre there are certain things every movie trailer does. All comedy trailers have to hit the same beats and feature the same style of editing, and the same with every other genre. And there are some trailer trends that are popular across genres. One such trend in movie trailers right now (actually, its been around awhile but is definitely on the rise) that has really started to irritate me is the constant use of the 'Fade In Fade Out Dissolve'.

This is where the image fades to black and then immediately fades up on the next shot. It can, of course be a slow fade or only a few frames. In most movie trailers your average Fade In Fade Out is around one second (although most contain a mix of fast and slow), which coincidentally happens to be the default length in Final Cut Pro. Need an example of how trailers use this effect? Watch just the first 22 seconds of this trailer of Tailor, Tinker, Soldier, Spy, which features 11 individual fades (there are no fades during the rest of the trailer):

Why do they do this? One reason is it makes not particularly dynamic footage appear more dynamic and exciting. In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy they are trying to grab your attention right off the bat, and this editing technique adds a little pizzaz to some footage of guys sitting around talking.

In traditional film grammar, a fade often signifies the passing of time, and since trailers are editing together footage from throughout a movie, it makes a certain amount of sense that fades would be employed. However, as often as not they're merely there to add excitement. For example, in the trailer for Captain America: The First Avenger, during the reveal of Steve Rogers' Super Serum-enhanced body (at approximately 1:07) a single continuous shot is broken up with three fades, presumably to heighten the drama of this pivotal moment (incidentally, the whole trailer contains 35 individual fades, not counting those on the titles).

Often this technique is used specifically to indicate that something is supposed to have dramatic weight. Comedy trailers use Fades the least of any genre (action and horror movies seem to use it the most), but they employ a fade or two at the requisite dramatic moment. The trailer for Crazy Stupid Love contains just two quick Fade In/Fade Outs (at approximately 1:47), but they are at the exact moment that poignant music fades up and we see images of actors crying and generally emoting. This is brief moment that lets us know that not only will this movie be funny, but will also have heart.

Here's the tally for a few of the trailers in imdb's Featured Trailer gallery:  There Be Dragons has 39 individual fades,  Rise of the Planet of the Apes has 35, Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn has 23 (plus two white Flash Frames, a less common but equally cliche trailer technique), The Thing prequel/reboot has 21, Friends With Benefits has 11, and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows almost restrained with its mere 8 Fades (although it has 18 Flash Frames). The most Fade-happy trailer of late is for the completely unnecessary Spiderman reboot:

That's 54 'Fade In Fade Out's in the first 1:44 of the trailer, an average on one every three seconds. Of course, there's an number of shots that last significantly longer than three seconds, which means that some of then come awfully quickly.

I would not be opposed to Fades if they hadn't become overused and abused. Like so many other things, it has become cliche. For me, once I began noticing the technique every time I saw it used it began to take me out of the moment. I find it distracting.

Once something becomes cliche, it becomes parodied, and then it is off-limits. A few years ago the trailer for Jerry Seinfeld's Comedian parodied the cliches of trailer voice-overs ("In a world..." "One Man has to..." etc), and I honestly don't think I've seen a serious trailer with a voice-over since. Certainly the phrase "In a world..." will be forever unusable.

So Hollywood, if you like Fades so much, lay off them a little. Save them for when you really need them. Because once every trailer becomes a strobe Fade-fest like the Spiderman trailer, even people who aren't obsessive film geeks will begin to notice, and soon someone will produce a parody and the jig will be up. Once you know how the trick is done, the magic is gone.

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