Interview: Trailer Editor Joe Hubbard Shares His Music and Sound Design Wisdom

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There’s something sneaky about a great movie trailer. What might at first seem like just an advertisement for a film can quickly become a bite-sized cinematic experience in and of itself, so long as there’s a savvy trailer editor pulling the strings behind the scenes. In truth, the challenge of crafting an effective trailer is a formidable one. Condensing the entire spirit of a film into just a few minutes is no small task, and it’s only by making the most of every tool at their disposal that an editor can hope to pull it off.

Whether you’re an editor looking to make your way into trailers, a filmmaker hoping to take your project’s promotional efforts into your own hands, or just somebody who thinks the inner-workings of a chill-inducing movie trailer are as cool as we do, one of the best first lessons to be learned is that of music and sound design. For some insight into what great trailers sound like, we spoke with trailer editor Joe Hubbard of Rogue Planet, whose impressive resume includes such titles as 6 Underground, Men in Black: International, and Serenity.

Whether it’s choosing the perfect song, layering and EQing your audio just right, or simply figuring out exactly where a nice cinematic “BOOM” will really drive the whole thing home, Joe let loose a wealth of knowledge in our interview with him, and we’re not shy in saying the guy is truly a gold mine.

Condensing the entire mood and feel of a film into a couple of minutes worth of trailer certainly presents some unique challenges. What is it about the right piece of music that can help turn a fragmented view of a movie into a cohesive, emotionally resonant representation of that film?

Well worded question! For me, it’s all about tone. When I’m searching for the “right” song, I’m all about how the tone feels. When I feel like I have a song that has the right tone for what I’m trying to do, then I throw it over picture and see how it feels with the visuals. Sometimes it’s not what I’m expecting, sometimes it’s better that what I was expecting! To me, tone is the foundation of a piece. Trailer editors/producers/creative directors who have shown that they can consistently nail tone are very valuable when competing to win a trailer.

What mistakes have you made or seen in the past regarding music and sound design in trailers that can turn an otherwise well-edited piece into something that doesn’t quite work?

A big thing is EQing. Knowing the basics of how frequencies interact is extremely valuable when you’re trying to stack sound design on top of a song, on top of dialog, on top of practical movie SFX, etc. Frequencies that fight each other can create a lot of distortion if not EQed properly. Even though trailers get professionally mixed at the end, poor EQing could make it so that you never make it that far. For bigger action movies, there are typically a handful of vendors sending the studio a handful of trailers each, trying to “win” the trailer. If I cut something that could win, but the cut is distorting and popping when the client watches it, maybe they favor another vendor’s cut. All because of audio. It’s extremely important to know how to mix and EQ to avoid this type of “damage” to your cut.

Whether you’re working on a trailer for a fast-paced spy thriller or a heavy drama, there’s undoubtedly a lot of different musical choices you could make within the typical scope of styles that fit a certain genre of film. How do you approach finding a piece that doesn’t just ‘work’, but perfectly fits the identity of that specific movie?

By listening to lots and lots and lots of music. By being unafraid to try something completely unexpected. And, by always keeping an open mind. When we were cutting Super Bowl spots for Transformers: The Last Knight, the obvious choice for music would be something super action and sound design based. I mean, this is Transformers and Michael Bay, let’s go balls to the wall! But what we ended up finishing with was an extremely ethereal and mysterious ballad of humming called “Path 3” by Max Richter. Not that it was the most unique idea in the world, but it was extremely unique to that franchise, and, competing in a sea of sound design spots, the beauty and minimalism of this song captured the attention that the others couldn’t.

Outside of music, what are some tricks related to sound effects and soundesign that you like to employ in order to make a trailer pop?

Layering sounds, for sure. Pretty basic, but the correct sweeteners on impact moments are very powerful. There is an art to layering, you have to know a little something about frequency range and EQing, as stated above. But layering properly can make a trailer hit that much harder. Also, utilizing source material sound design when appropriate. For example, while finishing up the final trailer for 6 Underground, we had access to the locked cut of the film. All the sound design in the film was locked, too. This meant that I had a grab bag of world class feature sound design all polished and popping. Pulled as much as I could to pepper into the trailer. It’s not often that you have the locked sound design track of a film you’re working on, but being able to sprinkle that stuff around the trailer gave the trailer more of a feel of the movie, in my opinion.

Having the right pacing is obviously one of the cornerstones of good trailer editing. How do you approach the sort of dance that exists between the visuals and the audio to make sure all of your music and sound effects are sitting in the right place to be as effective as possible?

I like to build up to moments in the trailer. For example, for the Serenity trailer, I knew that the trailer was going to be paced by a fishing rod tick, since that was a device in the film. The entire intro of the piece is designed to meet the point where the ticking starts. So, when cutting, I actually cut the ticking first and then worked back to figure out what was going to get me the most impact on the first tick. Realized that it was all about slow, practical sound design up front, a slight addition of intense elements like rises to build, build, build… then it all works up until the first TICK! Then the sound all drops out except for the tick. Made that tick feel very important and hopefully grabbed the audience’s attention.

If you were to give one piece of advice to an editor looking to get into trailers or an independent filmmaker looking to create a great trailer for their own project, what would that be?

Cut, cut, cut! When I was starting out, I took the movie No Country For Old Men and cut my own trailer for it. Picked that movie because there is no score, so you have all the dialog available. I know an editor who used to rip movies on his computer, separate the center channel audio (which typically is dialog), and now he had an entire movie with clean dialog to cut with. I’ve known countless editors, some of them top editors in the entire business, that have been found on YouTube, simply because they cut all the time and post their work. If you’re looking to get into trailers, cut as much as you can, send your work to as many shops as you can, and then keep on cutting. Because as an editor, if you do make it into trailers, that’s what life ends up being anyway 🙂

Can you name a few of your current favorite composers/producers that you’re working with at the moment and why you connect to their sound?

Yair Albeg Wein is my guy. We share a similar approach to the creative process and have a great working relationship. There is a certain organic quality to his sound that is just very unique to me, it jumps out in a world of library music that sometimes all sounds the same. We’ve been lucky enough to knock out some big trailers together – AlitaMen In Black: International6 Underground, etc. And I’m sure we have many more coming!

We’re super grateful that Joe was able to take a little time away from cutting trailers for some of the biggest movies in the world to have a chat with us, and, hopefully, you’ve got a few nuggets to take away. If you’re feeling inspired to study some of the greats, head over to Rogue Planet’s website to check out some more work from Joe and his colleagues. And, when you’re ready to amp up your own trailers with some more standout music like Yair’s, head over to jambox.io for the best royalty-free music an affordable monthly subscription can buy.

Happy cutting.

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