Over the weekend we released the teaser video for Biters & Bleeders, our upcoming feminist horror film. Today on the blog I’ve sat down with our CEO and editor extraordinaire, Raven Angeline Whisnant, to discuss how she put it together. First, watch the teaser for context, and then read on to learn more about making a horror teaser.
Q: How is making a good horror trailer or teaser different from creating a good horror film?
I think teaser/trailer editing might be one of the hardest skills in the biz. There are people who make an entire career out of exclusively editing trailers, and if they’re good they can make a fortune. What makes trailer editing so hard? Well for starters, your trailer is EVERYTHING. It’s one thing that determines if your movie will attract audiences or not. Your movie could be phenomenal, but if your trailer doesn’t attract them to the theater, your brilliant movie won’t actually make any money. On the flip side, how many times have you gone to see a movie that kind of fell flat and you found yourself saying “I felt like all the best moments were in the trailer.”
Being a good editor is really hard, but editing a trailer is not only editing, it’s also psychology, it’s marketing… There’s so much that goes into it and you have to nail it or the whole film flops. You only have seconds to get someone interested enough in your movie to remember it, then pay to go see it, hopefully even bringing a friend or two. When I’m editing a film I know I have lots of time to build emotions, let things unfold, and pace things exactly the way I want. When you’re editing a teaser, that is a luxury you can’t afford. You have about 60 seconds, and even more honestly, you probably have 10-15 seconds, because it’s an ad. So if they don’t like it they’ll just… skip it.
I want to say before we dive into this article that I have been studying trailer/teaser editing for a while, but I have cut less than ten of them in total. I still consider this to be a pretty new area of editing for myself, but I think it’s definitely the next skill I need to master to take my editing career to the next level. So this is by no means expert advice, but I’m happy to share what I’ve learned so far!
Q: What was your inspiration for creating the Biters & Bleeders teaser? Did you collaborate with other members of the Biters team, and if so, what was that process like?
Yes, like a lot of things here, our process is pretty collaborative. Charlie showed me a few horror teasers that she liked, she told me the general vibe she wanted to create, and then we both sort of hummed this song we were made up on the spot that…don’t ask me how… Ari later somehow turned into a real piece of music for the score. I cut all the footage together, experimenting with a few different directions. Once I was happy with it, I sent it to Ari to compose the final version of the song to match the timing of the cuts I had made in the footage. Then John did the color and Nick did the audio. It’s fun! It’s a whole team of people coming together to make this little 55-second piece of art.
Q: What’s your number one tip for creating a horror trailer or teaser?
Think about the curiosity you want to spark in your audience and how to light their curiosity, instead of trying to tell them what the whole story will be. A lot of the time people start a teaser by thinking of the most important parts of the story, and how to get them across. Sort of hard to do in under a minute right? Luckily, you don’t really need to. For us, if we tried to make a version of the teaser that fully conveyed the whole synopsis of the film, it would be about 5 minutes long. (Not to mention it would spoil a LOT of the elements of the film that we want to remain a surprise.) The good news is an audience doesn’t need a full story to have their curiosity piqued; all they need is a question. For Biters, I based the trailer around the question I wanted them to ask which was is Penelope sane, or is she imagining this? Is she the victim, or the bad guy?
As the editor I don’t even need to answer it, I just have to ask the question. I know that our audience for this is mostly feminist horror lovers, so I’ve given them all the information they need (compelling young woman in a psychological horror) and I’ve made a few promises about the types of content. Ex: 1. The trailer is bloody enough that they know it will be a gore-heavy movie. 2. It’s based around one scene with Penelope and Tad having an intense conversation as a couple, so they know it will be a relationship-focused plot. I really haven’t spelled much of anything out from the actual plot. I’m mostly providing hints for the audience to make assumptions about, and I’m trying to make sure that they’re going to make the assumptions I want them to make.
Q: How did you use visuals to create tension in the teaser without giving away the “big” scares?
This has probably been the biggest challenge, and I guess you guys will have to tell me how successful/unsuccessful I was. I think one challenge here is that this is a short film, so while there are some deeply unsettling images, how many of them can I really give away without spoiling big moments? I tried to take the approach here of showing some of the most frightening images, but not providing any context so they won’t be able to put it together. I’m focusing mostly on close-ups, reactions to things out of the frame, or moments of footage that LOOK really scary but you can’t get a lot of information from them. I’m actually a little worried I may have given away TOO much? But I guess we will find out. At the end of the day, I had to ask myself if it felt more important to keep certain things secret or to attract horror fans. I decided to use a lot of the footage I felt on the fence about including, because well…why not? I think even if audiences are able to guess some of the storylines, they’ll still have fun watching the film. But you tell me: did I show too much?
Q: Similarly, how did you use audio to create tension?
Most of the magic here is done by Ari and Ceci. In terms of the music I usually just talk Ari through the project, and I map out where I want the audio to build and fall, and I maybe hum something or sing some sort of made-up tune I’ve been working on as I edit. Then Ari takes all my absolute nonsense rambling and singing, somehow reads my mind, and comes up with something stunning. Cecilia has ideas for the environmental sounds that would never even occur to me, that add so much tension it’s like another lawyer of the script itself. She’s adding the sounds of water dripping, floor boards, things moving out of frame you can’t see but now you know they’re there because you heard them. I mean, I’m just not on their level auditorily but it’s amazing to see, and it makes sense, right? When our brains go into that survival mode one of the first things that happens is you try to listen for clues about what might be happening. Your ears are primed and ready to look for clues that something might be about to happen….
Q: The Biters & Bleeders teaser focuses more on psychological horror rather than the other horror elements present in the movie. What went into that decision, and what was the experience of editing it like?
Truthfully? I could so easily lie, and make up a really deep, thought-provoking answer here, but one of our big goals with this company is to pull back the curtain around indie filmmaking and deglamorize where we can. So the truth is this: Our VFX aren’t finished yet. We needed a teaser ASAP because of a few press opportunities coming our way, but our VFX won’t be finalized for a few more weeks. It was a bit disappointing initially because obviously I really want to show off these stunning VFX in the teaser, what could be more of a tease than that? But that’s just not the reality of our timeline, so Executive Producer Raven had a really hard talk with Editor Raven, and told her she just had to come up with something else.
The good news is that Biters does have a very psychological horror element to it that’s very prominent. So if I can’t see the monsters (because they haven’t been finished) a natural fit feels like the question: are the monsters real, or not? If you can’t see them, maybe it’s because Penelope can’t see them, maybe because they’re imaginary? The good news is that the psychological elements of the film are very scary on their own, so letting “gaslighting” be the main “monster” in the teaser was actually scary enough on its own.
Q: Now, finally, the question we’ve all been waiting for… do you get scared editing horror footage? And how do you deal with that?
Yes, Molly. I do. I get extremely scared, and we both know you’re asking me this because you know damn well that I do, and that it’s extremely funny. So yes. Sometimes I am literally editing with tears in my eyes. I had never watched horror films until this year, and it’s because, frankly, I am easily startled. I’ve come to love the horror genre, but it’s a pool Charlie pushed me into. I’ve been receiving some of the effects from the VFX artists, and sometimes I have to mentally prep myself to download and open the files. What can I say? I am a horror movie coward, and this is the absolute funniest path for my filmmaking career to have taken, but despite all that I am having the most fun I have ever had working on any film. I’ve grown a new appreciation for horror films throughout this whole process, and the editing has definitely helped me understand what people mean when they say “it’s fun in the same way being on a roller coaster is fun.” I do get a small jolt of adrenaline, and as long as I keep it all in context (internal monologue: “It’s just a movie, it’s just a movie, it’s just a movie, it’s not real, YOU made this”) it’s usually okay.
As for the full-length film though, that’s another story. There are some genuinely pretty scary scenes, scenes that people MUCH braver than me have said are actually “pretty horrifying.” There were two scenes in particular that were a little hard for me to work on. I tried to counter this by getting really cozy. It might sound silly but I tried to make my editing spot feel extra safe. I made an extra little comfy spot for myself, I got a little blanket, little snacks, a candle, a nice little drink, and I’d often let myself edit in my PJs. The other thing I tried to do was just keep a check on myself, and if I felt like it was getting too intense, either switch to another scene or take a break from editing altogether. If I started to feel like I was getting too worked up to drop it, I knew I needed to drop it. Then get myself a little present like a coffee or a croissant. Self-care, baby.