Since the interview took place, he has moved to Los Angeles-based advertising agency Buddha Jones (http://buddha-jones.com/)
The transcript below is an edited version of a thirty minute phone interview conducted by Keith M. Johnston (for Watching the Trailer) on Monday 17th July 2017.
Ric Thomas [RT]: Well, I’d always edited from an early age. My dad had a lot of 8mm film around the place that I used to actually splice together and project, and then I kind of used to crash from camcorder onto a VHS machine… it was kind of linear editing where you couldn’t go back and refine and edit because the tape quality would be so bad. So, I’d kind of always done it, but I never really thought of editing as a career – I studied Theatre at University and it was quite a contemporary course in that there was a lot of video editing and film work involved and actually as I did that I realised that that was what I wanted to focus on, instead of the kind of theatrical side of it – a different theatrical side of it. […] So, then I moved to London and I applied for every runner’s job going, which are very hard to get, and very competitive, and I was lucky enough to know someone at Empire Design, who are a company in London who do film trailers – this was about twelve years ago, in about 2005 – and I got a Tape Op job there, and it really was tapes and it was kind of similar to what I’d been doing earlier in that I was working off Betas and Digi-Betas. And within about six months of Tape Opp-ing there, I became an editor, and I’ve been editing ever since.
KMJ: Was your hope to use trailer production to move into something else?
RT: I had got to the point, before I got the Tape Operators job [where I was considering] making my own films just in order to have something to edit, and I never thought that trailer production was a job, and actually it’s ended up being my ideal job because I like focusing on the short form. It feels like the epitome of editing to me, where you take something that’s kind of four hours, five hours long in assembly and have to create something that’s anywhere down to five seconds long. And so, I never knew there was a job, I think like a lot of people I just assumed it was done by the directors of a film and that they… wouldn’t relinquish the creativity and let someone else work on it. But obviously once you’ve discovered that it’s an industry that exists, then it makes perfect sense – because having that outside, critical eye that we have enables us to take liberties sometimes with the material that are necessary in order to tell a story in a succinct amount of time.
KMJ: Is it still the case that people don’t know about the industry when they come to work in it? Is it the same as when you joined in 2005 or is there more awareness about trailer production as a job?
RT: It’s a bit of a bubble of an industry – it’s easy to feel that nowadays - but it’s becoming more known as an industry. I know that a lot of the vendors over here, and in LA, are kind of increasing their profile and a lot of people seem to know more about it as an industry.
Obviously, post-Cameron Diaz in The Holiday (Nancy Myers, 2006), where she literally was a trailer editor… I have a frame of reference where I can tell people… or they realise, ‘Oh, that’s what you do?’ Historically, people have thought I make trailers for cars… and now I just make trailers for Cars 3 (Brian Fee, 2017)… that wasn’t a prepared soundbite! But starting twelve years ago, that was almost pre-YouTube, so there wasn’t really a great online forum for trailer viewing – when you think back to [Star Wars] Episode 1 (George Lucas, 1999) and people had to go to see prints of a film to see the trailer before it – this was before as much material was out on the internet as there is now… so with the rise of all that I feel it’s becoming more known as a profession. But equally, some people are still surprised when I say what I do.
KMJ: If we think more about the day-to-day aspects of your work, is there a standard process you go through when you’re asked to work on a particular film or does it differ film to film?
RT: It’s definitely unique to the film and the campaign – there are probably a couple of broad areas which a job will fall into depending on the budget, depending on the client, depending on the market that they are going for […] Also, what stage the film is at. I mean, we’ll do a spectrum, you know – we’ll be working on things from day one of shooting, from dailies we’ll be assembling our own feature and working on it from that point; to where we get delivered a finished feature and even finished marketing materials from the U.S. domestic campaign and asked to… repurpose those for international markets.
I’d say that probably, increasingly, the most common is that we get in at that early stage and see dailies because pretty much you know that a vendor somewhere is going to be working on it from that stage and that’s great – it does make it slightly more difficult because I tend to like to lead creatively with the film and sometimes looking at dailies its harder to know what they’re intending the finished product to be. But equally that gives you some kind of creative freedom yourself.
KMJ: Given that, where (for you) do the creative opportunities arise? How do you see your creative role when that material starts coming in?
RT: I see it as always trying to reflect the film, unless the client comes to us specifically and says ‘this film is this way and we really want to go this way – so, you know, this film is darker than we thought, we really need to lighten it up, I think that’s rarer – more, it’s kind of that opportunity to reflect what the filmmaker’s going for… and then you take inspiration from everywhere, you look at what’s out there in the world of art; music is obviously a huge factor in terms of what we do; you look at where the general direction of trailers is going; what things are being produced; what makes you really want to raise your game – and also try and get bums on seats ultimately, something that is going to reflect the film and not reveal too much […] Obviously that’s a massive thing at the moment, people are really reacting to trailers spoiling too much, and I would say that we try not to do that – however, when you have something that’s testing better because it, you know, reveals a plot line or a character or an effects shot then it’s kind of hard to argue with things that test well.
KMJ: Given studios rely on testing to make decisions about what they want a trailer to do, is that a restriction for you or a useful way to hone the trailer creatively?
RT: It’s definitely hugely important – trailer editing is interesting because you kind of have to balance your creativity and what you want to do with a lot of other opinions, and that comes in terms of the client, and other people at the trailer vendor where you work, and the producers, and also then the audiences – and I don’t think that, in that process, any opinion is any more important or any less valid than any other… the company who do the trailer testing put in a huge amount of work, they break it down to the second, to the joke, and in comparison to other materials – it’s a really good way of getting to the core of how the trailer and the film are playing… it’s hugely important.
KMJ: Talking about the specifics of trailer production, how important is music as a cue for you – does it maybe provide a structure, a sense of how the trailer progresses – or are there other cues you look for?
RT: Music is, for me, one of the most important – if not the most important – thing. Given that we are in this job of telling people how to feel or think in a very short space of time, music is one of the quickest routes to that. Again, it would be something that you try to […] lead with the film – but the perfect score track in the film that… kind of builds over five minutes might not be perfect in the short form… I think after twelve years I can kind of listen to a track and within five seconds… know whether it’s going to work and get the right feeling for whatever the project is… I’ve been in meetings with people from record labels and [we] skip through stuff very quickly, listen to about five seconds at the start of the track then skip to the end track to see where it goes…
As you said before, there are clichés and… formulas… within trailers but I think those things happen for a reason… it’s because people can have that kind immediate emotional reaction to something, or feel something, and music [plays] a huge part [in that].
Music’s really important in terms of… where the industry is going… there are kind of tropes that come out every couple of years, and I think that comes from everyone trying to push the boundaries… twelve years ago, you could reliably use the score from another film; I think now that… well, post-internet breakdowns of every second of every trailer it’s harder to kind of use someone else’s score because… that idea you want the music to be as unique as possible so it can be kind of identifiable with that film. Although there have been a couple of recent examples… there was a Man of Steel (Zack Snyder, 20123) trailer that used the Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson, 2001-03) score to great effect… obviously pop covers has been a big thing over the last couple of years and I think as a reaction to that post-Suicide Squad (David Ayer, 2016) a lot of people are kind of leaning on the original songs or slightly trailer-ised versions of original songs… obviously, something that is lyrically apt to the film.
KMJ: Do you think the recent rise of trailers using ‘dark’ cover versions of popular songs is part of that trend?
RT: A lot of it’s a reaction to kind of where other advertising and others, [like] music videos, commercials, short films, and what films themselves are doing… [in terms of] ‘dark’ cover versions, there’s a library company called Pusher who actually have a load of artists and they put together a couple of albums of those kind of ethereal cover versions, and I’m pretty sure that ninety per cent of those cues got synced to something [over the last] few years. There’s also a company called The Hit House, a music library that are very good at, kind of, embellishing existing tracks – they reworked ‘The Bare Necessities’ for The Jungle Book (Jon Favreau, 2016) trailer that came out last year, but they also did a lot of work ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in [the] Suicide Squad trailer, to ‘trailerise’ it slightly more, because you know it’s great using these tracks from the 70s but actually in terms of… modern production and trailer sound design you might need something to just kind of give it a bit more oomph.
KMJ: For you, what does a trailer have to have to be effective? What gets your attention when you’re watching new trailers?
RT: I think, ironically, given what I’m doing, sometimes it’s very difficult to – being a huge film fan – it’s kind of difficult to… differentiate the trailer from the property, so sometimes I’ll (even though I’m a trailer editor) look past the trailer to the film which maybe I’m more able to do. Cutting trailers I’m kind of able to see beyond the trailer… but for me, for a trailer to be effective, I think it has to represent the film as best it can – I think I’m kind of tuned in to good sound design and good use of music; a kind of clear narrative story that kind of hooks me, but teases just enough so that I don’t feel like I’ve seen the entire film. Some things can be very successful at shorter lengths but equally sometimes, I know, the best reaction to anything I’ve heard on Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, 2017), for example, has been when they played… the opening five or ten minutes in IMAX theatres and that played really well – so sometimes you kind of need more time to sit with the film for it to have a greater impact.
Recently… I feel like pretty much every piece I’ve seen for Baby Driver (Edgar Wright, 2017) has been great, over the last couple of months, and I think that… is probably down to how rhythmic and music-focused the film is, and the film kind of indicates it’s Edgar Wright, it’s gonna be stylish, it’s gonna be rhythmic – so every piece for that has been really percussive, and used the great score of that film, [all to really] hit those emotional notes…
Obviously, the Mad Max [Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)] campaign was fantastic as well… there were trailers for that where you were three or four music cues into a trailer… because it’s just such a kind of mind-expanding experience of a film… so there’s that kind of blockbuster thing, and then I think… [there are trailers] that focus on real character moments as well… there was something in the last trailers for Joy (David O. Russell, 2015) where it just kind of stopped out at the end for a great bit of performance from Jennifer Lawrence and actually, I think… increasingly, playing stuff out like that, playing out a scene may be a new trend
There were trailers for the Johnny Depp film… where he was a gangster [Black Mass (Scott Cooper, 2015)] that were really focusing on that kind of performance, so I think sometimes as part of representing the film you don’t want to be too ‘cutty’ with something, you really want to kind of let the film talk for itself… in terms of letting those kind of performances come through…
In terms of my own career, I’ve done a lot of work over the last couple of years for Aardman Animation and their uniquely British sense of humour – is easy [for me] to get in tune with… I was a big fan for years, and so it’s great to be able to work on these films… I think the last couple of trailers I did for them – there was a trailer that I did for The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists (Peter Lord / Jeff Newitt, 2012) where we’d been given the brief that the U.S. domestic, because it was a slightly less known property, were going to really focus on the story and characters and actually for the UK market we had the opportunity to do something kind of more interesting and… high concept, and so I presented a trailer where we’d rewritten the lyrics to ‘What Do We Do With A Drunken Sailor?’ – that’s one of the things that I’m most proud of because it didn’t change much from version 1… sometimes you have those little moments of alchemy where something will – you know, the first time you do it, you’ll… it will seem right. But those are few and far between because [normally] there is a lot of versions and experimentation and things that you’ll try out that don’t work, and paths that you’ll go down… I think experience helps with that, as well. I think now, less than when I started, I’m able to know quite quickly that something isn’t working out…
What we get here [Empire Design] is we’re working a lot for the international market or a lot of the time for the UK market specifically, so we’ll get that situation where… if we come onto a TV campaign for a Universal Pictures film… increasingly we’re coming on at the teaser trailer, regular trailer stage, but a lot of the time… we’ll get material out of domestic where they have five or six trailer companies working on it – and a lot of the time there’ll be a… a great story TV spot that’s come out of the domestic campaign that has been worked on for months and it’s been tested and it’s coming out as “this is the best way to kind of represent the story of this film” – and then oftentimes we’ll have the opportunity then to say, “okay, well, what else can we do? What aspects of the film can we represent in other spots? Characters, story angle, or something interesting musically, is there any kind of… event coming up that we can… target things to… and we’ll work with the clients on that – obviously they’ll have their own ideas and we’ll throw ideas in there as well.
KMJ: As someone who’s been in the industry twelve years, with your experience of how it runs, what do you think have been the biggest changes – to the industry, to how trailers look, how trailers are used – essentially, what are the biggest changes you have seen?
RT: I think that probably one of the biggest changes that happened – before I even started – was the move to non-linear editing, and I think over the last twelve years that’s only been refined more as you’re able to… do more and more – motion graphics are getting great, you can kind of integrate [footage] with motion graphics, and also cutting is getting a lot… slicker. And especially nowadays we do a lot of work on… social, and that boundary between what was traditionally a trailer or a TV spot or a social piece or something for Instagram or Facebook is kind of getting blurred – and that ties in to another point that over the twelve years… the Internet is… a huge thing for us.
YouTube is now predominantly where people see trailers and that affects things in kind of more subtle ways, so for example you get the kind of recent trend for sort of a bumper or a ‘thumb-stopper’ in front of trailers where you’ll have – this has come in in the last… couple of years – where there will be a five second piece at the start of the trailer where you’ll get your kind of money shots out there and you get your cast out there, and you’ll get a title, to… get people’s attention in the first five seconds… and I think, even though they don’t play on every trailer, I do think that is starting to change the way that people are editing. So, I think something that has happened… if you look back twelve years ago, there were a lot more kind of “rug pull” trailers – so, for example, you know, the South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (Trey Parker, 1999) trailer of Eric Cartman, and it’s a kind of 3-D generated line and kind of moving about the place – or Scooby Doo (Raja Gosnell, 2002) teasing Batman, and you see the ears in the window and it turns out to be [Scooby Doo]… those kind of traditional “rug pull” trailers where you might be sitting in a cinema and though it was one thing and it turns out its another, they’re kind of hard to do on the Internet when you’ve clicked ‘see trailer for Batman’…
So, I think actually in response to that, and in terms of things like bumpers and thumb-stoppers, I think people are kind of changing the structure of what we do… it is something that’s gone on for a while… the trailers for Spider-Man: Homecoming (Jon Watts, 2017)… all subscribe to what I call the “Spider-Man trailer structure” which is: you don’t want to start a Spider-Man trailer with Peter Parker at school, you always start a Spider-Man trailer with Spider-Man leaping across the rooftops, and then you cut back to Peter Parker at school – and I think there’s an element of that in terms of material that we’re creating now where you want to kind of hook people in with an interesting performance, or… the title of the film, which was traditionally held back to the end, or… great VFX as early as you can.
And another thing in terms of the Internet changing the face of trailers is that there’s just more material out there… it’s not just two trailers because that’s all the exhibitors are going to be able to fit in front of films at the cinema, it’s… two or three trailers, trailers for individual territories, character pieces, slightly longer things – you have the opportunity to cut something at three minutes long if that works for the film – you’re not tied to the two minutes thirty restriction of showing it theatrically; you can have those [different] versions… in theory, the cost of finishing these things… has come down as well as the technology’s got better…
Coming from a relatively technical background, starting as a Tape Op… [as well as] making websites and things – I like balancing what you can do with a technology with a kind of creativity – and I think trailers do that really well.
KMJ: Ric Thomas, thank you very much.