The art of making effective game trailers

You’ve watched a lot of game trailers. They’re the heavy cavalry in a new game’s charge to the front lines, the first big strike in the grand campaign to win your heart and mind. Sure, you might wait for reviewers and streamers to get their hands on a new release before you make a purchase, but chances are that your interest was first piqued by a trailer. And at least one of those trailers was likely made by Derek Lieu. Quite possibly single-handedly. 

These 90-second slices of bombast and propaganda tell you what a game is and get you fired up for it, but we rarely think about who makes them, or the minutia of how they're made. Lieu is a freelance trailer editor, creator of trailers for Shadow of Mordor, Firewatch, Dead Cells, Subnautica and many, many more games.

His job is complex and demands many skills. Aside from editing, he routinely acts as performer, camera operator, cinematographer and director. Making game trailers is a complex job that combines technical craft and subtle art.

But what’s a game trailer really trying to do? 

“Game trailers are almost like video tutorials, in a way,” Lieu says. One of the first things he thinks about is showing the game’s principal unique feature as soon as possible to capture your interest, and then to expand on that feature, progressively showing why it’s great. 

“Think about a game tutorial and they start with one thing, like Super Mario Bros.’ jump,” Lieu says. “And then it’s jump to the right, and you gradually expand on that idea. Trailers expand in the same sort of way.” 

So when he starts a project, Lieu plays the game and begins to list its verbs: jumping, climbing, shooting. And then he starts to arrange them into sequences. “Platforming on regular blocks is interesting; platforming on blocks that occasionally have spikes is more interesting; and then platforming on blocks that are exploding is even more interesting, so that should go at the end.”

But viewers generally need to understand context before these features have any punch. That means Lieu’s job is often to explain a game as succinctly as he can before showing what’s special about it. 

Take that Dead Cells trailer. The first shots establish the kind of game it is—a combat-based platformer—before showing the Brutal Update’s new features, first a simple expression of them, then a more complex one, to help you recognise what you’re seeing.

You probably recognise the progressive structure from a thousand trailers, but it’s not the only way to approach editing. And that’s because…

“The thing with trailers is that if your music and art are good then you’re basically fine,” Lieu says. “It’s yours to mess up, because music and art are usually what people latch on to.”

His trailer for The Adventure Pals is all about rhythm, expressed in both image and sound to pull your attention—Lieu describes it as “music video-like”—before it begins to list the game’s core features.

“You should do audio first,” he continues. Lieu often has music to work with before he starts to edit, because it’s so important for providing mood, pacing, and structure. For his Way of the Passive Fist trailer, a brawler game about parrying attacks until your assailants are tired and then fall at the first hit, Lieu first came up with the concept of a sequence in which the player character performs a series of parries, building up to the moment where he performs the killing blow.

The game’s composer then wrote music specifically for the concept, and Lieu was able to share a rough draft with the developer, Household Games, with the final music in place. It looked terrible but the music gave it the same feel as the final thing.

Lieu is good at editing to music. Check Guacamelee 2. Once it establishes story and style, it's all about accentuating the action with the energy of its soundtrack.

Before all the editing can start, Lieu needs to capture footage, which is a craft in itself. He doesn’t use a capture card, simply Nvidia’s ShadowPlay, and uses an Xbox Elite controller because its thumbsticks move smoothly and it features paddles so he can operate the camera while also using the face buttons to jump, reload and whatever else the game demands.

Sometimes games naturally move smoothly, such as Tacoma, which he immediately knew would allow him to perform good tracking shots. Lieu uses a controller because it’s easier to avoid jerky panning than with a mouse. “I’m looking for the deadzones, not for responsiveness but for how smooth I can make the camera movements.” For other games Lieu strongly welcomes access to debug tools, which can give him options to dampen inputs to achieve smooth movement. 

Capturing VR is much more challenging, because camera movement is generally tied to the movements of the headset. For one VR project, Lieu wanted slow pans and tracking shots but the developer was too busy shipping the game to give him camera smoothing.

“I took my Oculus and put it on top of one of my plush toys, which I put on top of a blanket which was on top of a box, and then put that on my Ikea chair, and then I have carpeting in my apartment, and I was pushing it while watching the monitor.” Even with all that, there was still a little jitter in the captured footage, but minor enough that he could stabilise it in Adobe Premiere.

Debug tools can also set camera positions, which Lieu was able to use for his trailer for Ooblets, which is normally seen from an isometric viewpoint. With a freecam he could capture very different, and more striking, shots. 

How Lieu chooses the shots he captures varies wildly. Sometimes he works to a planned outline, as with Way of the Passive First. Sometimes he captures the entire game, as with The Adventure Pals, for which he gathered five hours of footage. “I wasn’t going to be satisfied until I’d seen everything and picked out the parts I liked,” Lieu says.

The edit was daunting, since he knew he had to condense five hours of footage into less than two minutes. He put some podcasts on, got a big glass of water, and reduced it to an hour, then into 16 minutes, and then, finally, into a series of favourite bits, many of which, he admits, he went back to reshoot. “I wonder if was it really necessary to capture five hours if I redo everything, but it usually is.” 

A good trailer should have highs and lows because lows don’t look low unless there’s a high.

Derek Lieu

Lieu says developers shouldn’t get hung up on how long a trailer is, despite many specifically asking for 30 or 90 seconds. ”I always ask if this limit being imposed by a platform holder or an E3 slot? If so, that’s fine, but usually it can be as long as it needs to be.

“The editing is really what determines how long something feels. A good trailer should have highs and lows because lows don’t look low unless there’s a high. Sometimes I’ll watch a trailer and feel bored, and usually that’s happening because the editing of the game footage isn’t showing me authorial intent, there’s no logic to it.”

Trailers need to feel like they’re going somewhere, that shots are there for a reason, whether because they fit into a rhythm or because they tell that tutorial-like story. But even the biggest games can transgress these rules. Lieu transcribed the dialogue from the latest Red Dead Redemption 2 trailer and tried reading it. “It doesn’t make any sense at all. The dialogue didn’t connect, there’s no logic, but you watch because you want to see all the new visuals and the characters. For those kinds of games, bad editing can slip by if people care about the property enough.”

For other games, the trailer editor will help them sing, wielding the narrative magic of the beginning, middle and end, the cinematographer’s eye, and directorial intent, to win you over. Keep all those components in mind next time you sit down for a full day of E3 trailers. And try to guess how many of them came from Derek Lieu.