Exclusive Interview: Bryan Jerden on Trailer Sound Design
For quite a few years, sound design for trailers has become increasingly creative and interesting. For blockbusters in Hollywood, an imaginative trailer campaign seems to be more and more important and sound is quite often utilized in inspired and inspiring ways.
One of the top sound designers of Hollywood trailers is Bryan Jerden who has worked on prominent movie trailers such as Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises, Harry Potter, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Inception, among many others. Bryan has also done a large amount of game trailers including titles like Hitman, Syndicate and Dragons Dogma. In this interview, he talks about his background, creative methods, the interplay between music and sound and why silence is such an important tool for sound designers.
Designing Sound: How did you get involved in doing sound design for trailers?
Bryan Jerden: My work in the trailer world came as result from working for Tim Gedemer who is now the owner of Source Sound Inc. A little more than 10 years ago I started working with Tim as a sound editor and studio technician. It was a great match for me because I had spent almost 10 years prior to that as a sound engineer and music mixer recording rock bands. Tim is an accomplished guitar player as well as a real music guy so we hit it off in a way I could not have done with someone who was purely a post sound personality.
Right away I was attracted to trailers because I saw it as a mixed skill set. I liked the fact that it involved working directly with music. I loved that it had opportunities for designing sound, that it involved skillful sound editing, working with feature film tracks, dialogue and other disciplines all in the same package.
Sound design became a passion for me, something I just loved to do. When I could I would listen to other sound designers tracks always trying to figure out the different processes. When I was on editing jobs I would always sneak in my own designs just to see if they would stick. If I didn’t have enough time to do my editing job and try sound design, Tim would let me come in and try stuff out on my own and if he like it he would keep it.
In the last several years creating sound design and cutting sound effects for trailers and even video game cinematics have become my life, but with that there is always the inevitable music editorial and dialogue work.
DS: How do you usually get hired for a trailer and how is the workflow – do you have a meeting with the trailer’s director or picture editor to map out the ideas for sound?
BJ: Different trailers from different studios have different protocols. The process of getting feature film trailers out into the public is really a collaborative effort involving everything from movie directors, studio creatives, video editors, picture finishers and a sound team. Pulling a trailer together and being a part of the sound finishing is very much a client service.
It is generally the job of the studios to map out the concepts of the trailer. Once the studio has constructed a cut, I use it as a kind of road map on where to work with the music and how to take it to the theatrical realm.
I have worked in certain situations where it is my job to pick the music and edit it to the final picture, but that usually happens on the video game side.
Overall the processes for accomplishing the trailer soundtrack are very much as they are in the feature film world, just at a smaller scale with a faster turn around.
DS: To me, it seems like sound design for trailers nowadays is often more playful than in feature films. Do you feel that the way sound is utilized in trailers has changed during the years?
BJ: Trailers have become a distinct form of media and really have come quite a long way. Today we have itunes, youtube, websites dedicated to video game trailers, venues like Comicon and E3 and they are all packed with trailers and featurettes and I am constantly amazed on how many hits some trailers get on the web. There are just so many avenues for viewers now. No longer are the days when trailers are just shoved in front of a movie at a low level and mixed in stereo (although that still happens) but with all the other places to experience trailers in full volume, it is no wonder that they have taken on a whole new life. As a result trailers have definitely changed in terms of how much care gets put into them and by what the public expects to see and hear in a good trailer.
DS: How much collaboration do you have with the sound team on the movie you’re doing a trailer for?
BJ: In some instances the feature film audio plays a huge role in the final trailer. Prometheus is a prime example of that. We had the pleasure of using the feature film audio in many of the signature sound effect moments. In that instance you have to be well versed in working with feature film audio and that part of the job comes down to just being a good editor.
Often trailers are constructed without feature film sound effects and you literally have to make everything. One of the big reasons for this is the duration and tempo of trailers. They are normally under 2:30 with lots of picture cuts that are all dictated by the rhythm and tempo of a score or piece of music. Movies are long and have plenty of time to tell their sonic story, but trailers have to get that point across quickly, so the audio in a movie and the audio in a trailer may be totally different.
DS: What’s your usual schedule for a big budget trailer – both sound editing and sound mixing?
BJ: It may seem odd but all trailers big and small have no real standard on a timescale. I have worked on some very big and complex trailers that had to be delivered to the mix stage with in a 24 hour time frame and I have worked on some smaller trailers where I am given a week. In general most trailers can be mixed within a day or two. I am lucky in the sense that most of the mixers that pull these trailers together are the very best in the business. It is extremely important to delivery a highly organized session that is laid out in a way that mixers like to see. Having a background in mixing I work with them closely through out the entire process to ensure everyone is comfortable and that there is zero confusion.
The over all goal to getting a trailer done is to get it approved by those that are creatively in charge, after all it is their trailer and it is my job to make them happy. Sometimes there are quite a few people in the kitchen and it takes time, but ultimately that is the goal.
DS: In the trailers for Prometheus, Inception and The Dark Knight Rises there’s a wonderful use of silence, which makes the trailers much more dynamic and effective. Could you talk about how you approach this part of the sound design?
BJ: The use of silence can be a dramatic effect if it is done well and not used in a cliché fashion. The use of silence is such a strong statement that it really needs to be well thought out and implemented into the trailer conceptually at the picture editorial level. One technique that I think is effective is to include the sound effects where you want the “silent” dramatic moment, but then mix them very low, processing elements through filters and delay. Having certain sound effects and dialogue ring out more prominently in the soundscape is a great way to create a very dramatic feeling.
DS: Do you have any tips or tricks for doing sound for trailers? Do you use the sub or surrounds in special ways to give the trailer special impact?
BJ: I guess the first piece of advice for doing trailers it is to know how to work with the rhythm and pitch of music. Trailers are driven by music and you don’t want your sound effects to clash with it. Try and time your effects so that they land in time with the beat of the music. Also watch out for tonal sound effects that are out of key with the music.
The use of sub is another dimension to the soundscape you cannot ignore. You can use it to add impact, or you can use it to create suspense or even just give body and weight to the other sound effects.
One of the great gifts of the sub is that it does not have an effect on the TASA meters. TASA (Trailer Audio Standards Association) is an audio standard for motion picture trailer volume and it measures sound levels at specific frequencies. The “standard” aims to control the amount of frequencies that are irritating to the audience and can be dangerous if they are played too loudly. One example would be the sound of breaking glass. A sound like this can easily be both annoying and damaging to the ear if it is too loud. Trailers, in an effort to get the attention of the audience, were being mixed louder and louder over the years, so the standard was implemented. Sub frequencies do not have the same effect on the ear as breaking glass frequencies therefore TASA allows them to be mixed louder for longer durations of time.
The LFE (Low Frequency Effect) or sub is a great tool to use. I recommend all aspiring sound designers learn how to use it, design with it and make it an overall part of your workflow.
DS: Trailers seem to be very much about the rhythm, tonality and musicality of the effect sounds. Do you use a more musical approach when doing sound design on a trailer than on a feature film?
BJ: Absolutely! Making your sound effects work with the score is key. Trailers are like a machine all with parts that have to work together. There is the picture and the visual content and it is edited to the rhythm of the music. There is the dialogue, which tells the story and is backed up by the tonality and the feeling that the music provides. There are sound designed music effects, which are meant to add to and enhance the music. Finally the you have the sound effects and they too have to work with the music. Everything has to work with the music and if any one part of it gets in the way of that, the trailer falls apart.
DS: Where do you generally pick up the inspiration for the work you do?
BJ: The main thing that completely inspires me, are people. When you are in the trenches of a project and people are rising to do their best, from the picture finishers, to the supervisors all the way down to every editor.
Other kinds of people inspire me too. These are people who teach, who lead, who create, who work hard and who have a passion that keeps me hooked everyday. People like Tim Gedemer who is amazing to work for. Tim has been a great friend, a great teacher and a very big inspiration to me. Charles Deenen has been a big inspiration and again a great teacher. Paul Menichini, Dave Farmer and Ann Scibelli are all very inspiring people that I am lucky enough to have gotten to know a bit. My friend Michael Babcock has been an inspiration. He is another one who has taught me so much and has really accomplished a lot with his career. Lastly I have to mention Tom Brewer who I learned a lot from in the beginning of my career at Source Sound. Tom continues to be a good friend and an inspiration. All of these people inspire me with their knowledge, dedication and hard work.
DS: What are your favorite trailers, both among your own work and in general?
BJ: One thing I will say about working on favorite trailer projects is that some of them have definitely been video game trailers! Recently I worked on the video game trailer Hitman: Absolution “Saints” and I think that one turned out well. It was is a highly stylized trailer that had some really great visuals and a really cool concept. Video game trailers tend to be more adventurous in terms of their willingness to explore and it often makes for some very cool content.
In the feature trailer world I have worked on some that I am fond of for different reasons. Some of them are for movie franchises that I am proud to be apart of like The Dark Knight and Harry Potter. Those trailers always have amazing music, stunning visuals and lots of opportunity for great sound.
Some movie trailers are great experiences because of the directors associated with the feature films. For instance any time I work on a trailer that is a Tim Burton film I know it is going to be a great experience. His films are consistently creative, well crafted and seem to run very smoothly as long as you bring your best. Another director that comes to mind is Clint Eastwood film. Again his films always have well recorded dialogue, amazing music and great visuals.
Prometheus was great in terms of the opportunities for sound and for the life of trailer campaign. There were quite a few trailers to do through out the life of the campaign including featurette reels, showcase reels and teasers. In many of the trailers for Prometheus we were able to use the feature film sound effects and they were completely inspiring to hear, it was a real honor to have worked on that project.