For a microbudget film, your poster and trailer will be your main selling tools. A professional look is important for credibility and a good flow is necessary to keep people watching. After studying hundreds of trailers and talking with people in the business, I've condensed my observations into a few simple rules. Mind you, rules are made to be broken—but only when you know what you're doing. Intelligent rule-breaking is something I approve of, but these will get you started. The big key is that you have to be creative. To that end, I offer some suggestions on creativity, a subject with which I am highly familiar, having taught classes in creativity here and abroad.
Posters used to be paper. They were placed on billboards and street corners and bus stops. Trailers used to be seen as pre-show entertainment in movie theaters. Now they are everywhere on the web. Anybody, anywhere can see your trailer if you promote it well. Your poster will pop up on Google images over and over if you get it out there.
Your movie poster must be designed to accomplish two things: first, to impress potential sales agents and distributors; and second, to sell tickets. These go hand in hand. A good design will accomplish both things—so focus on selling tickets.
To do that you have to make your images compelling and fit the feel and mood of your movie. (See the Sinister poster above for an excellent example of a mood-setting image.) Never promise anything not delivered by your film. And, perhaps most of all, hire a professional to create your poster. They will give it a look and quality you are unlikely to be able to produce on your own. You should, however, be able to critique their work and hone their output to your needs.
To that end, here are a few rules that I suggest you follow.
Know what movie posters look like. They have a general form (by genre) and you will do best to stick with that while contributing your own creativity.
Consider using photos, but pro poster designs usually involve a professional artist who paints the lead characters in an idealized way (see the Maggie poster above). You can achieve something similar at far lower cost by using auto-paint tools in Corel Painter, Adobe Photoshop or any of the sketch programs available for free or a few dollars on iPad or Android.
Here is an example done in Photoshop merely applying the “Cutout” filter.
That said, focus on the story, not the stars. Your key actors are most likely unknowns, so don't spotlight them on the poster as if they were major stars. It's tacky. Don't promise their names on the poster, just in the credits.
Find the main theme of your story and create something evocative based on that. Use bold strokes and keep the title large. Back in the 60s, they went overboard with that. Just use good taste.
There is evidence that the best movie posters today are fairly simple, not cluttered with text. For most movies, few colors and clean lines will serve you well.
Genre is important. Each genre has a general style of poster. I know your movie crosses genres, but if you don't pick one an run with it, you'll confuse audiences. If it's drama with horror, I'd go with horror because it's better defined.
Remember your movie poster will do best when it is art that sells. You want it to grab attention, hold it, and cause the viewer to investigate. If possible, tell them where they can find the movie. Today, that may not be at the local theater. It could be Netflix.
Hire a professional graphic designer to do the job. Seriously. Give them credit and pay them well.
Make your Photoshopping invisible. Here are two really bad supposedly pro movie posters, one for Bangkok Dangerous and one for Heavy Petting. They are so poorly Photoshopped that I can't believe they were released.
This one could have been a good poster …
Make sure your poster helps tell the story. Here's one that is scary to look at. Venus is a heartwarming movie with brilliant performances. This poster will make you think it's about zombies. The photoshop eyes on O'Toole are just wrong.
That's a really bad poster.
Here are my nutshell rules for creating a trailer for your movie.
- Make your trailer honest. Don't overhype or underhype your film. If you rev up audiences and they are let down by the film, you will pay on your next outing.
- Give a concise teaser about your story, or at least a feel for what your movie is about.
- Don't give the story away. Entice, but don't inform to much.
- Make it visually interesting. Here you have to be creative.
- Only mention the most key people in the trailer and save the all the executive producers and other key people for the title sequence in your film.
- Your trailer is a synopsis of your story. Compile some of your best shots. Highlight your intense performance moments and your beautiful golden-hour photography.
- If you have movie reviews from your festival showings, now may be the time to present them.
- Pay attention to genre conventions so that you appeal to the right audience.
- Consider hiring a narrator with a great voice. They are available online.
- Your trailers should usually not exceed 2'30" in length
- Keep it moving. A boring trailer will kill your movie. It needs beat. Hard to explain, but every great trailer moves with it's own rhythmic flow. emphasized by the music and dialog.
- Make your trailer with full cinematic quality indicative of the film itself.
Bridge to Terabithia is a nice-looking trailer. It's just entirely misleading about what the movie is about. It is painted as a light enchanting fantasy, but the actual movie is very dark.
And here is one of my favorite recent trailers. After seeing it I had to go see the movie.
In Filmmaker magazine, Stephen Garrett has written an excellent and detailed overview of the trailer design process.
The Title Sequence
Some people think you should do the bare minimum with your opening titles because they feel the movie should speak for itself. To an extent, I agree. However, if you have the skills—even minimal skills in Adobe After Effects and other film editing software—you can create an interesting title sequence that will pull your audience into the story. I recommend doing that if you can. I also recommend keeping your opening credits very short. People want to get into the movie. In fact, I recommend interspersing opening credits with setup action when possible. The key is to keep them interesting and get past them quickly. Save most of your credits for the end.
Here are my rules for title sequences.
- The order of mentioning people in your opening sequence is not set in stone. Unless you have contractual obligations or union mandates (unlikely in a microbudget film), you can be creative. Many great films open with just the title and save the rest for the end titles. But there is a famous story about George Lucas getting fined a quarter of a million bucks for failing to place director Irving Kershner's credit at the head of The Empire Strikes Back, saving all credits for the end titles. Lucas quit the DGA over this dispute. So be aware of your obligations.
- To keep things moving, you can pop up credits unobtrusively throughout the movie's opening if you like. You can even start them five minutes in and string them slowly out with brief pop-ups through the next 5 minutes.
- The first thing you should display is the film's title, of course. Don't be shy. Use big letters or some interesting convention like handwritten titles or animated titles. Just use good genre sense so that the title goes with the genre.
- Next you should do a brief mention, one at a time, of your main cast. Your stars. Since they are probably unknowns, you don't want to hype them too much. Audiences can tell when you're trying too hard to look bigger than you are. They don't like it. Just keep it professional
- If you have some cameos by name actors, which is fairly common these days, add a credit reading something like “With Freeman Slaughter as Prince Kalifa.” If you have a name actor with a decent part, but not a starring roll, just list them as your final cast member in slightly larger text: “And William Shackmier as Don Diego”
- A very quick mention of your writer, story source (based on…), casting director, composer, production designer, wardrobe, etc., as you feel you need it. You won't have a lot of these.
- If you have more than one role, don't mention yourself. Just give yourself the director's title and be happy with it. Otherwise, you can end up looking very high-school.
- Usually the director's name comes last. You should time it so that the movie really gets going after we see that name. What works nicely is to have the director's name and then a sudden jolt into critical action that leads us into the story.
- You can have dialog over the titles. This is getting fairly popular. You'll even see black screens, or just a tiny light or vague movement beneath lead-in dialog. The videogame Alien Isolation opens with the familiar voice of Ripley over credits with some simple abstract light effects in the background. It is very effective.
- Most of all, be tastefully creative. Don't go crazy. Audiences in general don't react well to over-the-top stuff or pretentious presentations. More about creativity next.
Coming Up with Creative Ideas
If you just sit down and try to be creative, you may very well suffer brain-freeze. Creativity demands a free flow of ideas without filters. Our whole lives, we are taught to filter our thinking processes to keep them as conventional as possible. Some individuals never take well to the process and tend to think “outside the box.” Most of us are at least halfway in the box. That keeps us from coming up with unique and interesting visual ideas. There are several exercises we can all do to flex our creative muscles. My old friend E. Paul Torrance developed the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. He is known as the Father of Modern Creativity. Paul talked with me about stretching our creative capacity by exercising. For example he said: “Okay, Peter, how many uses can you think of for a match box?” My mind froze. All I could think of was to put matches in and to save razor blades in. Paul said he had some people come up with literally hundreds of uses. I felt like a failure and that didn't help. The idea is to relax as much as possible and let your mind run on without filters. Fellow creativity explorer J. P. Gilford came up with the alternate uses test that Paul had challenged me with.
Try this: get comfortable and try to clear your mind by closing your eyes and visualizing a cloud of bright color. Start at blue and let it morph to yellow then orange and red and green. It may take some time, but focus on making that happen. When you can change the cloud color at will, you are ready. Next visualize a paper clip and alternate uses for it. Don't evaluate any of your mental responses, just write them down. For example:
- replace screw in eyeglasses
- make letters with it.
- Clean fingernails with it
- push “reset” button on your computer
- hold papers together
- in-a-pinch earrings
- fuse substitute
- lock pick
- live mouse prod
- for scratching designs into soap
- for making wire sculpture
- puncture tool
- mini tube reamer
- keyboard cleaner (get out the crap around the keys)
See how many you can come up with in exactly two minutes. Notice that some of mine are not very good ideas. They don't really make a lot of sense, but I put them down anyway. This is a form of brainstorming. I recommend you select three or four common household objects, like a marble, a pencil, or that matchbox. See how many alternate uses you can come up with in two minutes. Do this three times over three days. See if your score improves.
Once you have opened up your mind by removing filters, get together with some creative friends and start throwing ideas around. Tell everyone not to pre-judge the ideas, just throw them out there, no matter how stupid they seem.
If all goes well, ideas will begin to flow. Don't write them down. It will interrupt the flow. Instead, record the sessions on your smartphone for later analysis.
What is most likely to happen is you will get a ton of really bad Ideas and a few great ones. Do your filtering at least a day after your brainstorming sessions. Pick out the best ideas and begin refining them into visual statements.
Here is my very fast attempt at putting together a no-cost title sequence. I need about five more hours on it. This was an an hour and fifteen minutes to build the video and an hour and a half to build the audio, which is in places 15 layers deep. I hope you don't notice.
You can brainstorm all by yourself once you've opened up your mind. I started with a film idea concept that came to me after reading about panspermia, the idea that earth may have been seeded with life from alien spores. So I started recording as I thought of visual ideas that might express that. I had crazy ideas that would be too expensive, like an animated sequence, VFX sequences of an asteroid flying through space—well, I could actually do that myself since I have the software, equipment and background. But I wanted to keep it simple and cheap.
Narrowing It Down
I wrote down the criteria I need to use in selecting an opening sequence idea. This same process is used for the trailer, as well. After about 20 ideas were recorded, and after much pondering, I rejected 19 of them and decided to go with an abstract representation of spores evolving and throw in some other microscopic life. How to do this? Animation was out of the question. Too expensive. So I searched and found some public-domain footage of spores and other creepy microscopic life. It was pretty ugly. The spores were kind of boring, so I added a few microscopic clips that have scary, creepy-looking creatures in them. Having After Effects skills, I decided to use these clips as a basis for some AE manipulation.
Try Some Manipulation
I looked at the black-and-white footage without much hope at first. Then I started applying filters and added color. I spent about an hour experimenting with different looks. Eventually I applied Glass Filter, Find Edges, Cycorefx CC MrSmoothie, CC Blobbylize, and Color Balance, along with RE:Vision Twixtor to slow it down. The result is a highly stylized background clip against which I can play some dramatic music and pop up titles as needed. Sure, it could be better. But this is quick and free and serves my purpose. Importantly, it doesn't look too amateurish (in my biased opinion). It was originally in widescreen format, but I did the final render and screwed it up, no time for redo…you get the idea.
However you complete the work, brainstorming alone or with fellow filmmakers is always the place to start. If you know you're not creative by nature, try the exercises. If they don't help, find two or three creative people with vision who will know what looks good and can come up with some original thinking in the design
Well, we're pretty far into microbudget filmmaking and I'm hoping some of you are doing good work. I'd love to see your work when it's ready. Perhaps we can even feature some of the better ones here on my blog. We have a lot of industry readers, so you can get some nice exposure. The next blog is critical. It's about directing. I've been talking with some outstanding microbudget film makers about how they managed to film such wonderful, professional-looking movies—I'm talking movies that are getting theatrical release and film festival kudos.
I know it's hard being a filmmaker, and you often go unrewarded. It is my intent to help you get to where you need to be so you can get serious recognition as a filmmaker on a broad scale. In case you missed them, check out the archive of my earlier posts on filmmaking on a budget.