How to Edit a Trailer: Breakdown

It’s your first day at a Vendor and you’re about to start a new project.  After the tour of the bathroom, kitchen and Pay Lady.  They give you access to the new Marvel movie and tell you to “break it down” and they’ll be back later.

What does it mean?  What do you do?  

Breaking down a movie is the process of dissecting it, into easily manageable digestible chunks.  It involves: identifying shots, jokes and moments; selecting lines, non sequiturs, and exclamations; and getting an overall feel for the movie.

Once a movie is broken down it allows you to do a few things quickly and efficiently.  

  • If on Fiber or have a Producer in your Bay, you can quickly and easily go to scenes, moments, and jokes.

  • Quickly and easily find lines and scan lines for options.  

  • You can quickly present shot options.

  • Present the Source Material in a new way allowing more creativity flow of ideas.

The last point is the most important.  The real point of breaking down a movie is to start your creative engine and get you in the proper frame of mind.  As you begin to categorize your project into bins, folders, and strings outs in your Project, you’ll also be creating bins and folders in your mind.  Forcing you to familiarize yourself with the material, file and group the source material in your head giving you the beginning to see what’s creatively possible, ideas to be explored and sometimes even a creative break though!

You’ll have suggestions available to your producer, ideas to your creative Creative Director and other editors working on the movie.

How to do you actually do it?  What do you do?  Well, a lot depends on how much time you have.



If you’re working on a theatrical movie or a TV Show and your Creative D or Producer expects to see a rough framework skeleton for a spot or polished cut at the end of day.  You really only have time to watch the movie or TV Show once, so just use locators.  No time for selects character/id sequence (more on that later) .  As you watch the movie just put a color locator on a shot, scene, joke or moment.

Depending on what exactly you’re trying to highlight, will determine the color of the locator

Green - Is the beginning of a Scene

Red - Sub-Ccene

Bule - Shot

Yellow - Joke or Moment

If I producer comes in or if on a fiber and they want to go to a certain scene, or see certain moments, you can bounce between different scenes and go directly to moment without scrolling.  Scrolling makes it look like you’re not familiar with the movie.  If your scrolling through the footage instead of pointing at the different locator headings, not only will you give people a headache but it’ll look like you don’t know anything.  Creating and labeling locators allows you to scan with your eyes throught he different labels to go directly to the moment or scene in question.  You’ll look like a Pro  

I might do a Selects Sequence of scope-y wide shots.  And maybe do pulls of a few great lines or non sequiturs, if there’s a time.  But usually this is enough for a quick turn around.

Using Locators allows me to watch it once and be ready to go.  For a 2 hour movie you should be able to knock this out in 3-4 hours and be ready to cut, be part of a discussion and dig in a bit.  You can still go directly to scenes, offer up shots or character ID’s and go to specific jokes fairly quickly.

(Maybe a 2 parter)


Watch the movie once for tone, mood and overall theme.  Maybe jot down some things that stood out.  But really just try and enjoy it.  Try to get  feel for the themes, mood and pacing of the movie.

On the second viewing is where all the work comes in.  As you watch do the following:

Put Locators on Scenes - Mark the movie with locators, as if you only had a Half Day, but only for mark scenes and moments.  For shots, we’ll do something different, Select Sequences.  Use the same color scheme as above

Green - Is the beginning of a Scene

Red - Sub Scene

Yellow - Joke or Moment

Create Select Sequences - These are long sequences of back-to-back shots.  I’ll create one sequence for each of the main characters, one sequence of all the wide scenic scopy shots, one sequence for all the action shots and one sequence for the beauty abstract shots.  

For example, if I was breaking down Star Wars, as I watch the movie when I come across a great shot of Luke, I’ll create and add it to a Luke Seq, and if I see a great shot of Han Solo I’ll create and add that shot to a Han Seq.  If I see another shot of Luke, I’ll add that to the Luke Seq.   At the end of the movie, I’ll have a sequence of back-to-back shots of only Luke, another separate seq of just Han Solo, etc.

This way I can quickly scan through all the shots when looking for a character ID shots.  Or when building a montage I can flip through my different Selects Sequences to fill it out.  If I wanted to start my montage on Wide shots I can just quickly scroll or scan through my Wide Selects, then I can go through my character ID’s to find a shot of someone looking at the Wide.  Then break it up with an action shot.

Not only should you create Character/ ID Selects but you should also create Beauty Abstract Selects, which you can play and watch down for tone and get a great visual feel.  Another great benefit of Beauty Abstract Selects is you can quickly see if a particular cue works by cutting a Cue or Song underneath the Beauty Abstract Selects to see if it’s a good fit.  Or you can play the Beauty Abstract Selects on your monitor as your producer plays the song off of his laptop.  The point is you play the cue as you look at the visual to see if it’s a fit.

This is really powerful technique used by Master Mark Woollen.  He said he’ll watch the entire movie without sound.   Or do the reverse pull out all the sound from the movie and just watch the shots.  It’s a great way to get inspired, kick off the brainstorming process and build a cut.

For Audio, I’ll would also do the following:

Subclips Audio LInes - Also, as I watch the movie, I’ll also pull great S.O.T’s, Bites, or Lines.  I’ll subclip each bite, line or non sequitor and label it.

Darth - I am your Father!

When pulling lines I look for anything that’ll explain the story, some log line.

Birdman 1st Trailer -  “How did we end up here in this dump.  You’re a movie star remember”.

Guardians of the Galaxy - “Are you telling me the fate of 12 billion people are in the hands of these criminals.”  

I’m also pulling lines that progress the story.  Lines that set up or explain characters.  

Non sequitors and exclamations to accentuate jokes.

Or Introduction Lines - “Hello!”.  “I!...HAVE!...ARRIVED!”

Don’t forget the SFX.  A lot of a movie’s sound design was specifically designed for that particular movie.  It’s original.  Unique.  Identifying.  Plus it’s free!


Putting it all together.  Locators for quick Organization and quickly moving around the material for producers.  Selects Sequences for Visual Organization, emotional tone of the movie and test Music Cues.  Audio Pulls (Subclipping) for Audio Organization and Sound Design.


As you watch starting put locators, pull audio bites and build select sequences.  You can do it in 1 pass or multiple passes.  Get to know you movie.  Create.