Sweeping shots of nature. Gently swaying laundry. A butterfly on a swing set. These shots, from the trailer for the upcoming film Man of Steel, seem more befitting a visual tone poem than next summer’s major popcorn flick, which is packed with big names on either side of the camera and all the hype that surrounds any Superman movie. This hype however, and the almost universal familiarity of Superman and his conventions, perhaps necessitated this extreme switch in tactics, especially as, “with the shortcomings of ‘Green Lantern’ and ‘Superman Returns’ still fresh in memory, the studio [Warner Brothers] needs ‘Man of Steel’ to be a success,” and considering the recent call in the industry for gritty antiheroes to fill the squeaky clean costumes of their superhero predecessors (“Comic-Con”).
Indeed, the trailer is a break from convention, not only in terms of the filmmaking techniques, which revolve around emotional montage editing while bypassing any narrative structure or plot exposition, but also in terms of the hero himself. “In the past,” says Zack Snyder, director, “he [Superman] was just a big blue Boy Scout up on a throne. We wanted to make him someone you could sit down at a table with” (“Studios nail”). Gone is the shining community knight vanquishing dark forces, replaced by a scruffy everyman who hitchhikes down isolated, icy roads, never smiles, and never meets a bad guy. And somehow, it works. “Viewers reported goosebumps for the drama-heavy footage” (“Studios nail”). This exploration, then, of what makes the quintessential hero weak, this artsy landscape, editing, and juxtaposition, they’re generating a genuine excitement for this film among both hardcore fans and a heretofore-disinterested general populace. But why? How does this seemingly arbitrary collection of abstract images motivate audiences from disparate backgrounds to see this movie? Answering this question might unlock not only the secret to movie trailers, but also explain the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of emotionally exploitative marketing, the way consumers are motivated to buy, and how humans make their choices. The answer begins with the Golden Circle.
Marketer Simon Sinek developed the Golden Circle concept, popularized through TedTalks, to account for “why some people and organizations are more innovative, more influential, command greater loyalty and are able to repeat their success over and over” (“The Golden”). Essentially, he theorizes that most organizations attempt to market from the outside of this circle in, while the most successful innovators motivate from the emotional inside of the circle, and work their way out to the “what,” almost as an afterthought. He uses Apple as an example: “If Apple were like everyone else, a marketing message from them might sound like this: ‘We make great computers. They’re beautifully designed, simple to use, and user friendly. Wanna buy one?’” According to Sinek, “this is how most of us communicate” (“Simon Sinek: How”). But of those innovative companies that command tremendous loyalty, a different structure emerges, and in Apple’s case it sounds more like this: “In everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo; we believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user friendly. We just happen to make great computers. Wanna buy one?” (Simon Sinek: How”). Sinek’s concept connects to the Man of Steel trailer with startling clarity: This is a movie about a lonely man of the earth, searching for his place and purpose in the world, confused about his choices. And by the way, he’s Superman.
Sinek’s theory can be applied, not only to catchphrases, but to any communication. Take this paper. As mentioned, I believe I can explore not only the secret to movie trailers, but also explain the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of emotionally exploitative marketing, the way consumers are motivated to buy, and how humans make their choices. How? Through these words on this paper, the vehicle to present my thesis, the “what:” that the Man of Steel trailer, in terms of both filmmaking conventions and content choices, works from the inside out to convey, not the plot, but the emotional core of the upcoming movie.
For purpose of experimentation this paper will be structured according to the Golden Circle. After a brief summary of the trailer, I’ll expand on why the filmmaking techniques and story choices in this artifact are important. Second, I’ll explore in detail what some of these techniques and choices are, and speculate how they function on an emotional level. I’ll conclude with a summation of what this trailer, and the story within it, actually represents.
As a picture is worth a thousand words, watch the full clip now:
The trailer opens with expressive, ambiguous shots of waves lapping at a shore, laundry swaying in the breeze, and a stark farmhouse in an isolated landscape, before moving to a dirty grey boat and a man, looking burdened, sitting with his dog. The next shots display the ship plowing through a windy, vast ocean, and the unnamed man hard at work. All these shots have a greyish blue, cold, cast of color, unbroken until we move to shots of the man’s childhood: a picture of him and his father at a science fair, an ambiguous boy playing with the laundry and a dog. These childhood shots are golden and warm. In the cold, blue present, the man fruitlessly attempts to hitchhike, a shot juxtaposed with the mysterious, wide landscape of the farm, and then warm childhoodwith a butterfly perched on a swing set, the boy at play with a dog in foreground, and finally, the faceless boy dons a red cape and the classic Superman pose, for only an instant. The trailer closes with a fully realized, adult Superman rocketing through the sky, breaking the sound barrier.
Obviously, this trailer breaks most established formulas for movie trailers, which generally introduce main characters and relationships, establish primary conflicts and plot, and exploit available eye candy: well-known star power, impressive special effects, and exciting moments of action, romance, or comedy. The trailer is significant because filmmakers chose to bypass these proven means, opting for a completely emotional, instead of cogent, connection with audiences, a connection dependent not on explanation, but association. If almost any of these shots were shown individually, or even in randomized order, the result would not only be less inspiring, but would make no sense. Yet the themes, conflicts, and mood of both the film and hero are felt by viewers, in part by smart exploitation of the perpendicular frame: the line stretching from the screen to the viewer, enabling viewers to interpret the screen through their own emotional and intellectual experiences. The artifact relies heavily on this phenomenon, expecting the audience to catch the reference of the little boy in red cape, for instance. Thus, the trailer, if viewed critically, exemplifies both the mechanisms and effectiveness of the perpendicular frame.
Something happens on a deeper level, however, as the artifact, through various visual techniques, emulates the working of the inner brain life, an intimate connection that enables enhanced modes of identification and catharsis in viewers. Heavy reliance on these visual, often subconscious, associations are often reserved for “art films,” so their use in a major blockbuster trailer significantly establishes the artifact as a demonstration film: a chance taken by producers and financiers that a new innovation in moviemaking will be ultimately profitable. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, for instance, demonstrated that gritty realism in superhero films would resonate with audiences, and Pixar’s Toy Story proved the viability of computer animation. The Man of Steel trailer, perhaps, tests the viability of purely visual, emotional storytelling in the commercial market.
Such experimentation could mark a return to the early days of film, the cinema of attractions: “a cinema that bases itself on…its ability to show something” (Gunning 56). Indeed, “Investigation of the films copyrighted in the US shows that actuality films [unstructured footage of real events, places, and things] outnumbered fictional films until 1906” (56). Even these “fictional” films, however, differed from traditional narrative film, viewing the “scenario” or “tale” as an afterthought, “less as a way of telling stories than as a way of presenting a series of views to an audience, fascinating because of their illusory power” (57). The emphasis was not on story, but spectacle, not on mind, but manipulation. After 1907, traditional narrative filmmaking became predominant, to the dismay of noted film critics of the time, who feared the moving image was losing its most powerful application and method. Narrative filmmaking has prevailed in Hollywood ever since, with the cinema of attractions relegated to indulgent “art” films, so any return to this older school of thought is not only intriguing but highly significant in terms of the next wave of mainstream industry.
Furthermore, this trailer represents, perhaps, a unique middle point between the age-old forces of art vs. money. Perhaps it is exploitation of the ability of art to make money. Regardless, viewers should analyze this exploitation to realize the immense calculation, money, and deliberation behind this artifact, a ring of caution when the music swells and the lonely hero calls from the screen. This emotional tug is fabricated, which does not necessarily make it less powerful, or even less real, but certainly makes it more dangerous.
But how exactly is this emotional tug created? How are the perpendicular frame exploited and the inner brain life emulated? The filmmakers bypass words, bypass plot, and even bypass recognizable character, creating a persuasive art piece in which ideas and associations flow organically through careful technical choices in editing, framing, juxtaposition, placement of symbols, color, and a cyclical, ultimately satisfying, structure.
The editing and pacing of the trailer feel very loose, jumping rapidly between subjects in the same way an individual’s brain jumps between associations – with little warning, to obscure details, and with heavy emotional bias and interpretation. Additionally, the camera is always moving, and not for the conventional purpose of framing subjects in relation to plot significance, but in a quietly roving, restless manner. As subjects are not typically presented this way, the relation of content to editing seems organic and brain-like.
Additionally, cuts seem sporadic, partially owing to the wild jumps in content and time: a cut between a golden field and a freezing hitchhiker is very noticeable, and also echoes typical jumps of mind from present to memory. In addition, the trailer does not employ “invisible cutting,” referring to “the construction of sequences in which space and time appear to be continuous” (Ascher and Pincus 489). Usually, editors “cut on the action” to ensure that “the eye is distracted” and “the cut becomes less noticeable” (489). In this trailer, however, erratic cuts leap between disparate subjects when least expected, and often when a thought or association is only beginning to form. Take, for instance, the aforementioned shot of the boy in a red cape. The frame tilts up, but then suddenly cuts before viewers see a face. Such editing becomes highly visible, giving audiences a chance to appreciate the aesthetic contribution, but also suggesting the subject matter is unstaged and spontaneous, while the shock factor of unexpected cuts leaves viewers better tuned to the imagery.
Furthermore, the framing in this trailer, besides being artistically intriguing, stresses aspects of natural, home, and animal life over the one human character. Whereas the dog, the laundry, and the butterfly are placed in prominent foreground and rendered in great detail, Superman in adult form is placed at relative distance from the camera, while viewers never see the face of child Superman. Humans, then, seem relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things, especially when contrasted with the power and beauty of the natural world. By not over specifying the details of the hero, viewers are more inclined to “become” him. The indistinct child of memory syncs with our own memorialized childhood, and the lonely man in the distance is easier to identify with than a gleaming close up of a superhero.
In this trailer, one of the strongest deviations from classic Hollywood style is the strategic juxtaposition of shots for emotional association. Juxtaposing, for example, an isolated man with a golden butterfly, might imply some sort of metamorphosis, and harkens to “Russian montage theory,” in which “the Soviets, for the most part, looked at the shots themselves as meaningless atoms or building blocks and claimed that meaning first emerges from the images through the juxtaposition of the shots” (Ascher and Pincus 486). Such editing relies almost completely on association, whereby a shot of an eye juxtaposed with rain on a windowpane, for instance, would imply tears. This theory draws strongly from the Kulashov effect. In the early 1920s, Soviet film teacher Lev Kuleshov experimented with contextual inferences, resulting in this demonstration:
Kulashov famously alternated a close shot of a well-known actor’s face with soup, a child in a coffin, and a woman posed on a couch, respectively. The audience, each time, believed the man’s expression changed to represent hunger, sadness, and lust, and commended the remarkable subtlety and effectiveness of his performance. In reality, however, the man’s face never changed; it was in fact the same footage. Such juxtaposition, when successful, conveys the feelings of the character more strongly than through spoken word, and additionally stimulates in viewers the same feelings, since reliance on the perpendicular frame ensures the ability of viewers to arrive at the same conclusions as characters.
Such inferences rely heavily on the symbolic significance of certain subjects, for example the aforementioned butterfly. In addition, a work-hardened boat in the midst of a turbulent ocean denotes feelings of being lost, overwhelmed, and even aimless in troubled times. The dog, predominant throughout the trailer, can represent companionship, loyalty, and wholesomeness (in addition to capturing the affection of dog lovers). Finally, the red cape may be the strongest symbol of all, for until its appearance none but the truest fans recognize whom the film is about. Besides functioning as an icon for Superman, however, the placement of this cape on a childhood memory makes the idea of the hero poignantly vulnerable, reminiscent of silly childish fantasies, something intensely fragile, giving the hero weakness humans identify with.
Speaking of childhood memories, the color tone in this trailer becomes another means of emotional connection. The shots of childhood throughout remain warm, rosy, and peaceful, while the colors of the present are cold and hard in bluish grey tones. Many people remember their childhood in those happy, golden colors; they speak of simpler, safer, and more peaceful times, especially in contrast with the hard decisions and schedule of the now. Not only is this blatant contrast a point of identification, then, but also another means of emulating the biased remembrances and impressions of the brain. The identification can be stretched further; the young caped child playing in a carefree world might evoke subliminal associations with the Superman films and comics seen in former times, times viewers might feel less fraught with economic and political strain, times when good and evil were seen in strict terms, and the good always won. Whether these times ever existed is beside the point; humans almost universally long for “the good old days.” Such thought might be reinforced, in the heartland of America, by the strong farm and land associations of the imagery, as well as the tough, hardworking demeanor of the hero.
In all these instances, the technical aspects of the film seek to deliberately evoke some emotional identification with the ambiguous hero – before viewers even know who he was. Significant to the thesis is the progression of shots in the trailer, which proceeds from abstract, natural images to some shots of a man juxtaposed with images of childhood, isolation, and change, as well as tantalizing hints at what this man might become. But it is not until the last few seconds of the trailer that our hero emerges as the fully realized, dearly familiar hero; it is not until the end that the trailer triumphantly proclaims the “what” of our Golden Circle, that this is a movie about Superman.
This progression is highly significant as it allows viewers first to strongly connect with, and even be on an emotional level, this lonely everyman, thus enabling strong cathartic pleasure when he is revealed to be a powerful hero. Not only is such identification triumphant, but it also implies the adage, however cliché, that anyone can be a hero, and that, since we’ve seen great power does not equate to a lack of problems, that the everyday, conflict-ridden individual might house great power. This powerful emotional message, registered perhaps on a subliminal level, explains what is happening at the story level, but in the real world, what is the real function of this tiny demonstrative trailer?
First, by conveying all of the above through strictly visual means with little to no narrative structure, the artifact exhibits the power of what many might consider an earlier approach to film as a cinema of attractions, or at least a nod to the mechanisms of Soviet montage, historically underemployed in a Hollywood that relies on strong narrative emphasis and dialogic exposition, rendering Superman’s breaking of the sound barrier somewhat pointed. But the breaking of any barrier remains significant. After all, the underlying purpose of this type of film is, simply put, to generate revenue, and for that it needs an audience. As stated earlier, the techniques employed in this trailer, although ultimately effective, remain highly risky, especially when contrasted with available conventional methods. But, how else can producers differentiate between their own product, their own what, and the paucity of summer superhero flicks already saturating the market? The question becomes additionally complicated considering the sheer number of existing Superman films: he is the ultimate epitome of superhero, which, for the hero-saturated audience of today, might translate to ultimate snooze. How better to combat this slow degeneration, than with a trailer that promises something radically different?
According to Joseph Campbell, in discussion of the heroic journey: “Only birth can conquer death – the birth, not of the old thing again, but of something new. Within…the body social, there must be – if we are to experience long survival – a continual recurrence of birth” (16). And that is the product ultimately offered; that is the what: something different, something new. An unconventional demonstration of filmmaking technique, yes, but also the synthesis of a new Superman: fully human and fully hero.
Throughout this project, then, filmmakers mesh the old and the new, drawing from the emotional core of the audience and the visual core of the medium, to create a product innovative enough to carry the Superman torch to a new generation: to create, I suppose, a supertrailer.
Ascher, Steven, and Edward Pincus. The Filmmaker’s Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide for the Digital Age. 3rd ed. New York City: Plume, 2007.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. 2nd ed. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1972.
Dickey, Josh L. “Comic-Con: High stakes in first impressions.” Variety. 12 2012. Web. 1 Dec. 2012.
Dickey, Josh L. “Studios nail Comic-Con pitches: Warners, Legendary, Marvel, Sony impress fans: .” Variety. 15 2012. Web. 1 Dec. 2012.
Gunning, Tom. “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde.” Trans. Array Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative . Thomas Elsaesser. BFI Publishing, 2008.
Sinek, Simon, perf. Simon Sinek: How great leaders inspire action. 2009. Video. 1 Dec 2012. <http://youtu.be/qp0HIF3SfI4>.
Sinek, Simon. “The Golden Circle.” Start With Why. Simon Sinek Inc.. Web. 1 Dec 2012. <http://www.startwithwhy.com/About.aspx?n=1>.
Snyder, Zack. Man Of Steel – Official Teaser Trailer (2013) [HD]. 2012. Video. FilmTrailerZone, Youtube.com. Web. 6 Dec 2012. <http://youtu.be/ll39CAovGrg>.