Bwooooom. That rumbling bass-drop noise isn’t in every movie trailer — Beauty and the Beast does just fine without it — but it sure seems like it. The trailer for John Wick: Chapter 2 uses the drop. So does the Power Rangers trailer. Even the trailer for the Holocaust drama The Zookeeper’s Wife can’t resist. The sound is so common in movie trailers that CinemaRaven, a video-production company, made a mocking supercut about the trope.
But trailer creators have no plans to pull back on the bass. “These things exist because they’re always expected,” says Jez Collin, owner of Hi-Finesse Music and Sound, which creates sound and music for the biggest movie previews, including The Avengers, Dark Knight Rises, and Guardians of the Galaxy. “It’s like asking a band to take out the snare drum — why would you do that?”
The bass drop, or bass bend, is a variation on the drop sound common for decades in electronic-dance music like dubstep and, earlier, drum ’n’ bass. It’s hard to pinpoint the first time a trailer used the drop, but Reddit’s best guess is 2006’s Transformers preview. In that clip, the drop is a transition from an explosion to a piece of weighty dialogue, which is traditionally how trailers use it. “It makes something important in a subtle way,” says Adam Rosenblatt, executive creative director for mOcean, an L.A. production company that specializes in trailers. “It’s the old-school idea of a record scratch — the bass bend takes you from something [big], slows it down and makes it something else.”
Even more than Hollywood itself, movie trailers are a copycat business. Whenever something works, like the horn blast (or “Bwah,” as the pros call it) in the Inception trailer, it starts to appear everywhere. In the case of the bass drop, editors have sliced and diced the simple sound in numerous different ways, changing its context and immediacy. Some trailers use the warble (or wobble) bass drop, which chops up the bwooooommm into a sort of woob-woob-woob-woob. The Power Rangers trailer uses the effect seemingly for the heck of it, tossing it in between one bit of dialogue and another bit of dialogue. “I’m getting pretty tired of it. I personally don’t use it,” says Nick Temple, editor and owner of Wild Card, a top trailer company that made the Girl on the Train preview and the teaser for the upcoming Blade Runner 2049. “[A sound in a trailer] can be done over and over again, but there’s a finite time [when] this sound or style sort of jumps the shark.”
In a way, the trailer-sound industry is built for repetition. Editors at multiple companies receive regular new sounds from vendors and groups of music supervisors, such as Megatrax, containing old and new noise snippets. At the same time, Hollywood studios often send new films to four or five trailer companies that compete for bids. It’s easy for stressed-out editors to reach for the same old sound, or even a familiar piece of music, if it works. “The competition is fierce,” Rosenblatt says. “There are multiple companies out there that specialize in sound design for trailers: ‘Here’s the new sound design for horror, action-adventure, drama.’ The editors consistently sift through and pore over and pick things that speak to them.”
The bass drop is hardly the only repeating trailer sound. There’s the rise, or riser, a sort of steady increasing pitch that, as Collin says, “symbolizes we’re coming to the end of things.” It can sound like a jet taking off or give a more generalized electronic ambience — it’s in 2011’s Avengers trailer and, more briefly, in last year’s The Girl on the Train preview. After hearing the sound in four trailers in a row, Wild Card’s Temple became so sick of it that he returned to the office and deleted it from the company’s servers. “Enough!” he says.
A variation on the rise is the suck-back, which builds from a low, steady hum into a dramatic thwip — the original Dark Knight trailer was among the first of many to use this effect. “All the chaos comes to an end,” Rosenblatt says. “Then you’re in quiet.”
Other recurring sounds include tribal chants, used by Bane and his followers in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises trailer and imitated in last year’s Captain America: Civil War; the steady, booming drumbeats in just about every action trailer, from the recent Kong: Skull Island to a more organic version in last year’s The Lost City of Z; the frequently copied gloomy take on a familiar rock song, which began with the Scala and Kolacny Brothers version of Radiohead’s “Creep” in 2010’s The Social Network trailer; and, of course, no sound at all, with trailers like the one for Blade Runner 2049 using silence as punctuation between all the other sound effects.
Temple says often call their sound-design reps and ask, “Have you seen such-and-such trailer? I want something that sounds like that, but not exactly like that, because I don’t want to rip it off.” So, he says, “they’ll give me a variation. That’s how sounds evolve.”
Some trailer editors avoid repetition simply by thinking creatively. Mark Woollen, whose namesake company has been designing mostly indie trailers for 17 years, aims to “buck convention.” After he created the distinctive trailer for 2006’s Little Children, which juxtaposes clips from the film with one long, steady train sound, studios asked him to repeat the concept. He says he told them no: “You don’t have the right movie.”
“I’m a little bit of an outsider,” he says. “I’m not going to put some of those sounds into the films we work on. It just wouldn’t work.”
Woollen likes to mess with rhythm and drumbeats. For the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man, he opened the trailer with the scene of a man slamming another man’s head against a wall, then repeated the sound effect throughout the trailer to humorous and off-putting effect. For The Revenant, Woollen knew he wanted a driving rhythmic track, but not the same old drumbeats. “They were shooting in these incredible locations, in extreme physical conditions, but I noticed you could see the breath of the character,” he says. “It wasn’t boom-boom-boom, it was boom-breath, boom-breath. The film’s about survival and had a visceral feel, and I wanted that conveyed in the trailer.”
Just about every editor agrees on one sound that trailers no longer need to use, ever: the “Bwah” horn blast from Inception, created by veteran composer Hans Zimmer, repeated in approximately 4 billion trailers ever since. Even Zimmer, who created the sound with two brass players tooting into what he called the “resonance” of a piano in a church, didn’t take long to get sick of it. “Oh, it’s horrible!” he told Vulture in 2013. “This is a perfect example of where it all goes wrong. That music became the blueprint for all action movies, really. And if you get too many imitations, even I get confused!”
The point of the “Bwah” sound, in a trailer context, is to “create importance when there wasn’t any,” Rosenblatt says. “We’re constantly being asked to avoid the awkward Inception horn blasts,” Collin says. “We are often asked to come up with the next Inception horn blast. It’s a constant dialogue.” It should be noted, though, that the same Inception trailer also includes a rise, steady drumbeats and, of course, a bass bend. “There’s a reason it works,” Temple says. “There’s a reason pizza’s good.”
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