The Trailers for Ghostbusters (2016) and the Art of Editing Comedy
There's been a lot of discussion on the Internet regarding the larger cultural forces and attitudes that are congealing around Paul Feig's new version of Ghostbusters (2016).
So I thought instead of talking about the same things as everyone else, I would go in the opposite direction, and focus on something small and granular:
HOW DO YOU EDIT A JOKE?
Here is the second U.S. trailer for Ghostbusters. Don't watch all of it. Just the first 18 seconds:
Now here's the U.K. trailer for the film. Again, don't watch all of it. Just the first 18 seconds:
Which joke did you laugh at?
I can't speak for anyone else, but I laughed at the British one. At first glance, the two jokes seem almost identical. So allow me to show you that they are not the same, at all.
Before we begin, here's a great quote about analyzing jokes:
So with your permission, I'm going to dissect some frogs.
1) Setting Up the Joke
The major difference between the two trailers is that one has a good set-up for a joke, and the other does not. I cannot emphasize this enough: The set-up matters more than the punchline. Always get the set-up right.
Here's a Chris Rock quote from "Talking Funny:"
"A lot of comedians have great jokes and they're like… well why isn't this working? It's not working because the audience does not understand the premise [of the joke]. So I'm going to make sure… if I set this premise up right, this joke will always work."
Let's take a look at the set-up from the American trailer. Here are all the shots leading up to the punchline:
Notice how only four shots show any ghosts — and in three of them, there's only a single ghost? More importantly, the ghosts are not doing anything threatening.
It doesn't matter that the voiceover says "it will haunt you every night" and "something something evil" because the images do not support that at all. In terms of storytelling, the editing here is mediocre, because none of the cuts reveals any new information — just the same information over and over again.
The story being told through these images is: There was a flickering light BUT there was a ghost AND THEN there were most ghosts AND THEN another ghost AND THEN a logo of a ghost.
That's unbelievably boring.
Now look at the set-up shots from the U.K. trailer:
These shots have a nice variety in terms of subject and scale. More importantly, there's a narrative progression as we move from the city to the innocent bystanders to the military, and finally a specific ghost doing something threatening.
The story being told through these images is: There was a city BUT THEN ghosts appeared AND THEREFORE they took over the city BUT the military responded AND THEN the ghosts may seem harmless BUT don't let that fool you.
It's not going to win an Oscar for best screenplay, but it's clean, simple, and effective.
Most importantly, the UK trailer sets up the joke! In order for me to laugh, I have to believe that shit is really bad and they've brought in the big guns to solve the problem… only to reveal it's four people wearing janitors' clothes and homemade gear.
2) Giving the Set-Up the Right Tone
The second issue with the American trailer has to do with tone, which is very difficult to discuss. So let me put it this way: how many times does each trailer cut to black during the set-up?
Cutting to black (or dip to black, or fade to black) is one of the most overused tricks in modern trailer editing. Everybody does it because it's a really efficient way to move from one clip to the next. Plus, it actually shows less while convincing the audience that they've seen more.
Notice that for the American trailer, the editing pattern only shows you one shot, followed by black, then another shot, followed by black. This creates a very predictable editing pattern:
The British trailer, on the other hand, shows you groups of shots together, followed by black to separate those groups from each other. The pattern actually builds up and stretches out:
This isn't an attempt to talk about editing like it's math (because it's not), but it is a way of understanding how these edits create tone.
The American trailer — by constantly fading to black — is creating a particular mood: a general sense of unease. That might work for a horror movie trailer, but not if you're going for a joke.
The British trailer — by showing more images and dipping to black less frequently — is building up to a different tone entirely: an urgent threat is now on our doorstep. This is much better because it tricks you into expecting a big reveal, only to undercut it immediately with the shot of the four Ghostbusters.
3) The Timing of the Punchline
Now we're getting to the nitty gritty of comedy editing. As Chuck Jones once put it, in the documentary "Extremes & In-Betweens:"
"The difference between a laugh and no laugh can be as little as one frame."
Both of these trailers build up to the exact same two shots and the exact same punchline. The only difference is how long each shot is held for. Consider the first shot, side by side.
Right away, you can see that the American version fades in from black. This adds 7 frames at the beginning of the shot, and IMO messes up the timing.
Meanwhile, the UK version not only gets to the point more quickly, it's also 4 frames shorter at the end, which speeds us along to the group reaction shot.
Here's where the joke really dies in the American trailer. The difference between these two shots is 19 frames. That's an eternity in joke timing.
The American cut has 8 extra frames at the beginning of the shot. I'm not a fan of this decision, but it's not terrible. The really terrible decision was the 11 extra frames at the end of the shot.
Here they are, isolated:
Leaving in these 11 frames was a really bad idea. You can clearly see the actors start to do the next thing: Kristen Wiig opens her mouth to speak, while Leslie Jones and Melissa McCarthy turn their heads towards her. This totally deflates the joke, because for a split second we start to expect something else, and then cut!
Another bad decision is that the American trailer has taken the shot and zoomed in/reframed it.
I think I understand why this decision was made: it isolates the Ghostbusters and allows us to focus on just them.
However, as a huge downside, it makes the shot less "readable" in terms of composition. Your eyes are focusing on Leslie Jones, who is now in the awkward top-left corner of the frame. If you wanted to look at Kristen Wiig, your eyes would now have to fly aaaaaalll the way over to the far right.
But in the U.K. trailer (and presumably the actual film), Kristen Wiig is only a bit to the right, while Kate McKinnon is dead center of frame. That means in the original composition, you can easily see everyone's reactions in your peripheral vision. Since this punchline depends on you seeing all four Ghostbusters quickly, the U.K. framing is much better (and is possibly another reason why the U.K. reaction shot is 19 frames shorter).
4) The Editor is Responsible for the Jokes
My overall point in comparing these two examples is to bring up something that we never acknowledge: the editor of a comedy is as responsible for the jokes as any actor in the scene.
These two trailers were carved from the same footage, and yet the British one is substantially funnier than the American one. That's talent.
In his great book "On Film-Making," Alexander Mackendrick remarked:
"Comedy is hard. Comic structure is simply dramatic structure but MORE SO: neater, shorter, faster."
I would say something similar of good trailers; even though trailers are often full of clichés, the good ones have to be able to do everything that the movie does, except neater, shorter and faster. The U.K. trailer managed to quickly establish the dire circumstances of the ghosts, the military and the city, only to deliver a well-timed joke, all pulled off in about 17 and a half seconds. Bravo.
5) But no Editor is 100% Responsible for the Trailer
Sadly, no trailer ever goes from the editor straight to theatrical screens. Marketing departments for major studios are notorious for how many people are involved in decision-making. All of them test their trailers before releasing them online.
In all likelihood, the first American cut might have been great, but was ruined by countless contradictory notes. It's also possible that the British cut may have just gotten lucky and had fewer revisions. Of course, I'm operating under the assumption that the trailers were cut by different people, but for all I know, it may have been the same editor.
And of course, the editor(s) here were hampered by whatever footage was available to use, and by the overall directives of the marketing departments. Ultimately, I can't even fault the U.S. trailer — it may have been ruined by circumstance or interference.
6) In Conclusion
Comedy editing is an art. My hat goes off to anybody who does it well. I feel that the current controversy surrounding Ghostbusters (while interesting) will ultimately be decided by the simplest metric we have: is it funny?
And I firmly believe that will be determined by the filmmaking.
So the next time you see a comedy (or a comedy trailer) and you laugh, just remember to thank the editor.
7) A Footnote
If you're at all interested, the editor of the new Ghostbusters film is Brent White. He was the subject of a great New York Times article last year.
White has edited four of Judd Apatow's features (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Funny People, This is 40), five of Adam McKay's (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, The Other Guys, Anchorman 2) and three of Paul Feig's films (The Heat, Spy, Ghostbusters), along with a few episodes of Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared. Brent White is, in many people's opinion, the secret weapon of the entire Apatow clique, and arguably responsible for the particular comic timing that all of those films share. Despite the fact that I don't really care for mainstream American comedy, I still think he's a fine editor (and deserving of more recognition).