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Star Wars VII trailer: Storytelling & the invisible structure

Trailer_picThe Star Wars storytelling universe has always provided many lessons for storytellers of all kinds. Over the years I've often referenced characters from the series or story advice from George Lucas (here, and here, and here, for example). Obviously we are all very excited about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, coming to theatres this December. On April 16, the second trailer to Star Wars VII was released and was viewed a staggering 88 million times in the first 24 hours. When the trailer was shown live to the audience at the Star Wars Celebration event that day in California, the crowd went nuts, according to Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy. "When Harrison [Han Solo] and Chewie come on screen and he says 'Chewie, we're home!' and the entire room of almost eight thousand people just leapt to their feet and roared, I mean I can't think of anything I've ever been to—other than a rock concert—that felt quite like that." I also got a big kick out of the trailer and have seen it now dozens of times. One reason the trailer is so good, I think, is because it is laid over a clear organizational structure. So yes, even a 2-minute movie trailer can teach us a thing or two about organizing and presenting information. I'll deconstruct the trailer just a bit below, but first take a look at the trailer if you have not seen it yet (and once more even if you have).

The art of tapping emotions

Shortly after the trailer was released this month, the internet was abuzz with this clip below of Catholic priest and Star Wars über fan Father Roderick who decided to film his reaction to watching the much-anticipated clip for the first time. His reaction is beautiful, heartfelt, and honest. When we see authentic joy like this, we can't help but feel that joy ourselves. Emotions, good or bad, are contagious (see mirror neurons). I have shown this clip to two classes of Japanese college students, and both classes were filled with uproarious laughter of delight as they were moved by the pure childlike joy of Fr. Roderick.

Lessons from a trailer
Trailers often follow the traditional three-act structure of traditional storytelling. Act I provides the setting, and the set-up or premise. Act II reveals a bit of the conflict including the element which the hero must struggle. Act III of a trailer usually is an upbeat, dynamic mix of climax elements, characters, chaos, rich sounds, etc. that hint of the excitement in the film without ever giving the story away. In the six-minute video presentation below, Father Roderick does an excellent job of deconstructing the trailer and hints at some lessons that we can apply to our own presentation or storytelling projects. As Father Roderick notes, the latest Star Wars trailer is not just a collection of random cool images. Instead, he says, "there is a very deliberate structure and narrative to this trailer—that's why it's so good." He breaks the trailer down not into the three parts of exposition/conflict/resolution, but instead he looks at how the structure of the 2-minute visual narrative takes us from the familiar to the new, from the new to the familiar, and then home. Father Roderick's presentation and delivery are excellent and well worth a look. Following the video I highlight some of his points and add some of my own.

ACT I: Setting. (Familiar, but a new time)
Familiar elements such an X-wing fighter and a Star Destroyer. While they are familiar, they have crashed a long time ago, suggesting the passage of some time. The planet looks like the familiar Tatooine, but it's not (there must be many planets with harsh desert climates in the galaxy. Why not?).

This scene pans to pull off a beautiful slow reveal. The novice presenter is similar to the novice writer in that both will tend to reveal too much too quickly. A slow reveal spurs questions, questions create tension, and tension is a key element of the conflict. Though this scene is only a few seconds long, the slow pan brings us in, then surprises us. "Oh wow!" is the usual reaction to this bit.

Darth Vader's mask is again a familiar element but it's burnt, a relic from another era. We even hear the faint sound of Vader's breathing. What could this mean?
R2-D2 and what appears to be Luke Skywalker. Luke's bionic hand lacks skin and the scene is unsettling. It feels familiar, but clearly great changes have taken place. These are new times. All of this stimulates our curiosity and makes want to know what this is all about.

The passing of the lightsaber, symbolic of transition from the old to a new mission and a new generation (remember than Luke received what appears to be the same lightsaber from Obi-wan Kenobi). 

ACT II: Conflict (New, but also familiar)
Introducing the new characters, new protagonists, new antagonists, and elements of a new conflict. These are familiar archetypes and the familiar age-old battle of the little guy standing up to the powerful. Father Roderick calls it the old David and Goliath battle. Weak vs. the powerful, the oppressed vs. the oppressor, the rebels vs. the empire.

Familiar X-wing fighters but with slight modifications.

Again, a familiar element of a pilot in an X-wing fighter, but it's a new character.

Rey, Finn, and BB-8. Young, small, fragile vs. powerful explosion and TIE Starfighters in pursuit. Great example of contrast.

An antagonistic force. Kylo Ren, the force that will try to prevent our heroes from reaching their objective.

Another projection of the power that our heroes are up against. An amazing shot with great visual contrast.

Another example of great Contrast. A close up of Rey. A lone, young individual is a stark contrast to the preceding images of the evil power of a menacing army. A wonderful juxtaposition.

Rey's image is contrasted again with the projection of power from the Empire in the form of a battle scene.

A threatening, chrome trooper. All slick, clean, and menacing.

A great contrast from the chrome trooper scene. The grimy insides of the Falcon, and the tiny, innocent looking BB-8.

An important symbolic image. Rey reaching out to Finn. How will the weak beat the powerful? Fr. Roderick speculates that it is the force of friendship that helps them defeat the enemy. While the Empire is based on fear, the resistance is based on something far stronger.

Classic David vs Goliath. The Falcon vs. massive Star Destroyer (with a TIE fighter on its tail).

ACT III: Climax (New, yes, but don't worry, we're coming home.)
Returning home. While the prequels were often sterile and filled with soulless CGI, coming home here can also mean that the movie will a return to the original, more lifelike, imperfect, grimy world, symbolized by the Falcon.

Talk about saving the best for last. Just as you think the trailer is over as the screen fades to black, they hit you with this. "Chewie, we're home." This reminds me of Steve Jobs's "One more thing." Not only is it the climax, it is also a clear theme to the trailer. That is, this is a new Star Wars, but it's also the old Star Wars that the fan base so dearly loves. Take a look at this compilation of fan reactions to this last scene. Clearly the fan reaction is positive, to say the least.

When viewers are at their peak excitement—bam! The familiar Star Wars logo and music.

While most trailers today are filled with so much detail from the story that you often feel deflated, feeling that you now have no reason to go see the film, this Star Wars trailer shows great restraint. Although it's based on a clear structure and builds excitement with each clip, it leaves the audience both satisfied *and* desperately yearning to see more. A quintessential teaser. December can't get here fast enough.




Great tips here. The fan reactions are amazing. God, I hope 7 is good! And Fr Roderick - what a nice guy! Love his videos!


Father Roderick is amazing. Great tips. Never looked at a trailer like this before. Story is everywhere. Thanks 4 tips. BTW, I hope SW 7 is awesome. Looks good so far...

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