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Trailer Blazer

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Skip Chaisson comes as close as you can get to superstar status in the trailer-making industry.

When A-list directors and producers like Michael Mann, Tony Scott or Jerry Bruckheimer need some magic for their trailers--the two- to three-minute previews shown in theaters before the feature attraction--they call Chaisson, whose sharp, fast-cutting style has inspired filmmakers and even led some to incorporate parts of his trailers into their films.

Known in the industry simply as Skip, this young Bruce Lee- and comic book-addict has a deceptively mellow Southern California attitude. But his ability to succinctly summarize a director’s style enables him to tailor trailers to each--a skill that has won him a loyal following in Hollywood. Chaisson is one of a handful of trailer editors who can boast personal relationships with filmmakers or stars. They come to his office or call him at home directly (as Chaisson’s mother found out while she was visiting when she answered a call from Tom Cruise).

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Here’s how Chaisson assesses some of the directors he’s worked with: “Ridley [Scott, “Gladiator”] is really visual and adept at creating other worlds.... Tony [Scott “Spy Game”] is more attuned to contemporary editing styles, meaning he will take an image that he has shot and be open to speeding up that image or reversing it. With Michael [Bay, “Pearl Harbor”], when he choreographs a shot he is telling a story within a shot .... Every shot has a beginning, middle and end.”

“He asks himself, ‘What is the essence of what I am actually doing?’ ” said Tony Scott. “With a trailer, [that approach] makes it easier because it is a sound bite and it’s very valuable.”

This kind of personal contact is highly unusual in an industry in which studios try to maintain direct control of the product and sometimes actively work to keep filmmakers away from the editing process for trailers and TV ad spots.

With marketing taking on an ever more central role in the movie business, trailers have a huge effect on the success or failure of a film. The desperate need to attract audiences for upcoming films makes for a highly pressurized and competitive environment that at once keeps the trailer makers on their toes and leads to frustration.

The pressure-cooker atmosphere does not seem to faze Chaisson. Laid-back and full of “aw shucks” expressions, he is still somewhat star-struck and modest about his talent.

“I try not to impose my view on anybody,” said Chaisson, who grew up in Los Angeles and is married with two children. “I grew up watching movies, and it’s kind of cool to feel yourself a part of it.”

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Six months ago, Chaisson branched out on his own and founded Skip Film, a subsidiary of Aspect Ratio Holdings, an advertising and movie marketing firm.

On a recent morning in his Santa Monica office, wearing a beige nylon shirt printed with red hula dancers, jeans and bright-white high-top sneakers, Chaisson is still busy with interior decorating; he’s hammering a blown-up Bruce Lee movie poster to a brick wall. With his dark, curly hair closely cropped and a trim, athletic physique, he looks more like a surfer than the somewhat nerdy, computer-savvy, trailer-making guy he is. On most days he can be found in his air-conditioned office simultaneously watching a movie, reading a script and perusing one of his beloved comic books.

Movies and scripts are the tools of his trade, of course, but comic books are essential to developing his visual style, Chaisson says. On weekends, he spends an average of $150 buying the latest offerings.

“Comics are like movies,” he says. “But they are a still form. When I look at them in the still form, I bring them to life. I think that is what kids do. When I read a script, I see it in my brain. Trailers are the ultimate comic book. When I read a comic book, I get real excited. I hear the music, I jump around and do the sound effects--at least that is what my staff tells me I do.”

Chaisson is a relative newcomer to the trailer industry, having started 10 years ago at Kaleidoscope Film Group, one of the older trailer houses. Perhaps that is why he is so open to questions when most of his colleagues are so secretive that they verge on paranoia.

Secrecy is prized--after all, they are working for the studios, and a lot of money is at stake.

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“Our world is sort of a cloak-and-dagger kind of world,” said Anthony Goldschmidt, founder of Intralink Film and Graphic Design, one of the oldest trailer houses in the business. “Many filmmakers don’t even know we are doing their movie--studios would prefer they think it’s being done in-house. It’s such big business, and there is such a great risk [financially for the studios] that everyone becomes very proprietary and squirrelly.”

Goldschmidt too can boast of some special relationships, particularly with Steven Spielberg, with whom he’s worked since “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.” Goldschmidt is one of the pioneers in the industry, and with his shiny silver hair and patrician Town & Country air, he plays the part well.

As marketing costs skyrocket, with the average film costing about $35 million to advertise, according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America, trailers are an increasingly important piece of the marketing puzzle. Because buying time on television is so expensive, the trailers are the most cost-effective way to get a message out. A recent Moviefone-Variety poll found that 78% of ticket buyers are most influenced to see a film by trailers; 76% listed commercials as the second biggest influence. (A studio’s average cost for a finished trailer is between $250,000 and $500,000, depending on the work involved.)

And because they are projected in movie theaters, they are shown to the exact audience studio executives love--people who go out to see movies. Trailers are also increasingly being used on the Internet to entice the coveted youth audience.

The need to bring in high numbers on a movie’s first weekend has resulted in a fiercely competitive climate for trailer-making companies. Studios hedge their bets by hiring up to five trailer houses at a time to work on one campaign. These “bake-offs” give studio executives more to choose from and often result in studio marketing chiefs splicing parts of each trailer together for one campaign.

These so-called Frankenstein trailers have become an annoying reality of the business for the trailer house editors. Because there is a little bit of several editors in nearly every trailer, it is increasingly difficult to determine who did which trailer.

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“Winning or losing is upsetting,” said Barbara Glaser, co-founder of Ant Farm, one of the leading trailer houses. “Where it becomes difficult is the Frankenstein trailer. It’s just hard on the ego. It is difficult to walk into the editor’s bay and say, ‘Can you add this to your trailer?’ You have to understand that at the end of the day we are not making art.”

One of the reasons they are not making art is market research. The competition to catch people’s attention is so fierce that studios hate to leave much to chance. Digital technology has made it cheaper and easier to splice ideas together from several houses and include scenes that test well in focus groups. A recent example was Sony’s marketing campaign for “Spider-Man,” which was done by several trailer houses--although none was told the others were working on it.

It wasn’t always like that. Some old hands, like Goldschmidt, still have lofty ideas about the craft of trailer making. He maintains that market research has warped what used to be the artful packaging of emotion. Goldschmidt, who created the famous one sheet with the glowing finger for “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” says marketing research could have never foretold audiences’ reaction to “E.T.”

“How do you test if children were going to fall so in love with that character or that they would be shouting in the theater, ‘Don’t die, don’t die’? How would I sell ‘Gone With the Wind’ in 30 seconds?”

But as he acknowledges, today’s audience is vastly different, and he has had to adapt to it. “It is getting harder and harder to hold people’s interest because they are being bombarded by so much,” said Goldschmidt, who is also an acclaimed painter. “The pastoral landscape has given way to the commercial landscape.”

That commercial landscape has led to trailers that give misleading messages about a film--what trailer editors call “cheating” audiences. So the trailer for “A Beautiful Mind” portrayed the film as a romantic thriller rather than the dramatic story of a mathematician’s struggle to overcome schizophrenia. The one for “Snow Dogs” made it appear to be a movie about talking dogs.

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In other cases, the trailer may not be misleading, but it gives away seemingly everything. For example, was it too much to reveal that Robin Williams was the killer in “Insomnia,” as that film’s trailer did?

“Do we believe in truth in advertising? The answer is a little bit but not a lot,” said Andrew Kosove, co-founder of Alcon Entertainment, which produced “Insomnia.”

Kosove defended the “Insomnia” trailer, saying that the plot of the film had little to do with Williams being the killer. The filmmakers wanted to protect the real mystery of the movie--Al Pacino’s secret torment.

“Giving away the fact that Robin Williams is the killer is not really a gamble at all, because the audience doesn’t really know what the secret in the movie is,” Kosove said.

Mostly, a successful trailer depends on the good relationship of the filmmaker, the studio and the trailer editor. Most of the time, editors must finish the trailer before the film is completed. Often they are not given enough footage to make a full trailer. So they improvise.

One of Chaisson’s most famous trailers was born of desperation. When Bruckheimer contacted Chaisson about “Gone in 60 Seconds,” not much footage was available. So Chaisson used comic-book images, photographs and graphics to enhance the film clips he had. The result was a fast-cut trailer, wrapped in the frenetic energy of a car thief’s world. Meanwhile a voice-over informs the viewer that while it takes almost three minutes to buy popcorn at the movies, it takes a professional car thief 60 seconds to steal your car.

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The result was a trailer that caught the attention of film critics like the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan, who mentioned it in his review of the film. “The most regrettable thing about ‘Gone in 60 Seconds’ is that it doesn’t rise to the level of its excellent trailer,” he wrote. “That pumped-up piece of business has focus, pacing, concision and wall-to-wall action--all the things the full-scale version does without.”

Bruckheimer, who later used Chaisson for the “Pearl Harbor” campaign, said he was dazzled by the “Gone in 60 Seconds” trailer.

“The way he stopped it, the graphics he used and the type styles--I had never seen that before,” Bruckheimer said. “When you get good work from somebody, you notice it. Everyone saw that trailer.” Chaisson is working on “Down and Under,” Bruckheimer’s latest project, which will be released next year.

Like most of those who create trailers, Chaisson initially worked through the studio while making the early preview (known in the trade as a teaser trailer) for Tony Scott’s 1998 thriller “Enemy of the State.” Studio marketing chiefs like to be the middlemen between the vendor and the filmmaker. But after Scott viewed the trailer, that arrangement was over; he only wanted to deal with Chaisson.

Scott felt that in the minute-long teaser, Chaisson had successfully brought to life the essence of his movie--that hyper-conscious feeling of knowing you are being watched. Using stock footage and graphics he created on his computer system, Chaisson made it seem as if you were inside a satellite surveillance truck--or inside Will Smith’s paranoid mind. Scott was so impressed that he eventually included scenes Chaisson had created for the trailer in the movie.

Now Scott will only work with Chaisson. When the studios want to bring in a different editor, Scott makes sure it doesn’t happen.

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“I say, ‘No. I want to work with Skip. End of story,’ ” said Scott, who worked with Chaisson on last year’s “Spy Game.” “Luckily I have enough weight where I can do that. Skip and I have a shorthand.”

Chaisson is not ruling out one day becoming a director himself. He is serving as executive producer on and cutting Tony and Ridley Scott’s latest television project for CBS, “American Fighter Pilot,” which chronicles the lives of Florida-based fighter pilots. The show had been canceled but is scheduled to return early next year as a midseason replacement.

Chaisson’s mellow style has served him well. He has managed to work closely with directors and stars who have reputations for maddening nitpicking. Tom Cruise was so involved with the editing of “Mission: Impossible 2” that he personally approved certain sections of the music Chaisson had chosen for the trailer.

Superstars like Cruise and Mel Gibson have the juice and the know-how to dictate how much of the movie they want to give away in the trailer. They know who their audience is and are keenly aware of what shots to include to sell their image. Gibson worked with Chaisson for days on the “Braveheart” teaser. For Chaisson it was a particularly interesting experience because Gibson had quit smoking the day they began working together.

“He was drinking Cokes and popping Hershey’s Kisses in his mouth all day long,” Chaisson recalled. “He had crazy hair and was quirky and witty. He was crazy. But it was fun.”

Michael Mann, a director known for meticulous attention to detail, said he regularly requests Chaisson. He was impressed by the work he did on the television campaign for “The Insider.”

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“He is a master of haiku,” Mann said.

Chaisson is able to get along with difficult directors and stars because he is empathetic. He also has a full life outside work.

“There is a lot of pressure on people, and if you can understand that from the beginning, then you can relate to them better,” Chaisson said. “This is a job that helps you live. It’s not like you live to go to work.”

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Lorenza Munoz is a Times staff writer.

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