In a recording studio on Sunset Boulevard, Thomas Bergersen and Nick Phoenix are banging on two giant taiko drums built especially for their company, Two Steps From Hell. The brawny musicians exude the fierce intensity prevalent in much of their music — until they suddenly get off-beat and let out loud laughs that reveal just how much fun this is for them.
Bergersen and Phoenix revel in the world of music for movies, but not in the same way as film score maestros like Hans Zimmer and John Williams. Two Steps From Hell, which they founded in 2006, is devoted to music for movie trailers.
A common misconception is that the music in trailers is from the film itself. That's rarely the case, because a film's score is one of the last elements completed in postproduction.
Sometimes a trailer features music from a previously released film; for example, music from Michael Bay's "The Island" appeared in an"Avatar" trailer, and an orchestral version of"Requiem for a Dream" melodies was in the preview for"The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers."
But for many trailers, the soundtrack is composed by a company devoted to music for movie advertising. These companies — known as trailer music libraries — emerged in the 1990s after studios began screening trailers for focus groups, creating the need for music earlier and faster in the marketing campaign.
Initially, trailer music composition was little known to anyone outside the movie industry. Now, with the releases of trailers becoming events unto themselves, the number of companies has grown and the public is much more aware of their work. Some companies even sell their songs online and have cultivated fan followings.
"It's great that people are becoming exposed to this type of music because most of it is a form of classical, and I think classical music used to be underground, not many people listened to it, but now it's much more in the mainstream," said Armen Hambar of Future World Music.
Almost every element of a film that viewers see in a trailer is derived from the script — from casting to costumes and set design. But music composed for trailers is usually written without a particular film in mind. Composers like Bergersen, who studied music in Norway and at USC, and Phoenix, who played keyboard in bands growing up, write their music (typically one- to three-minute tracks) for albums that they send to clients at studios and trailer-editing houses. Two Steps From Hell produces about two albums per year.
The team making the trailer selects tracks from these albums, licenses them (fees run $5,000 to $10,000 per track for international use, according to Bergersen), and then edits the available footage with that music. A trailer usually features at least three musical tracks. A typical formula, especially for dramas and event movies, is a soft start that gradually builds, leading to a climax that fades and "hopefully leaves people stunned," Bergersen explained.
Today, many films have not just one preview but two or three. And previews are seen not just in theaters — they are often released first online, where they become conversation starters and are picked apart by bloggers.
It was the third trailer for J.J. Abrams'"Star Trek" film in 2009 that put Two Steps From Hell on the map. The track "Freedom Fighters" — majestic yet ethereal, with a much slower build than most trailer music — captured the attention of many movie fans. Bergersen says the track may have gotten such a strong response because "Freedom Fighters" was the only piece used in the trailer. "It gave people some time to latch onto the music," he said.
The trailer broke records upon its release online: It was viewed more than 1.8 million times on apple.com during its first 24 hours.
Two Steps From Hell also had a shot that year at one of the trailers for "Avatar." Its track "Archangel" was in contention, but the studio ultimately went with a different trailer editing house's version of the preview, which used the track "Guardians at the Gate" by Beverly Hills-based trailer music library Audiomachine.
"Archangel," driven by strings and 32 singers from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, has yet to be used in a trailer. But some of Two Steps' tracks have been used multiple times, like "Heart of Courage," which was in marketing for "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," BBC's "Frozen Planet," the DVD release "Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics" and the video game Mass Effect 2. And it made it into advertising for "Avatar" with the trailer for the film's August 2010 rerelease.
Until recently, trailer music was available only for licensing. But as trailers began to be released on the Web, fans started asking how they could download this music.
"It used to be kind of frowned upon to release anything that's exclusive to trailers for a public release, but things have changed," said Hambar, whose company made its mark with the rousing track "Dream Chasers" in the preview for "How to Train Your Dragon."
Two Steps From Hell, Future World Music and Immediate Music (one of the first libraries, founded in 1993) have released albums on iTunes. Audiomachine released its first commercial album last week. Most of the tracks released commercially are the libraries' "best hits," or tracks that fans already know from trailers. But some, including "Archangel," are released before a studio has licensed them.
Hambar said the revenue from the CD and iTunes releases "can't compare" with what Future World makes from licensing. "We did it for the fans," he said.
For Two Steps From Hell, selling music commercially is a more lucrative business than it is for many other libraries. It has sold more than 300,000 copies of its two albums on iTunes — a robust supplement to licensing music from its 17 albums available to clients.
Two Steps From Hell now has one of the biggest followings among trailer music libraries, with more than 62,000 fans on Facebook. "When we sat down to make this company, we never thought it would take off the way it did and end up with a bunch of fans," Bergersen said.
Some trailer music composers are tempted to venture into film scoring — Bergersen and Phoenix were part of Zimmer's composing staff for "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," for instance — but most say they stick with trailer music because of the freedom it allows. They create a library of music with their own vision instead of a film director's.
"We definitely always understand that we're creating advertising music, and because of that it has to do certain things. But other than that, we sort of have complete creative freedom as to what we want to deliver to the vendors," said Carol Sovinski, owner of Audiomachine.
It's an opportunity, no matter who their clients are or how much their fan followings grow, to march to the beat of their own drum.
"If you wake up one day and want to do action music ... you can just write the action music," Bergersen explained. "You're not locked into a comedy movie."