Being Kenneth Branagh: 11 Tips on Filming a Book Trailer (Part Two)

Two days before previewing the trailer at Balticon 46, I began a series on what has been my life for the past seven weeks: The Janus Affair book trailer. While there has already been a lot invested into this project and critics dismiss book trailers as trendy gimmicks that hardly sell books, I truly believe that it has been a worthwhile and educational ride.

The crowd reaction this weekend to the preview was payback, indeed.

But what is it about book trailers that make authors, agents, and publishers so skeptical? I got a few ideas, and a lot of those ideas came from this project, this idea that has evolved into a glimpse at a fantasy realized: Adapting a book and making a movie. Look, I know something like that is a longshot, especially having an idea of how things work in Hollywood, but it is still pretty neat to see this coming to life.

So far my own experiences between Phoenix Rising and The Janus Affair have taught me a few things in making a book trailer; and in what I thought was going to be a three-part series (but is probably going to go to four), I thought I’d pass along a few ideas to keep in mind when deciding to shoot and produce your own book trailer.

For your first book trailer, keep it simple. I knew for Phoenix Rising, I wanted to shoot a book trailer that was not necessarily production heavy or complicated. I wanted to keep it simple. I wasn’t going for specific scenes or moments from the book, but more of a feel for the characters and what you can expect from this steampunk adventure. In pre-production I storyboarded a chase through “parts of London.” With my storyboard, I started scouting locations and found Staunton, Virginia providing perfect backdrops. The trailer would only need three people — Wellington, Eliza, and a voiceover artist (in our case, Martyn Casserly). We made friends with some local steampunks (Carmel and Patrick, respectfully) and got a few more locations scouted out for us, and with my cinematographer Linc filming, Pip and I spent a day in Staunton setting up shots. We didn’t have to worry about screen adaptations. The storyboard dictated how many vignettes were needed. (Nine in total.) The music and sound effects (and yes, we will get to that in a second…) we had courtesy of Alex White. Does it get any simpler than that?

Actually, yes it can.

The Geist trailer (the first I ever edited) was put together using nothing but stock video, a script from the author, and a voiceover artist. Again, with stock footage, you are not so much going for specific scenes so much as a feel for the book. Nothing beats producing your own footage; but if resources are limited, stock footage can yield positive results.

Set up a budget. I’ve received a lot of advice in writing in my (woah!) first decade of writing. Some of it was asked for. Some of it wasn’t. The best piece of advice I ever got from any writer, though, was from the award-winning juggernaut and fellow movie buff, Robert J. Sawyer:

Look at your advance. That is your advertising budget.

Before a frame was shot or a thought was put to paper, Pip and I agreed on a budget. The earlier cited Geist book trailer was done on a budget of $1500. The budget for Phoenix Rising, although we were using resources readily at hand, was in the same range as Geist’s as it was what we were familiar with. For The Janus Affair, as Linc wanted to “ramp it up,” I looked at our incoming advance and we allocated accordingly.

So what does a budget pay for? In the case of The Janus Affair trailer, it took care of…

  • Gas money for the actors to travel to our location
  • Stock footage that we were unable to shoot (in our case, a steam train)
  • Any additional props or costume pieces needed for the shoot
  • And of course…food. If you cannot pay your talent, you feed them. 

And cinematographers have healthy appetites.

When the final bills come in, I will guess that conservatively this trailer cost us just under $5000. The best part about this price tag is that it is not slapped on a credit card accruing interest. This money was set aside and left alone for the book trailer. It’s paid for. The importance of a budget for authors I’ve blogged about before, but you need to have a hard, solid budget in place before shooting. This way, you know exactly what you can (and can’t) afford.

Figure out ways to stretch the budget. Beyond asking cast and crew to volunteer their time and talent, there are other ways you can save money:

  • Have your cast double as set crew
  • Adapt the scenes and storyboard them yourself
  • Know your location and set up shots around it
  • Outdoor shots over indoor shots (on account of lighting)
  • Stick with props and costumes you have readily available
  • Edit the trailer yourself, or edit the trailer with your cinematographer

You get the idea — if you don’t have to spend the money, don’t. Take an inventory of the resources you have at hand and then attempt to make do with what you have.

When the trailer needs artwork, imagery, or music, make a financial investment. I have seen book trailers, though, were the only artwork used over the span of four-to-six minutes was one image — the book cover. Complete with text.

Monotony. You haz it.

There are also those book trailers that exercise an incredibly liberal interpretation of copyright, essentially that if it is online then it must be public domain and safe to use. One author was so bold as to use watermarked samples of stock photography and believe “it’s okay” as their credits read “Stock photography courtesy of” Yeah. I don’t think iStockphoto’s watermarked images were extended as a courtesy.

Just because the image is online does not necessarily mean it is free for you to use. If you’re sharing the image on Facebook or your blog and saying “Isn’t this cool?” is fine. Heck, it is usually encouraged. This is a far cry from using the image to advertise your book. “But I’m doing that artist a favor and giving their work free publicity!” — a popular argument I have heard on occasion; to which I reply “Did you give that artist any attribution?” Something that both Creative Commons and traditional copyright insist on is attribution, and if you are not giving credit where credit is due, then you are no better than bloggers who scrap content for their own chintzy blogs or authors who plagiarize. It’s theft. You are using video or imagery that you have no permission to use in a promotional capacity.

And please please please please please…DO NOT USE YOUR FAVORITE MOVIE SOUNDTRACK OR ROCK BALLAD TO SCORE YOUR BOOK TRAILER. If you do not have permission from the rights holder, you are breaking the law. Even if you own the soundtrack. You purchased the album specifically for the purpose of listening to it. If you really want to have fun, sure, you can cut a home vacation movie, a college graduation video, or something like that with it as your backdrop. Again, personal use. “Personal use” does not cover book trailers. That’s promotional, and therefore prohibited.

This rule also applies to sound effects as well.

There are many websites online that sell affordable stock video, stock audio, and royalty-free music beds. Various audio editors like Garageband and Audition offer editable loops and music beds that can be used to mix your own composition. There is also offering an opportunity for local musicians to showcase their talent. You do want to make your budget stretch, but you also do not want to be so cheap you’re violating copyright law. Regardless as to how you feel about the restrictions of copyright, rules are rules. Follow them, and your book trailer will never find itself subject to a cease-and-desist.

Book trailers do not need to be epic productions, but neither should they appear as something thrown together in  Windows Movie Maker. You want to plan. You want to think ahead. Then, things will get easier…but not that easy. Hang in there with me as we continue this journey into filmmaking. I still have some tweaking to do and there are a few more blogposts coming.

Oh yeah, and in the meantime, go out and get the book. Use the link above, or just go get it from here. I’d love to know what you think of it.


    1. Why yes, yes it is. It should be making an appearance (time and talent willing) this week as part of our trailer.


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