Kert Gartner Trailers
Stills from a few of the trailers Kert has worked on (L-R) Fez, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, TowerFall: Ascension & Spelunky. Polytron / Devolver Digital / Matt Thorson / Mossmouth

Everyone loves a trailer. Come E3 each year as the world watches the major companies pitch the best of what they have, we eagerly await the screen to fade to black and an anticipated or all new game to blow us away.

The gaming, film and television industries all love to make a fuss about the forthcoming trailer for their forthcoming product. There are trailers for trailers now, teasers for trailers for trailers, vines for teasers for trailers for trailers. It's quite absurd, but there are few better ways to get people excited.

Gamers will look back to the Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess reveal of 2004 or the Halo 3 trailer for 2006 as prime examples of great video game teases, but they may also look to the Killzone 2 or Dead Island trailers as examples of how initially great trailers can be deceptive.

Kert Gartner
Kert Gartner also talks to use about the impact of having a young family on his job. Kert Gartner

Making a great trailer is difficult, but one man has turned it into a job. Kert Gartner worked in the visual effects industry for 8 years, contributing to over 25 Hollywood films before deciding to turn his attention to small scale projects, eventually finding a home in the indie game community.

His work includes many notable indie games of recent years, including Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, Sperlunky, Fez and TowerFall. His work can be viewed over on his website. We spoke to him about his work and some of the problems surrounding video game trailers.

IBT: What prompted you to start making video game trailers?

Kert Gartner: Back when I started in the VFX industry in 2001 it was a great place to be, but over the course of the years as I got older and wanted to get married and start a family, the realities of working in that industry and pulling 60-80 hour weeks for months at a time just wasn't working for me anymore. So I started looking at opportunities to move into something different, working at a commercial house and doing some odd jobs like creating corporate videos, before meeting some game developers that introduced me to the indie game scene.

Could you take us through your creative process from commission to finished product?

Every trailer is different, which is part of the fun! Depending on the timelines involved, I usually like to play the game for a while just to get a feel for it and get a sense of the tone of the game which is usually the most important thing.

From there, I work with the developers, batting around ideas, sending a few sketches/storyboards back and forth. Once it feels like we've got a solid direction, I try and get all the assets used to make the game. Everything from the music, sound effects, art assets, sprites, promo material, etc. I like to have access to as much as possible to get a sense for how the game was made and see what elements can be used to make the trailer feel like it's created from the same world as the game.

Once I have all of that, I'll make a storyboard and make the necessary changes there to start pulling everything together. This whole process can take anywhere from a day for a simple trailer to a few weeks/months for more complex trailers that involve some sort of live action elements.

What makes a great video game trailer?

When I start making a trailer, I always try and keep these three things in mind: A trailer has to engage and entertain, and make sure the viewer leaves with some kind of understanding of what the game is about. That said, I think speaking directly about a game's features is generally a bad idea, depending on the context.

The purpose of a trailer is to capture your viewer's attention and convey the tone and feel of the game in the most entertaining way possible. Whether the game contains feature X or Y is really irrelevant at this point. If the viewer is engaged by the trailer, they will go to the game's site or another page where there's more detailed information about the game.

The trailer isn't the place for a list of bullet points or marketing BS. It's the place to convey a sense of what the game is about, engage and wrap the viewer in that world, and entice them to learn more while being honest about what's being shown.

What are the biggest lessons you've learned since making your first trailer?

I've only been making game trailers for about 4 years, but it has been a learning experience in a variety of ways. Technically speaking, on every big trailer I try and use some sort of new tool or technique that I haven't tried before so I try and learn new things in that way so my skill level doesn't get too stale.

The video game industry is a crazy place to be in right now, especially the indie scene which has seen huge levels of growth in the past 5-6 years. I never in my wildest imagination thought that I could be self-employed making indie game trailers in my basement for game developers around the world. I've always worked at studios in larger teams, so learning to work by myself and learning the 'business' side of things has been the biggest learning curve by far.

The other crazy curveball was learning to manage doing all of this while raising a little boy. My son was born in 2012 just as this little side business of mine was taking off. So learning how to be a good dad along with managing a small business was extremely mentally draining for the first few years.

[Kert spoke about this at last year's Game Developers Conference]

Do you have a favourite trailer of the ones you've made?

I love a lot of my trailers for different reasons but one of my all around favourites is the trailer for Jack Lumber. The reason I think this trailer is so effective is that it presents everything you need to know about the game in a super fun and entertaining way. The script came together super fast once we knew the tone we were going with and the awesome voice over artists just knocked it out of the park.

Do you think there's a problem with bigger budget games making trailers with little or no gameplay? What's your take on CG trailers?

I think it's always a good idea to include some gameplay in a launch trailer. Teaser trailers can definitely be a bit more mysterious, but if your final launch trailer does not contain any gameplay footage at all, I think your audience might be turned off by that. Beautiful trailers with no gameplay can run the risk of masking a boring or unoriginal game. Viewers can sniff out deception very easily, so you need to be honest about what you show.

A great example of this problem is the Dead Island trailer. It's a fantastic CG short, but it doesn't really portray the gameplay accurately at all. Some people complained that they expected the game to play out in reverse like the trailer, but that's not the case. Another interesting example is the trailers for Aliens: Colonial Marines. The pre-release gameplay footage used in the trailer was so different from the final game footage that the UK Advertising Standards Authority had to get involved, and a disclaimer was put in place.