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How to Score an Epic Movie Trailer for Global Nuclear Armistice

By now you’ve probably seen this epic, Hollywood-style movie trailer that the White House National Security Council created in advance of Donald Trump’s summit with North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un last week. If you’re anything like me, you probably experienced some form of ickiness watching it, too…. I have so many questions that need answering, I don’t know where to start. But the one I keep coming back to is, “What the heck is this thing?”

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As far as I can tell, it’s a movie trailer without a movie to promote. It features grainy, ripped-from-television footage of Trump and Kim Jong-un sprinkled in between high-resolution stock video content like a lady in an MRI machine, wheat being harvested, scientists working in a lab, and, like, a thousand CGI shots from space.

I think — and I say “think” here because who actually knows — that Trump used this trailer to liken peace and nuclear disarmament with America to a summer blockbuster, a movie where Kim Jong-un gets to be hero. In this movie, we all get to feel good and everybody wins, the transformers turn back into cars or fly off into outer space or something. Considering Kim’s love of Disney movies, and Trump’s love of watching himself on TV, this video was probably a pretty good negotiation tactic.

Sure, there are no actual solutions detailed or hints at how insanely complicated America’s relationship with North Korea has been for the past 70 years, but we’re not here to talk about that. We’re here to talk about how all this over-the-top epic trailer drama plays out, even if it’s all for naught.

But first, the question of authorship. The “real” Destiny Pictures claims it had no involvement, even though their name is used at the beginning and stated audibly by the narrator, so we have no idea who scored this thing. According to CNNthe founder of Destiny Pictures, film producer Mark Castaldo, said he was completely taken by surprise that his company’s name appeared in the video. In order to make clear that this was either a mistake or unfortunate coincidence, their website’s homepage currently reads:

“Destiny Pictures Had No Involvement In President Trump NK Summit Video”

According to The Hill, the trailer was actually produced by the White House National Security Council. The mystery deepens. The name of the production company was likely just made up on the spot, not fact-checked, and approved as something “Mr. Kim” would enjoy.

Alright, let’s break down this mess.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “In Case of Nuclear Apocalypse, Here Are the Top 5 Bands in North Korea Right Now”

Knowing full well that about 85-90% of the video material used was stock footage, it’s likely that the music and sound design was taken at least in part from stock audio. So pay close attention if you’re considering getting into making stock library music for licensing. (In which case, since these are likely digital strings, our free course Making Realistic MIDI Strings is probably for you.)

The trailer opens with a single repeating piano note awash in reverb and delay. It’s a C, and there are many directions it can go in from here. But at 0:36, when the narrator says, “There have been times of relative peace, and times of great tension,” the music follows suit with a tense, dramatic descending melody in a minor tonality.

Just like a countdown, which builds tension as well, the melody gives us the 3, the 2, and then the 1: E♭, D, and C. 

A bass drum with an almost slapback-style delay effect enters and a cymbal crashes to bring to mind the sensation of a cold, solitary battlefield. This leads us into the first developed musical section, where we’re solidly set in the key of C minor and brooding strings enter the mix, joining that repeating piano note and bass drum motif from the intro. Cymbal crashes flare up while low strings build the intensity.

What sounds like a screeching distorted electric guitar subtly plays through the arrangement until all the other instruments drop out and that’s all we hear, delaying out during the epic, yet somewhat poorly timed dubstep drop — conveying that so much is at stake here! After yet another cymbal crash, the wailing guitar returns at 1:16 along with the other instruments. Everything is louder now, and while the mixing here leaves a lot to be desired, the massive, cinematic drums in particular are what carry this middle section through to its end.

This part of the trailer is a little bit awkward, since the music tries to reach such lofty heights while the energy of the narrator’s delivery remains tepid. That awkwardness is only accentuated at 1:28 when Kim Jong-un reaches out to shake South Korean president Moon Jae-in’s hand. A timpani, or a circus drum of some kind, attempts to mimic the shutter of a camera flash, or perhaps the sound of switching on a warehouse full of industrial-size lights… whatever it is, the metaphor is clear, and the drum sounds like an immigration officer knocking down your door.

Four more bangs of the drum make an awkward five, and they’re all mistimed and flat. Dramatic effect = fail.

Eventually, speaking directly to Kim Jong-un, the narrator says he can either choose to move forward or go back. At 2:27, there’s an actual countdown! (Remember from above?) So now we have some playful foreshadowing going on between the music and the video (which, I’m sorry to say, is really freaking cool)!

The music stops, naturally, as we’ll need a minute to think about that one, but then returns at 2:30 with a scratchy, ascending, almost col legno technique played by the strings. This creates an effect that makes it sound like we’re watching a horror movie.

But then, everything changes — or at least the key changes! 

The key changes along with this new, hopeful section to something a bit more epic. Goodbye, doom and gloom; we’re in E minor now. This trailer has been building up to showing us a world where Kim agrees to move forward with a new relationship with the US. As such, the tonic of C in the first key starts to feel like it seeks resolution in that E minor home base now. And from C minor, four of the pitches in the scale (E, F, A♭, and B) get tiny lifts up a half step to the new key, which in itself is a small musical triumph.

“A new world can begin today,” says the narrator. The music of this section is played much faster than in the first half of the video — it’s less contemplative and more forward marching. This is accentuated by the kick drum’s eventual build up to four-on-the-floor quarter notes at 3:10. There’s also a clip of wild horses running in the ocean for some reason. It’s all very bright and hopeful, which is exactly what we needed to hear after that very frightening first section! We get to bask in the trailer-friendly motif of the tribal drum fill from here on out, and beg our parents for permission to see this movie with our friends.

However, like so much else happening in the world today, this trailer seems to have been forgotten almost as quickly as it came. A sitting US president created a movie trailer to try to convince a hostile country to disarm its nuclear capabilities. The absurdity of the video’s epic production style can only be overshadowed by the surrealistic quality of that greater fact in itself, and yet… it’s just another day en route to an uncertain future.

At least we got to have a little bit of fun talking about harmony and mix production while it lasted.

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Patrick McGuire
Patrick McGuire

Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.