Computer-animated films are emblematic of the intensification of what Thomas Schatz calls the “franchise mentality” in the conglomerate era of Millenial Hollywood.[i] Indeed, a computer-animated film rarely exists in isolation. Most have theatrically-released sequels and prequels (and in some instances a television spin-off) as almost a prerequisite, which expand upon the precedent of an original to pattern the network of supplementary texts that trail in its wake. Such follow-up texts are commonly announced in their multitude, batched together in production slates and pipelines with the promise of more, and more than one, to come. The extensive involvement of short form animation within the industry’s increasing computer-animated output has surfaced a particular kind of short film template that has awakened the traditions of the Golden Age seven minute cartoon. Standard Pixar practice has been to accompany the theatrical exhibition of its feature-length productions with a short unaffiliated with the narrative of the main feature. Sustaining the studio’s own short form origins—as well as its corporate history manufacturing digitally-animated advertisements in the 1990s for companies like Tropicana and Listerene—these shorts endure as a compelling testing ground for animators and directors to hone their craft prior to feature-length duties. Perhaps less well-known is the terrain inhabited by another set of films released under the banner of the “Home Entertainment Shorts.” These are a secondary cycle of ‘spin-off’ films packaged on DVDs whose mini-narrative arcs dovetail with the Pixar studio’s feature-length films. Such shorts typically pursue the tribulations of supporting characters (the Cars short Mater and the Ghostlight), or show events unfolding parallel to the narrative (as in the spin-off to Wall-E titled Burn-E). They can even exist as a necessary precursor to (or even in lieu of) a feature-length sequel (Disney’s fairytale Tangled and the “Toy Story Toons” that continue to sustain the Toy Story mythology long after Toy Story 3). But where the residual presence of the short film format is most evident is in the promotional world of computer-animated films, and an animation industry casting greater importance onto the repurposing of the teaser trailer. This post questions what is at stake in the sustained narrativisation of the computer-animated film teaser, and the repercussions of the intersection between the promotional world of the teaser and the short film format.
Recent theories that have elaborated upon the dense network of meanings embedded within the film trailer format have identified the trailer’s unique narrative qualities.[ii] As the number of computer-animated films has progressed on a steady incline, a new type of teaser trailer has emerged as a staple of their promotion. Pioneered by Pixar with the release of A Bug’s Life (1998), these teasers are self-contained vignettes of original animated footage specific to the trailer. Not cheating the spectator as to the film’s final content, they instead offer new pleasures that derive from the fact they are comprised of footage, not edited from an excess of it. In her book Film Marketing, Finola Kerrigan suggests that generally speaking, “teasers are often produced prior to a film being completed” and so “it is unlikely that they have a clear narrative structure.”[iii] The genealogies of the computer-animated film and its teaser are intertwined, with the latter typically produced concurrently to the feature film that it teases. Such simultaneity of production permits teasers to involve the same creative personnel as the main feature and the supplementary shorts. Star voice casts are also coerced into an involvement with the teaser too, bringing into relief issues of canonicity and continuity. The teaser trailer for The Incredibles, released a full 18 months before its theatrical debut, was entirely original footage directed by the main film’s director Brad Bird and starring main vocal performer Craig T. Nelson as the spandex-wearing superhero. Bird also directed the supplementary short for The Incredibles subsequent DVD package, titled Jack Jack Attack, in this highly authored series of texts.
The Incredibles – Teaser Trailer
The ongoing debates into transmedia storytelling and the dispersal of story and storyworld across multiple platforms may suggest a possible rubric through which to interrogate the new rhetorical play of the computer-animated film teaser. The “Transmedia Producer” film credit created in 2010 by the Producers Guild of America not only gave industry definition and visibility to transmedia properties, but also indicated a greater acceptance of the short film as a possible new platform within contemporary convergence culture.[iv] By conceiving of the teaser as the franchise’s first short film—that is, the narrative’s first port of call—the audiovisual qualities of such promotional texts may be brought into closer alignment with the computer-animated film’s unique post-cinema, transmedia existence. Bonus or special footage created for homevideo releases; ‘hidden’ Easter Eggs; false blooper reels, TV spots and promos or any other supplementary content (narrative vignettes, DVD menus, post-credits scenes) all use never-seen-before and never-seen-again original footage. In accumulation, these transmedia texts suggest a larger computer-animated film world that has systematically organised itself in terms of a series of stories. All are character-centric, implying such figures are capable of independent thought and behaviour beyond that which is prescribed to them under the guise of ‘characterisation.’ The chronology of such narrative sketches is also never fixed, but fluid and interchangeable, while the events they recount are never revisited by the feature film. Each additive segment coalesces to create a seeming surplus of computer-animated activity that must be collectively ‘mopped up’ by these multiple formats.
Frozen – Teaser Trailer
How to Train Your Dragon 2 – Teaser Trailer
There is certainly more that can be ‘teased’ out from those instances whereby teasers are made to perform as if they were a short film. The recent teasers for Walt Disney’s 53rd animated feature Frozen (2013) and DreamWorks’ upcoming sequel How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014) suggest a further expansion of the teaser’s formal vocabulary, albeit in greater alignment with the standardising grammar of the short film narrative. The structural organisation of the teaser has even incorporated devices of self-reflexivity, extending the parameters of what Paul Wells calls “deconstructive” animation.[v] The narrative of the Toy Story 3 teaser, for example, involves Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the rest of Andy’s sentient toys cobbling together the film’s colourful logo from fragments found within the fictional world. In a reciprocal gesture, many computer-animated short films are themselves reverting to more of a teaser-like constitution.[vi] Teaser trailers are even being released as shorts in their own right, narrowing the gulf between the two modes even further.[vii] The lines of demarcation between the teaser and short film are being continually blurred in ways that evolve the teaser beyond a preliminary demonstration piece. On the one hand, the playfulness of these teasers may simply be extending the “carnivalesque atmosphere” that Lisa Kernan characterises of theatrical trailer exhibition.[viii] Their function, after all, does still remain the arousal of expectation and anticipation in a product. And yet, we might ask if it is now the teaser that is being “franchised,” and whether more demand is now being placed on the feature-films to fill in the narrative lacunae between the teaser and any subsequent shorts. Why might computer-animated films be particularly conducive to these kinds of ‘narrativised’ promotional tactics? A more rigorous approach towards these lively and highly ‘animated’ promotional spaces rewards its undertaking. The emerging appeal and attraction of these teasers lies not only in their ringing endorsement of the main text, but in the fascinating exhibition they seem to make of themselves too.
Toy Story 3 – Teaser Trailer
Christopher Holliday is currently completing a Film Studies PhD at King’s College London. His research is aimed at developing an approach to the computer-animated film that elaborates upon its unique visual currencies and formal attributes, organised as a generic framework that supports their study as a new genre of contemporary cinema. He has published on the function of the child’s voice in computer-animated films, and has upcoming book chapters addressing architectural depictions of the home from pre-1900 animation to Pixar, and the portrayal of housework and domestic labour in the animated film.
[i] Thomas Schatz, “New Hollywood, New Millennium,” in Film Theory and Contemporary Hollywood Movies, ed. Warren Buckland (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2009), 30.
[ii] This is an argument advanced by Keith M. Johnston in his book Coming Soon: Film Trailers and the Selling of Hollywood Technology (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2009).
[iii] Finola Kerrigan, Film Marketing (Burlington, MA: Butterworth Press, 2010), 141.
[iv] http://www.producersguild.org/?page=coc_nm#transmedia. The full credit reads: “A Transmedia Narrative project or franchise must consist of three (or more) narrative storylines existing within the same fictional universe on any of the following platforms: Film, Television, Short Film, Broadband, Publishing, Comics, Animation, Mobile, Special Venues, DVD/Blu-ray/CD-ROM, Narrative Commercial and Marketing rollouts, and other technologies that may or may not currently exist. These narrative extensions are NOT the same as repurposing material from one platform to be cut or repurposed to different platforms.”
[v] Paul Wells, Animation: Genre and Authorship (London: Wallflower Press, 2002), 67. Wells describes “deconstructive” animation as one that mines “the premises of its own construction from critical and comic effects.”
[vi] One of the episodes of the Cars “Shorty Shorts”—a miniseries of short films running to little over 90 seconds each—titled “Bugged” actually recycles the narrative trajectory of the original Cars teaser trailer.
[vii] The teaser for Blue Sky’s Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012) was re-released as the two-part short film Scrat’s Continental Crack-Up, taking its place among the franchise’s many other short films that similarly follow the hapless activities of sabre-toothed squirrel Scrat.
[viii] Lisa Kernan, Coming Attractions: Reading American Movie Trailers (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2004), 6.
[…]  See also Christopher Holliday, “How to Tease Your Dragon: Computer-animated Film Promotion,” Animation Studies (August 26, 2013), accessed April 20, 2018, https://blog.animationstudies.org/?p=480. […]