Meet Your Storyteller: Phil Edwards of Vox Media
By Ted Reyes
The human mind is a sucker for stories. We make sense of the world through stories told in the form of science, religion, myths, and news. Stories provide context and meaning to events and experiences, helping us understand our place in the world and our relationships with others. They allow us to explore different perspectives and learn from other people's experiences. As one Buddhist sage once said: "Without stories, you see the emptiness of everything."
Phil Edwards is a master storyteller. He wrote and produced a variety of stories throughout his career, including an episode of Netflix's popular "Explained" series. His latest piece for Vox is about iconic film trailers explained by a master trailer editor, Bill Neil of Buddha Jones. The entertaining and informative piece already has over 300,000 views on Youtube.
We caught up with Phil and discussed his process and his career as a storyteller for one of the biggest media publishing companies today.
What was the genesis of this piece?
Phil: A lot of people I work with edit stuff as well, and at Vox, we try to be adventurous in our edits. So we're all thinking about the techniques used in commercials, trailers, and other high-end media and seeing how we can adapt them to our own work. So the opportunity to talk to a true master of the form seemed like a great use of video (and a way to nerd out on a subject I'm passionate about).
Why the need to explain trailers?
Phil: While this was a bit of a personal nerd opportunity, we also wanted to serve our audience and help them appreciate all the artistry and hard work that goes into this form of storytelling. People neglect it, and they also have lots of questions (like why trailers are different from the movie, why they reveal so much, and other questions that are answered in the piece).
How did you get Bill Neil involved?
Phil: I'd love to tell you that I did some incredible source work to get him to work with us, but I just sent a cold email to Trailer Studio Buddha Jones, and they were willing to take my call. I was even happier they gave me an opportunity to speak with Bill — he's done some podcast appearances for horror trailer fans/general horror fans, and it was clear he was a charismatic, entertaining speaker.
What's your all-time favorite trailer, and why?
Phil: I've quickly become biased to say a Bill Neil trailer is my favorite — so I'll say the Nope trailer is just an excellent example of the form and the reason I used it in the piece. Apart from that, trailers like the "A Serious Man" trailer first helped me notice it.
Right off the bat, Neil talks about music. Why is music a critical part of creating trailers?
Phil: Really careful sound design cues set the mood for a trailer almost instantly. Bill says that people connect with sound and music even more quickly than visuals, and I tend to agree.
He also talked about Deconstructing a song to fit the edit. Is this something you do as well as an editor? If so, how do you pick the parts from a track? Do you use breaks or stems?
Phil: I was really excited when APM introduced Stems. They've allowed me to exert so much more control over my work. Even if I end up using a normal track for a bit of the piece, the Stems give me great options to close out sections or create fun interstitial moments.
When you edited this piece, what SFX and sounds did you use?
Phil: This piece included a few risers I was familiar with from APM, like these:
And I also used the full mix and stems from What Will Be Will Be:
I do augment that with SFX from Soundsnap.
That doo-wop female vocal track in the transitions is super cool. What's that?
Phil: That's What Will Be Will Be - because we do mostly explanatory videos, it's rare that we get a chance to use tracks with vocals, so I relish any opportunity I can find to sneak them in. I thought that the singers there set a nice light tone and served as a good music cue for our viewers. That said, making Barbie "Jump" to an APM music cue for a video about the triple axel remains my favorite APM vocal use in my eight years.
You mentioned using APM for eight years now. Why APM?
Phil: Why is a bit above my pay grade, but I have developed quite a familiarity with APM albums! Even composers! I think using the same library across platforms is really helpful.
Can you share how you use APM? Does it start with a search, or do you check new releases, or do you avail of the music director service?
Phil: Honestly, I'm at the point where I do check new releases. I literally have popped into Slack rooms at work and exclaimed, "New LAURENT DURY just dropped!" (and then tried to be the first to snag it for myself). I'm also very likely to search by composer after that or use the similar tracks feature to get a coherent playlist for our (typically) 8-15 minute videos.
Can you share some of your favorite tracks, albums, or playlists that you often use for your projects?
Phil: Laurent Dury, Cristof De Jean, Time and Motion, The Acoustic Machines - I am almost ashamed to admit that I didn't have to Google any of these. They came off the top of my head! I try to use new music whenever I can, however, so I don't indulge myself to repeat unless I absolutely have to.
Tell us about your career as a producer/editor. How did you get into this trade?
Phil: I started as a writer at Vox, and they wanted a scriptwriter to come over to video. I fell in love with the technical side of production, and so now I kind of wear all the hats.
What are your favorite tools and why?
Phil: We live in the Adobe Suite, so that's my home base. Lately, I've been using Descript for audio cleanup and occasional editing. When I'm feeling adventurous, I like to bring things into Unreal Engine too, though my time is limited there.
You produced the eSports episode of the Netflix series Explained. What was that like?
Phil: The nice thing about Vox's Netflix show was that the creators developed a style similar to what worked well on YouTube. So it was just a bigger scale but not a totally different style of storytelling. It was a whirlwind, to be sure.
We're in the age of micro-videos on Tiktok and Instagram. How are you adapting to this?
Phil: Vox has a Tiktok account that I've contributed to some. I think it's just finding what works!
Is this 15-30 second storytelling trend good or bad?
Phil: I think, as with most things, it's about finding the appropriate story to tell in such a short time period. Whether it's good or bad depends largely on the execution.
You've been doing this for a while now. What keeps you excited?
Phil: I think just pushing myself creatively is the only way to stay invested. So for the video with Bill, doing it without any voiceover was a fun challenge (though he was so good on camera, it wasn't a very hard one).
What stories are you planning to tell soon?
Phil: I am currently hard at work on a series about AI. The reporting has been really fun. I've only written one episode so far, but it came surprisingly easy and will hopefully add some nuance to the conversation.
Now that we're seeing AI knocking on the door with its ability to generate images and text efficiently, what will the future be like for creatives? Do we need to start updating our resumes?
Phil: I'm an optimist when it comes to all this stuff. I think grunt work will further diminish (as it already has in the past eight years), and we'll have more time for the good stuff.
Considering this, what's your advice for people who want to follow in your footsteps?
Phil: I'd say the best thing is just to do your best on the immediate project, get it out there, and move on. Don't let yourself be paralyzed by perfectionism, just keep iterating, and you'll improve and find a voice you like.