Let’s talk about Ticking Clocks

Today the new trailer arrived for Christopher Nolan’s upcoming war historical film, DUNKIRK, and it gives us an excellent opportunity to talk about the use of the ticking clock motif in trailers.  Check out the video below and then keep scrolling for the analysis.

The concept of the “ticking clock” is a staple of Hollywood storytelling, and narratology in general for that matter.  Victoria Schmidt, in her book Story Structure Architect, describes it this way: “There is often a sense of urgency in this type of story structure to keep the story moving forward and the reader on the edge of her seat.  For example, in one hour the bomb will go off, killing a lot of innocent children.  Can the hero find the bomb before that?” (35).  It is a means of ramping up the stakes and forcing characters to not only act towards resolving the main conflict, but to do so rapidly.  As a narrative device, it is extremely helpful.  However, it comes with a cost: it tends to be rather obvious.

Storytellers often do what they can to obfuscate the structures and devices they are employing because they want you to be engrossed in the story.  When you notice the technique behind the scenes, it draws your attention away from the intended focus of the narrative and the emotional beats.  Sometimes this can be used for very specific, formalist effect.  But it has to be done carefully and pointedly – it has to drive to a noticeable message which tells us something about the whole.

Which is why this trailer is so baffling.  In a perfect bit of irony, Nolan seems to be failing a “Mr. Charles” gambit – forcing the spectator to become aware that they are being manipulated in order to redirect their focus elsewhere.  The ticking clock noise starts at 0:38 and plays over the entirety of the trailer, stopping at the date screen at 2:23 (a full 1:45).  It never grows or dissipates, changing only by its relationship with the other diegetic sounds.

In terms of pacing, the overbearing and extensive use of the clock-ticking noise slows down the trailer even more than its two-plus minute runtime does.  Rather than hinting at some deeper meaning, it just reminds you that you are sitting, watching something tick towards its conclusion.  It draws attention to itself – a two-and-a-half minute long trailer that goes on way too long.

The ticking-clock is a regular feature of Nolan’s and Syncopy’s trailers, though they are usually better implemented.  For example, in the Dark Knight Rises trailer, the chanting of the prisoners acts as a percussive clock noise, and is paired with Zimmer’s escalating musical tone to give the trailer a strong momentum that builds to its climax.  In fact, Zimmer’s scores through out the Batman trilogy seem centered on the repetitive percussion of sound (cf – The Dark Knight and to a lesser degree Batman Begins).   Nolan’s first movie, Memento, provides another example of the use of the ticking clock motif, though only in the middle section of the trailer.  Strangely, only Interstellar seems to have not made use of the device in its marketing, though the music of the film is certainly conceived in a different fashion that most of the other Zimmer-Nolan collaborations.

In sum, a ticking clock is a necessary and useful tool in designing the pace of your trailer.  An exemplary instance of this is in the original Alien trailer – the ticking noise is complemented by the blaring siren which, coupled with escalating imagery, makes for a terrifying and engaging bit of marketing.  Here, in this second trailer for Christopher Nolan’s DUNKIRK, all I can think about is this:

Thanks for joining me and keep on the lookout for more trailer analysis here at ART OF THE TRAILER.

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About Tyler D. Welch

Filmmaker, Storyteller, Scholar View all posts by Tyler D. Welch

One response to “Let’s talk about Ticking Clocks

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