Nothing signifies time running out quite like a ticking clock. Suspense increases without a single line of dialogue, which is why it's such an effective trailer device. Using a clock to suggest a countdown is hardly revelatory, but ever since Hans Zimmer’s 2017 Dunkirk score, there has been a noticeable uptick (pardon the pun) in how this sound is being utilized in television marketing campaigns.
Christopher Nolan has a lot to answer for when it comes to trailer trends. First, there was the Inception "BRAAAM” noise dominating previews for the majority of this decade. An instantly recognizable, brassy foghorn fanfare, telling audiences to strap in and prepare for something big. Six years later, the teaser announcement for Nolan’s World War II film Dunkirk took a different auditory approach in building stomach ache-inducing tension, choosing a familiar everyday object to replace the larger-than-life call to arms. While it hasn’t taken on quite the same life as the "BRAAAM” device, the number of notable TV shows using a ticking clock is increasing.
HBO’s marketing department knows how to build excitement. After all, they did manage to get thousands to watch a live stream featuring a melting block of ice to find out the Game of Thrones Season 7 premiere date. Outlandish stunts aren't required for weekly episode promos, but there's an art to making an effective audience tease.
While the final season of Game of Thrones was divisive, there's no denying that the show's "next time on” ads were effective in generating buzz. For the highly anticipated King’s Landing battle, the nerve-shredding spectacle of the Dunkirk teaser provided the template. Until I viewed the promos back-to-back, I actually thought they shared the same score (borrowing music for a trailer is common practice), but the ticking in the Thrones teaser is traditional Big Ben to Dunkirk’s twentieth-century Omega timepiece.
The Thrones promo follows the initial Dunkirk announcement almost beat-for-beat, but instead of enemy bullets about to rain down, it's dragon fire. Images of seafoam, despair, and covered bodies on the beach are switched out for pensive Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), Cersei (Lena Headey), and Jon (Kit Harington) surveying the forthcoming battlefield. As the ticking intensifies, it doubles as a reminder that two episodes remain (as if viewers weren't aware of this fact). A watch is vital to Tom Hardy’s WWII pilot storyline, while in King’s Landing, a bell will signify the end. Of course, the repetitive ticking in Dunkirk is mostly non-diegetic, but this particular technology doesn’t even exist in Westeros, which only makes this soundscape choice stand out. As it's a teaser, the anachronism isn’t an issue. It's not like a coffee cup or plastic water bottle sneaking into frame. Nevertheless, it's hard not to picture Harry Styles and Tom Hardy when the audience should be focusing on the Iron Throne.
HBO is hoping Damon Lindelof’s take on Watchmen will fill the event TV hole left by Game of Thrones. It's a franchise with an existing fanbase, even if this isn’t a direct adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel or the 2017 sequel, Doomsday Clock. In both the teaser and the first full-length trailer, clocks are seen and heard. Unlike the borrowed Dunkirk theme, this is very much a diegetic use that even includes a creepy "tick-tock” human-led chant. No, this is not a karaoke rendition of Kesha or a love letter to the app. Rather, it's a countdown to impending explosive action. The job of a teaser is to draw an audience in, while simultaneously amping up the tension. Thanks to the tick-tock effect, this does both.
A ticking clock doesn’t need to be isolated to have an impact. Time plays an important role in the horror of Hulu’s Castle Rock. In the full-length trailer, Ricky Nelson’s "Lonesome Town” gets the remix treatment as dripping, barking, weapons, and ticking all become percussive instruments to increase the creepy vibe. An incessant tick-tock playing over a perilous scenario is anti-ASMR. There's nothing relaxing about a sound effect suggesting time is slipping away like sand in an hourglass.
War, fantasy, horror, and graphic novel adaptations aren't the only genres opting for this approach. Last week, Netflix unveiled the date for The Crown's highly anticipated return, along with an official first look at Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II. This is without a doubt one of the jewels in the streaming giant’s crown, but it has been nearly two years since we last spent time with the royal family. Netflix also has to take into account the fact that viewers will be welcoming a brand new cast to Buckingham Palace. Recent Oscar-winner Colman is stepping into Claire Foy’s tasteful shoes. Viewed through a gap in a door, a ticking clock accompanies this first peek at Colman’s older Elizabeth. The costume is similar, but everything else has changed.
There is something of a ‘Peeping Tom’ vibe as the camera draws closer to the gap in the door, until Colman as Elizabeth meets our eye. This teaser is serving up drama with every tick, ending with the announcement of Season 3's premiere date on November 17. It's also a full-circle soundtrack moment, as Hans Zimmer composed The Crown’s theme song.
Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina.