'Interstellar's' Ticking Clock: Hiding Suspense in Plain Sight
In 'Interstellar,' Christopher Nolan and Hans Zimmer hid suspense in a place where no one would see it: in the music.
There are many ways to ramp up the tension in a scene, whether it's by tightening shots, changing the lighting, or introducing troubling information about a character. However, perhaps one of the most obvious ways to do this is by incorporating into the scene a "ticking clock," a storytelling device that essentially gives an action a deadline in which it has to be completed. Many films use this technique to increase tension, whether by stating the deadline through dialogue or by including a literal ticking clock countdown, but these kinds of approaches can be a little too on the nose, lacking subtlety and cleverness, many times taking away the audience's chance to contextualize information on their own and feel the raw emotions of a cinematic scene.
However, in this video essay, Adam Tinius of Entertain the Elk explains how director Christopher Nolan and film score composer Hans Zimmer worked to use the ticking clock device to build tension in the 2014 sci-fi film Interstellar while also maintaining a level of subtlety that would allow audiences to avoid clunky expositional scenes—and a digital countdown.
There's nothing wrong with telling your audience that certain actions must be completed in a certain amount of time, whether through dialogue or a literal ticking clock (though the latter is pretty cliché at this point). Plenty of films enter the second act through a "you've got this much time to come up with the money" calls to adventure and they work great. But what if your film doesn't have an external conflict that must be completed in a certain amount of time? Or what if you just don't want to be that blatant with your ticking clock?
Well, as you can see from Interstellar, music is a really economical and effective way of building tension. You're not using any words or actions, you're not hitting your audience over the head with information—you're cleverly using the tempo of a film score or piece of music to convince your audience subconsciously that this moment is very important and time is running out.
Nolan and Zimmer are by no means the only artists who use this convention. Ennio Morricone did amazing work in Brian de Palma's 1987 gangster film The Untouchables, namely during the "Union Station" scene. It not only uses several clock motifs but it also uses the sound of a heavy stroller rhythmically hitting stairs as Kevin Costner's character, Eliot Ness, pulls it up as he waits for the arrival of a bunch of dangerous gangsters.
What are some other films that utilize the ticking clock device the way Nolan and Zimmer or de Palma and Morricone did? Let us know down in the comments.