There have been few films, in recent memory, shrouded in as much secrecy as Tenet. Even though the film is now officially released in theaters worldwide, I still have not seen it. Theaters are not yet open in New York City, and I am also not sure I am ready for them even if they were. But, as a massive movie lover, I had Tenet pinned on my calendar since I first saw the trailer. Christopher Nolan is maybe the only director today who can command an audience on his name alone – sort of a modern-day Hitchcock, Kubrick, or Spielberg in that regard.
It was Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar that brought the Murph watch into existence. You may remember my conversation with prop-master Ritchie Kremer, who worked on that film. We got to talking about how the Murph watch was made, as well as what goes into making and using prop-watches in Hollywood productions. This time, I was able to go hands-on with two film-used prop watches from Tenet, and I had the chance to speak to the film’s production designer, Nathan Crowley (also the PD on Interstellar, Dunkirk, and First Man) about how the watches work and how they came to be. Given that I talked with him prior to the film being released, he was under a strict NDA – so no spoilers here.
At the time I received these watches, the movie still hadn’t been released, and the cloud of intrigue and intense secrecy hung heavily over anything having to do with the film. When I went to the door of my apartment building to take delivery of the watches, I was greeted by two men in uniform and an armored car. One man, aviator glasses and all, simply looked at me and said “ID please.” I presented my ID, signed the paperwork, and was handed a massive blue bag which was fastened shut via a zip ctie. The whole experience was fitting, albeit unexpected.
After unboxing the watches, the first thing I noticed was the weight. Now, earlier this year, Hamilton released two special edition BeLOWZERO watches inspired by watches featured in Tenet, made of PVD coated titanium. Well, that is not the case – quite literally – here. Given that the BeLOWZERO was an existing model in Hamilton’s lineup (and used previously in the Ridley Scott film, The Martian), it was that catalog model, in PVD-coated stainless steel, which served as the basis for the Tenet prop watch.
It is important to keep in mind that these are prop watches. A prop watch is exactly what it sounds like: a prop used in a film or television production. In the case of watches, that can result in the use of what are called “dummies,” or watches that don’t function as time-telling devices, i.e. there is no movement inside. In the case of Tenet, these two watches are what I might call partial dummies in that they function in their own unique way – but they still don’t tell time.
The watches were conceived early in pre-production of the film. It became clear that a watch was going to need to be created specifically for the film based on the script and plot. Hamilton was only given enough information to be able to create what Crowley and Nolan needed. The “what” was known, but the “why” would never be disclosed. Crowley and Nolan landed on the BeLOWZERO as the template for their modifications due to its somewhat military look. The idea was to have a large digital display on the dial – in two color variants, red and blue, with a countdown/up feature. Considering the immense secrecy around the creation of the watch, Crowley noted that it may have seemed “weird to [Hamilton] because they don’t know why we want this or why we are asking them to give us a watch that counts down from ten past to zero and back, in each color.”
At one point in the prototyping phase, it became clear that it would be impossible to make articulating hands and a digital display together. It was then proposed to just do a digital readout, with no analog handset – but that wouldn’t do. The plan all along, from Crowley and Nolan, was to have both the hands and the digital readout. A workaround needed to be devised. The end result was a masterclass in practical filmmaking. A large quantity of individual watches was ordered, each displaying the hands in a fixed position of time. In all, there were about 40 or so watches in each color, with a different orientation of the hands to correspond with the digital readout. You might be wondering why they went through all of this trouble, what with the advent of modern technology and all. As Crowley put it, “We don’t do things digitally, and we were not going to do a CG version of the watch face. We wanted to do everything in-camera.”
The end design of the Tenet watch is exactly what we have here: A two-hand dive-style, ana-digi watch, with a digital readout that lights up in red or blue. As was alluded to earlier, the watches don’t work – well, at least the hands don’t, and while it looks like an ana-digi watch (think Breitling Aerospace, Omega X-33, G-Shock, etc.), it does not function like one. As mentioned, there is no movement – mechanical or otherwise – inside. In this case, it is because the mechanism would have gone straight through the digital plate – destroying it. In reality, the watch was conceived and developed in about four to six months, which was not enough time to create a working model, given the fact that they integrated the digital display into an existing Hamilton watch that did not previously have one.
Apparently, the blue and the red digital displays light up differently, depending on lighting conditions, with blue performing better in daylight, and red performing better in the shade. It also took significantly more power to light up the red display, and that is why you will notice an external battery pack attached to the red model, with wiring going in through the caseback. The blue version has the batteries hidden inside the watch. In addition to the 80-plus watches required, there were also backups in the event something went wrong. Similar to the Murph watch, the Tenet watches required a technician to handle the operation of the watches for filming, such as setting up the digital timing function and ensuring that the correct handset was chosen to correspond with it when the cameras rolled. As Crowley put it, “The watch cannot slow the down the shoot.” As far as I can tell, they never did.
The case is made of stainless steel with a black PVD coating, and the dial is a matte black with dark grey Arabic numerals, almost in a lacquered texture. The hands are in a broad arrow style, in two shades of grey with the inner portion having a sandblasted effect. Unlike Hamilton’s Tenet Special Edition BeLOWZERO models, you will not find a seconds hand here at all. That is because of the digital countdown timer, a function exclusive to the prop watch, and one you will not find on the Special Edition models, or for sale anywhere for that matter.
Looking at the dial from different angles, you start to see the cracks and imperfections of the prop watch. There appear to be two pieces to the dial, with the minute track separate from the central dial portion. This is because the central part of the dial – containing the Arabic numerals – houses the countdown display. You can actually see blue or red light peeking out from the area between these two pieces of the dial. If you look at the image above, you will also see some traces of the blue light material bleeding through under the number zero.
As referenced, the red variant is the watch that needed the extra power supply via the external battery pack. Given that the battery back was both external, and tethered to the watch via electronic wiring, it made it a bit difficult to wear on the wrist. The battery pack is your standard fare black rectangular piece of plastic. It has an on-off switch which allows you to power on the countdown function on the red version. The wiring flows from the external pack into the watch through the engraving on the caseback into a small hole. This probably renders the water resistance null, but that doesn’t matter with a watch like this. When you power on the battery pack, the screen fades in to the 00:00 readout.
The blue variant has no external parts, but again, is still heavy. Considering it is a 46mm hunk of stainless steel filled to the brim with batteries, that makes sense. I was able to put this variant on to see how it fit, wire-sfree. As one who is known to downplay the size of a watch and declare it smaller than you might think, that was not the feeling here. These watches are very large. The size does give more surface area for the countdown timer which, as a result, is extremely legible. Not knowing the digital readout’s function or purpose in the film bugs me (mostly because I want to see the movie), but I appreciate the functionality as a novelty all the same. Those who have seen the film will surely have a better understanding.
The strap was very comfortable. For a watch with such heft, the rubber strap was able to secure it to my wrist in such a way as to negate the weight. I appreciated the double stamped pin holes – and frankly, I think it was necessary. Another welcome sight was that the end of the strap did not stick out beyond the watch when on wrist, even though I had it in the last possible position.
Both watches sport the same engraved caseback design, as well as the oversized crown with the engraved “H.” Overall, the watches felt substantial and well made. I know they are not actual military watches in any way, but they do give off that affectation. Wearing these was like wearing an over-engineered G-Shock. Putting the watch on made me feel like I was ready to embark on some form of espionage or covert mission. If only I could figure out how to work the only functional aspect of the watch … the countdown timer.
In terms of functionality, the red model is meant to count up and the blue meant to count down. I will admit, I had some difficulty operating this aspect of the watch, even with the aid of the film’s own production designer walking me through it. The digital display is activated via the crown. There is a click system implemented into it, and depending on how many clicks you give it, a different result is meant to occur. I clicked in a variety of ways, and no matter how I clicked, I was only ever able generate a countdown timer. One click starts the counter, and another lights up the display. Without the backlight, the blue model presents as more of a turquoise blue, but when lit up, it is a deeper, stronger blue. The red is more standard in appearance. If you have ever seen a red digital display (think digital alarm clocks), you get the idea. The main difference is that when the blue is lit up, it lights the entire dial surface, whereas the red lights up just the numerals.
On the production, given the differences in the display between the red and blue digital readout, the crew had to bolster both watches’ displays so the cameras could capture them properly. Again, I don’t know what role these countdown/up timers play in the film. Due to the NDA, Crowley could effectively tell me nothing about the film. All I was able to obtain was that the display is an “essential element.” Take that however you’d like.
Overall, these watches were everything I expected them to be: Non-working props, with imperfections that a real watch would (hopefully) never have, but which endear them more to their intended use. I do plan on eventually seeing this film, and will keep my eyes glued to the screen to spot these watches now that I have seen them up close. I find the whole behind-the-scenes world of film fascinating. To that end, these watches – and the stories behind them – did not disappoint.
Editor’s Note: Of course, we all live in different areas, with different rules and regulations for returning to the cinema. If you live somewhere were theaters are back open, and you have seen the film, try to be respectful of those who have not. Let’s refrain from putting spoilers in the comments below.