Behind the scenes

Watches on camera – time for their close up

Time is one of life’s most elusive things. For their entire history, watchmakers have been trying to control and regulate time, while the art of film focuses on capturing moments in time. In both watches and films, the best results are those efforts that are timeless.


Watches As Symbols

Watches and clocks have been used as symbols throughout the history of film. Remember Harold Lloyd hanging from the giant clock in the 1923 silent film Safety Last? In a way, every watch in every movie is a symbol – if only a symbol of what kind of character the actor is. In the James Bond movies, Bond has always worn an elegant, yet rough-and-tumble timepiece to reflect his personality.

Product Placement

Watchmakers know that one of the best ways to get you to picture yourself wearing a special timepiece is to place one on the wrist of the star of a popular movie.

As awareness of fine watches increases, and watch brands become savvier about marketing and promotion, watches are being showcased more and more in Hollywood. Whether these watches are on the wrists of the heroes (or villains) in the latest blockbusters or sparkling on the red carpet, watches are definitely ready for their close ups.

Watches are one of the ways that men and women can showcase their style and taste, so it makes sense that Hollywood uses them on the wrists of stars to delineate their characters. There have been some huge success stories in the world of watches and entertainment and people are paying attention to what watches are on the wrists of their favorite stars.

In the best product placements, watches are key components to the definition of character in movies. After all, characters are defined by the choices they make: words, jobs, clothes, actions, cars and yes, watches.

Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar
Matthew McConaughey wearing Hamilton in Interstellar

Product placement is good for movie producers because it helps defray expenses. “No matter what size the budget of the movie, it is hard for producers to justify spending $30,000 on a watch or even $5,000, for that matter, and we always need more than one for safety,” says Doug Harlocker, propmaster. “So, the exchange of exposure for the use of goods is a very gratifying relationship — the production value of the movie is heightened without costing an arm and a leg.”

Watch placement can happen any number of ways. Many watch companies have representatives who work to place watches with studios and production companies. Sometimes, a production company will approach a watch brand about using its products for a particular project. At times, product placement is about historical accuracy, as in the movie Pearl Harbor, for example, Touchstone Pictures wanted something authentic and Hamilton Watch was a major supplier to the US military during World War II. The result? A huge close up of a Hamilton watch, worn by Josh Hartnett, in the final cut of the movie.

Another example is the Omega Speedmaster “Moonwatch,” which played a part in the real Apollo 13 mission – the astronauts used it to time the start and stop of the engine on re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere — it was the only correct choice of watch for Ron Howard’s Apollo 13.

On Ocean’s 12, propmaster Harlocker carried around at least $250,000 worth of watches with him every day to satisfy all of the actors’ characters. Brad Pitt, for instance, wore a Breitling Emergency, a Chronoswiss, a white gold Rolex, a Patek Philippe and a Hermès at different times throughout the movie. George Clooney wore a classic Hamilton in every scene. “I could not have provided those watches without the help of the manufacturers,” Harlocker admits. “Brad Pitt, after being exposed to that Breitling, purchased a half dozen of them for his co-stars on Oceans 12. In a perfect world, the actor will appreciate the product, wear it in the movie and in real life.”

Ann Roth, costume designer on Julie & Julia and many others, is obsessive about getting the watch right for each character on her projects. “I can hold up a movie set for hours choosing the right watch,” she says. “I choose the watch based on the character. For example, Ralph Fiennes needed a watch for his character in The English Patient. He was Hungarian royalty in the 1920s, got involved in the geographical society, lived in London and Egypt, so the watch he wore had to be really particular, I wanted the watch that guy would wear. I found it in London, in a second hand shop, but I needed two of them, so I had a watchmaker make me another one. I am very particular about the watches that characters wear, as they say so much about them.”

John Meyer, the production designer on Nine and other features, is interested in how a watch “helps with the story telling process,” he says. “It’s a major definition of a person’s character. I will meet with the property master and we’ll look at all the watches. The choice of watches for movies is very important and the right watch makes perfect sense, like the Hamilton in Amelia. She wore a Hamilton in real life, so it’s genius.”

Some placements are chosen by the cast and crew, some are paid for and still others are a joint marketing effort – it all depends on the movie, the brand and the situation.

When product placement works, it is much better than any advertising a company could do. The impact is greater, because the audience is caught up in the plot of a great movie.

It’s also possible that a watch supplied for a movie or TV show and worn during the shoot will never appear on screen, despite everyone’s best efforts. After all, movies aren’t edited with watch placement in mind and what was a great shot for the watch might not make it into the final edit.

Colin Firth and Bremont in Kingsman
Colin Firth and Bremont in Kingsman

Watch Creation for Movies

Some watches, like the watch in Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, are designed specifically for films. Hamilton Watch Company was commissioned to make the “2001” watch, a special multi time zone timepiece for the film and the company never even considered selling the watch commercially, as it was too complicated (for the time). In 2006, Hamilton finally made a limited-edition reinterpretation of this watch, 30 years after the original film. How limited was this timepiece? You guessed it, 2001 pieces.

Hamilton Space Odyssey

Hamilton did the same for Interstellar, creating a watch for the lead character’s daughter Murph, which featured integrally in the plot. Customers clamored for the watch and the company finally made it, introducing it after the film.

“For Russell Crowe in Master and Commander, I contacted Breguet to duplicate a watch that they had made in the 1700s to use in the film,” Harlocker remembers. “They took it on as a challenge and delivered a magnificent pocket watch absolutely authentic to the period at no charge to us. What did they get out of it? Well, 100 million people saw that movie and saw Russell using it. It is a strong association.”

Next time you’re at the movies. Pay attention to what watches the characters are wearing – nothing is there by accident.