The House with a Clock in Its Walls: Playing with Space

Universal Pictures’ The House with a Clock in Its Walls is set in Michigan, 1955. Recently orphaned 10-year old Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) moves in with his Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black). During the night, Lewis hears a mysterious ticking sound. It’s coming from a doomsday clock hidden in the walls by an evil warlock and witch. Jonathan and Lewis must destroy the clock before it puts an end to human existence.

Oscar-winning supervising sound editor Karen Baker Landers at Formosa Group in Hollywood was in charge of creating that all-important doomsday clock sound. Because the clock is a character, director Eli Roth wanted it to feel like a monster and sound extremely different from the hundreds of other clocks in the house. “It had to be big and powerful but still sound clock-like,” Landers says.

She borrowed a Gretsch electric guitar from sound effects recordist Charlie Campagna and hooked it up to a 400-watt speaker. She then experimented with thumping all the strings at once, across different frets, to produce two distinct sounds: a tick and a tock. “We tried doing this with other electric guitars, too, but there was something about the Gretsch. It had this feeling that we couldn’t get with the others,” Landers says.

She recorded the Gretsch guitar tick and tock sounds into Pro Tools and cut them into a clock rhythm. Landers and Campagna world-ized the sound by playing it through a 1,200-watt P.A. speaker set up in various places around the facility. They recorded the sound coming through the ceiling of Landers’ studio and down a staircase and through a hallway. “We got these big tick and tock sounds with all this natural reverb and those are used all throughout the movie,” says Landers. For the final touch, sound designer Randy Torres added clock mechanism sounds.

During Lewis’ first night in the house, he hears the clock in the walls. It pulls him into the hallway and leads him downstairs to a room on the first floor. Landers notes that they played with panning the clock sound into discrete speakers to match Lewis’s movements.