By: Gregg LaGambina
Sixth in the series.
Director Patrick Clair uses the word “lucky” a lot. This might just be a reflection of his current mood. This past year, Clair won his second Creative Arts Emmy for “Outstanding Main Title Design” for Amazon Studios’ The Man in the High Castle. In 2014, he earned his first Emmy, in the same category, for the title sequence that opened the first season of HBO’s True Detective. In total, Clair, along with his team of creatives at the production company Elastic, have amassed five Creative Arts Emmy nominations for Outstanding Main Title Design – including the AMC shows Halt and Catch Fire and The Night Manager, and Marvel’s Daredevil for Netflix.
When Clair describes how he became the creator of so many memorable opening credit sequences for hit TV shows, it’s understandable why he might think this has all been the happy result of some invisible force. After all, nobody really dreams about becoming a Main Title Designer. In fact, most people don’t even know enough about “main title design” to even dream about it, let alone pursue it as a career.
“Main Titles” is quite simply a technical term that describes what most people would refer to as “opening credits.” It is Clair’s job to compress the narrative of an entire series into a 30- or 60-second opening that fans of a show will return to episode after episode, hopefully finding new things in the smaller details as they become more familiar with the show’s story. Clair’s work stands out from others in his field because his sequences not only hold up after repeated viewings, his images become more meaningful the more you look at them. In this era of binge-watching, the most-coveted accolade for Clair is probably when viewers choose to watch the fruits of his hard labor without skipping right over it to get to the show.
CreativeFuture spoke with Clair to find out more about “main title design,” what project convinced him to uproot his family and move from Sydney to Los Angeles, and what he thinks is necessary to make a perfect opening credit sequence.
Gregg LaGambina: How did you become a creative director – specializing in main title design – for television shows?
Patrick Clair: I started out wanting to be a filmmaker in the broader sense. I come from a city in Australia called Brisbane. It’s not a small city, but it’s not one of the very big ones either. I’d done a bunch of film work in high school and I went to university and did coursework that, in theory, educated me about being a director. I graduated from that when I had just turned 20. I’d spent three years at university and I had this piece of paper saying that I was a director. I was in a city of a million people where there were maybe two or three professional directors. The idea of being a director was unrealistic to say the least. So, I had to figure out some kind of way to convert this kind of broad education I had in film into a way of supporting myself.
GL: When was this?
PC: This was in the early 2000s. The desktop revolution had happened, motion graphics was exploding as a vocation, and it was starting to be something that could be done on relatively cheap equipment, instead of big, expensive machines. A couple of studios – especially here in the States – were revolutionizing what you could do with these hybrids that combined animation and typography and graphic design and live-action filmmaking into these kinds of mashups. You could see this type of work appearing everywhere – the MTV Awards, advertising, video games and, of course, title sequences.
A friend of mine suggested that I might be interested in pursuing this kind of work. So, I started to teach myself how to use After Effects [the Adobe software used by filmmakers for graphics design and animation]. At the time, I was looking at work from studios like MK12 – that went on to do the James Bond titles some years later – and other studios like Psyop that had done the graphics for the MTV Music Awards. I became interested in this idea: “How do I combine live action and animation and typography – and all of these different things that I love – into something that moves and makes people feel something?”
So, I went off and I did a bit more studying in that area. In Australia, it turned out there was one position in the entire country available where you could study this. I managed to get it and I went to Sydney. I did that for a couple of years, I graduated, and I was lucky enough to get a job at MTV. I got to spend a couple of years there just making really indulgent, pretty stuff. I was just trying to make stuff that was cool, for the sake of being cool. That was great, but it ended up feeling a little bit empty. Because what I really wanted to do was be a storyteller. That was really hard to do with ads and music promos. And I didn’t understand how to do it with text and motion graphics yet.
GL: Where did you end up learning how to tell stories?
PC: Well, I quit that job at MTV and I went flitting around. I was lucky enough to fall ass-backwards into a project that was being started up on the ABC – which is the equivalent of the BBC; it’s a government-funded channel, but it’s a very dominant channel in the Australian media landscape. We were all very lucky. We had this very smart executive producer who had been a big interviewer and public intellectual in Australia. He gave me and two other people a chance to make a topical show that would go on primetime television, once a week, for half an hour. We had lots of freedom, but we had to make a half-an-hour of content every week. In my animation department, there were two of us, sometimes three – we made around six minutes of stuff every week. If you know how long it takes to make animation sequences, that’s just crazy and fast. We didn’t have time to make it pretty or polished, but it taught us about storytelling. Because we had to tell stories – with nothing but text and animation – every week. I did that for about 30 weeks over a two-year period. It was like boot camp.
Finally, somewhere along the way, I felt like I understood how to tell stories using motion graphics. I was telling stories about technology, about warfare, about epics and I was asking a lot of questions. We read a lot of Wired and Code magazines. We tried to do what those magazines were doing, but trying to do it on television. Somewhere around the end of that, I made piece called “Stuxnet.” It was about a computer virus that the U.S. Government had secretly used to attack Iran. I had the choice of using bomber planes or using a computer virus. A friend and I did an animation about it and it just took off on the internet. I was really lucky because it was the last week of the show. I was going to need another new job soon and this piece ended up being my launching pad. This was the first time I had made something that was sent across the internet and around the world and was watched overseas.
GL: How did the viral success of “Stuxnet” affect the arc of your career?
PC: I was really lucky. “Stuxnet” was a piece that showed how I could explain real wars. Some video-game studios saw it and they were like, “Oh, if this kid can explain real wars with these graphics maybe he can explain fake wars.” They were interested because they owned all of the Tom Clancy games. So, I managed to get a gig doing videos that explained the story in the games by using graphics and animated sequences to show the worlds inside these games. You could build a tone, a theme, a look and a feel, the colors, the emotions, and the moods. I did that for a couple of years and that helped me start my own studio, Antibody. But, some of the work I did for the Tom Clancy games got seen online as well. One of them was seen by people at a company called Elastic, here in California. The executive producer there, Jennifer Sophio Hall – who is now a very close friend and collaborator – reached out and said, “Hey, would you mind working with us? Would you like to do some jobs for us?” I said, “I’d love to.” And the first job she came up with was True Detective. We pitched it, we won it, and shortly afterward, I moved over here to work with them. I’ve been here ever since.
GL: You really can’t plan for stuff like that to happen.
PC: [Laughs] No, you cannot. I had already been over to the States a couple of times and we decided we wanted to be in Sydney. My son was born a couple years back. Everything was trucking along nicely and then Jennifer said, “When can you come work with us?” I said, “Well, why don’t we get a cool job to do together first? If it goes well, I’d love to come to the States.” I still remember hitting refresh on my email and seeing that unread email with the subject line, “True Detective” just sitting there. That was a life-changing moment.
GL: Watching the title sequences you have created – from The Night Manager to True Detective to Daredevil – you clearly have a signature aesthetic, but they’re also very different from each other. How do you maintain a balance between staying true to your own style while also serving the story of the particular show that you’re working on?
PC: I think it’s got to be all about serving the show. I try to get the deepest understanding that I can of the story, the characters, and the world that the showrunners have created. I think we – as title designers – are really spoiled, because we come in relatively late in the process. The showrunners have had months, if not many, many years of developing these storylines and these characters. In my experience, I’ve found showrunners to be intelligent and thoughtful people. They often have all of this research – thinking and symbols and aesthetics – that they’ve got as a kind of backstory to the show, and so little of it gets to be expressed through the live-action drama. When we come in, we get them to just download all of that unused material to us and we’re left with this treasure-chest of cool images and powerful, emotional bits and pieces that we can mine and turn into title sequences. I love getting those downloads from them and being able to just go away and think up and try to basically hallucinate sequences that I think will express what I understand the tone of the show to be.
In terms of putting my own mark on it, I think, for me, the challenge is trying not to put my own mark on it. We’re all kind of imprisoned by the styles we have developed in our head along with all of our fundamental assumptions about how things should be. I’m certainly always trying to outrun that and I always try to do something different every time. At the same time, I think we all have a way that we think and we can’t really escape our own style or our own patterns of thinking. I think that’s where you get that balance between something that seems similar, but is also different.
GL: A good example of that might be the titles you created for The Man in the High Castle compared to the work you did for Halt and Catch Fire. The former looks quite complex, while the latter has an element of simplicity to it.
PC: You know, I’m not sure about complexity. I think, for me, the temptation is always to make something that’s really complicated and the challenge is to make something really simple. I remember an old executive producer of mine saying, “If you can’t sum up your idea in a sentence, then you don’t know what it is.” I’ve thought about that a lot, especially when we were working on Halt and Catch Fire. I looked at all the title sequences that resonated with me and that still had value to me years into the runs of the shows. I thought about shows like Dexter and Mad Men. There was something that was very true about them. A very simple idea is at the heart of those sequences. You could easily sum them up in a sentence.
GL: Can you?
PC: For Dexter it’s about the brutality of cooking breakfast. For Mad Men, it’s really just a man in free fall. Those sequences have something at the core of them that is true from the very first episode of the show and was equally true of any episode you picked out from any of the seasons afterward. For Mad Men, that man in free fall could be Don Draper, or his point of view, or his state of mind, or something else, but it always worked, every episode. For me, the challenge is always about finding something simple like that.
GL: What’s a good example of that kind of simplicity from your own work?
PC: For True Detective, it was something that Nic Pizzolatto, the show’s creator, had said to me one day. He said that he was using the landscape of Louisiana – the poisoned, broken, exploited landscape – as a way of expressing, capturing – or, as a metaphor for – these broken, exploited, polluted people. That led us to this very simple insight: “Oh, well, then we’ll make broken portraits out of broken landscapes.” Or, in the case of Halt and Catch Fire, the show is about inspiration and ideas and I’m trying to come up with an idea. So, we thought, “What’s the most obvious symbol for an idea? Well, it’s a light bulb. So, we’ll make a sequence of that and it will end on a light bulb flashing on a hard drive.” I certainly think that thrust is where we put all our energies – trying to answer the question, “How can we strip this back to something that’s simple and true and then turn that into something visually compelling?”
GL: How much of your own “style” were you able to bring to Daredevil, a Marvel property that already comes with so much of its own visual history?
PC: We’ve been very lucky. Marvel – and the team there – they care greatly about their properties, but they also give everyone they collaborate with a great deal of freedom. But, I think the pressure there comes from wanting to live up to the expectations of the fans. I mean, there is a sense of sheer terror that I experience when you realize you’ve got to contribute to this canon of these amazing heroes that have been around for decades and that people love and treasure and reserve a very special place in their lives for. Then we have to come along and try and distill that into this new 60-second sequence. It’s intimidating, but it’s also a lot of fun because there’s so much inspirational material to draw from. And, I have to say, Marvel is very smart and very impressive in the way that they try to handle that material and draw on it and be inspired by it while also letting it evolve into something new.
GL: Especially in this era of binge-watching, how much do you think about repeated viewings? Do you wonder how your title sequences will look after multiple episodes, or even seasons?
PC: It’s something that I think about a lot. For me, the key is getting to something that’s true about the characters, but isn’t exactly informational, or factual. It’s about something a little bit more fundamental and emotional. If you can get there, you can end up with a sequence that you can appreciate in greater detail every time. The first time you see it, you might think, “That’s moody” or “That’s pretty,” but after episode three, you start to notice something deeper about the characters and what those symbols might say about them. Then, hopefully, by episode seven or eight – or nine or ten – it can take on a greater resonance. It also gives you a chance to enter back into the world of the show, to reflect on what sorts of choices the characters are making, and to maybe absorb some of the shock from the end of the episode before – to let it just be a visually poetic, meditative little break before diving back into the drama.
GL: Has anyone approached you with a comedy? And what would you even do with such a thing?
PC: [Laughs] We don’t tend to get the phone calls about the comedies. It must be someone else they go to for those. I don’t know who it is, but it’s not me!
Photo of Patrick Clair by Jane Allen.