Gone in 60 Seconds

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True Detective titles by Patrick Clair

As the final part in our interview series with title sequence designers, we spoke to Patrick Clair of Elastic…

Patrick is an expert on the art of title sequences – with True Detective, Daredevil, Halt and Catch Fire, several MTV Video Music Awards, and many more to his credit. When asked about his creative process, Patrick is quick to point out it’s different for different modes. We're about to unveil this year's Semi Permanent title sequence, which Patrick describes as part of a new design tradition, giving designers a lot of freedom - as well as pressure...
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Patrick Clair
“I think the conference opener needs to just be something astonishing and engaging and innovative and beautiful and visual” Patrick notes, citing works by MK12, Danny Yount, Gmunk, and Raoul Marks as examples. It’s a chance for experts at their craft to really show off within their community. “They’re often quite long, epic, and really about setting a tone for an event and celebrating design and visual culture which I think is really exciting.” That’s pretty different to Elastic’s modus operand for advertising – a majority of the work they do. “That’s really more of an interpretive process” says Patrick, who thanks me for saving him from a client meeting for our phone chat. “Someone else is really the author and you as the director are there to sort of usher it through the process”. 

"There’s no visual in the world that’s interesting enough to sustain people’s attention for more than 60 seconds.”

Patrick Clair

Last but not least there’s opening titles for feature films, and serialised content, wherein, the parameters often dictate Patrick’s approach. “If you’re looking at a 30 second sequence like Hold and Catchfire? You can kind of get by on just a visual gag”. Patrick explains that sequence of theirs did have a bit of a story arc, “but y’know, you can sustain 30 seconds just on visuals and visual poetry for want of a better word”. Patrick notes when title sequences reach the 45 or 60 second mark, they need to have a more sophisticated metaphor, be a bit more clever. “And once you get past the 60 second mark, you’re getting to the point where you really do need a sense of narrative, a sense of evolution to kind of unfold over the sequence. There’s no visual in the world that’s interesting enough to sustain people’s attention for more than 60 seconds”. Patrick cites HBO for their generous openings that sometimes clock in at what he calls, “a pretty epic, indulgent 90 seconds. “Then you really need something that’s going to take you on a journey,” Patrick observes. “And it’s figuring out what that journey can be, how that can relate to the show, and how that can be something that has some value in being watched again and again.” 
Much of Patrick’s work - like True Detective or Halt and Catch Fire - is for series content, which is “really about story” he explains. So Patrick tries to immerse himself in the developing world as much as possible. “That means watching whatever rough cuts are available to view, reading whatever screenplays are available to read, and really getting as much time with the showrunner as you can to understand their vision for the world they’re bringing to life”. 
Next, Patrick and his team work to distill the director’s embryonic world and the tone of the show into something that’s, “just devilishly simple”.
“I think about my favourite title sequences and they always come back to something that can be summed up in a single sentence: Mad Men, you say it’s a man in free fall. For Dexter, it’s the brutality of cooking breakfast. And it always relates to something kind of very true about that world”. Once Patrick and his team hone in on that one thing, the last step is to bring it to life with design visuals, and “end up with something that sort of evokes the world that people are being brought into”. 
Mad Men opening titles (Mark Gardner & Steve Fuller, Imaginary Forces)

“I think about my favourite title sequences and they always come back to something that can be summed up in a single sentence: Mad Men, you say it’s a man in free fall. For Dexter, it’s the brutality of cooking breakfast.”

Patrick Clair

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The "brutality of breakfast" in the Dexter opening titles (Eric Anderson, Digital Kitchen)
The research involves lots of reading and referencing gathering, sometimes done by Patrick on his own, though these days it’s usually a team working together. “We trawl through blogs, the Internet, art books, photography books, and try to get together mood boards that we feel evoke something related to the show”. With references in hand, the team work on visual executions in the form of style frames, often bringing in a storyboard artist and identifying an arc for the sequence.
The ways in which people are engaging with visual storytelling have changed dramatically. So is Patrick now approaching his job as title designer differently?
“I think what’s interesting about the fact that we’re now primarily working for [online viewing] is that title sequences are in some ways more important than they’ve ever been,” Patrick notes. “Because people aren’t watching the show in the kind of walled garden of a network, where it’s surrounded by branding and promos and all sorts of little idents and things. They’re watching it cold, coming off a menu. So having that signpost, that moment of reflection to act as a bit of an airlock from everyday life – that’s really important”. 

“We trawl through blogs, the Internet, art books, photography books, and try to get together mood boards that we feel evoke something related to the show.”

Patrick Clair

In Patrick’s opinion, title sequences are becoming increasingly diverse, with the move away from traditional TV formats meaning choices can be made about where the sequence goes (after a cold open?), and how long it should be (from 5 to 90 seconds) - amongst many others. How those things work is “getting really nicely shaken up” according to Patrick, who says that our move into “a whole new world of binge watching and variable episode lengths” is making creators contemplate their approach. “I think people are really thinking about at the moment, how do we deploy a title sequence?” With so much on a showrunner’s plate, title sequences really have to fight to justify the amount of time and budget they utilise. “I think it’s good ‘cuz it forces us to really think about, ‘does this show need us to do a big long indulgent sequence?’ Or does it really just need a card? Or does it need anything at all? That’s really interesting to me.”
Many have raved about the title sequence for True Detective, and if you haven’t watched them in a while, have a look again. They deftly hint at the ambiguity and existentialism of the show itself, as well as the abstraction and etherealism of the art direction. 
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True Detective opening titles (Patrick Clair)
“A lot of that came straight from [showrunner] Nic Pizzolatto” explains Patrick. “He has a really broad, philosophical, well-informed view, and had thought a lot about the characters and what he wanted to say about them and their place within the world”. Patrick recently found a nice reminder of that process, when, for the first time in ages, the temperature in L.A. dropped. “I put my jacket on and realised the last time I wore it was walking around on a cold Sydney winter morning just after I got off the phone after the first briefing from True Detective. It had the sheet of paper that I jotted all the notes down on it, in the pocket”. Over two and a half years had gone by since Patrick last handled that paper, scrawling out notes about “visual symbolism and themes and metaphors”. “I’ve got this string of notes like, ‘it’s about men at a crossroads – crossroads equal gunsights which equals hunting which equals crucifixes which equals religion which equals apocalypse – those kinds of chains of concepts were really inspirational to me”. 
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Adidas "Two Teams, One Trophy" (Patrick Clair, Elastic)
“But the flipside of that was far less esoteric,” continues Patrick. It seems the production designers, Nic, and the cinematographer “had all used a book of photographs that were taken in the mid-90s, of the areas where they were shooting, as a large point of inspiration and reference - for their set design, for the way they lit the show and created the show and atmospherics of the show”. To help their chances of winning the job, Patrick and his team went out that day and bought a copy of the book, ‘Petrochemical America’ by Richard Misrach and Kate Orff. “We eventually not just used that for the pitch but a lot of those images are in the actual sequence”. Accessing that essential tool is why Patrick says the True Detective titles have something indefinable, a kind of X factor; it’s since changed how he approaches new title sequence jobs. “It’s something that I’ve sort of pushed for at every job since,” he says.  

"Title sequences are in some ways more important than they’ve ever been."

Patrick Clair

In an interview with Art Of The Title, Patrick spoke of different visual aesthetics that informed the Halt and Catch Fire title sequence – everything from retro video games to sex ed videos. Patrick and his team clearly pull from a wide range of disparate sources, begging the question: what’s some of the more outlandish reference material they’ve used?
“It was interesting, for True Detective, I pulled a lot of the materials I used for the pitch just straight off blogs that we look at. Some of the blogs come from pretty esoteric sources themselves…” Patrick assumed that HBO would force them to recreate the images, or pull similar images from True Detective footage. But their impassioned response surprised him. “They were like, ‘we LOVE this - we want exactly these images’.” This meant that paper trails flowed out for licensing approval from some downright bizarre sources. Self-published sado-masochist books, a Russian photographer of adult materials, happy snaps that wound up on gothic design blogs…  “other ones were from amateur photographer’s Tumblrs… this one girl who just does a lot of like, pretty, feminine photography would’ve been contacted by HBO out of the blue saying, ‘hey, can we use your stuff for a new title sequence?’ and then have some of the most prominent images”. 
For Patrick, inspiration really can come from anywhere. “For one job, when I was first out here, we were doing the MTV awards and the theme was circles - because they were holding it in the Forum, which is this big old circular boxing arena. At the Airbnb where I was staying, there was this sort of jammed together bit of old architectural notes hanging on the wall. That ended up becoming one of our key references”. 
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Sugar Cane and Refinery, Mississippi River Corridor, Louisiana, 1998
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Swamp and Pipeline, Geismar, Louisiana, 1998 (‘Petrochemical America’ by Richard Misrach and Kate Orff)
This Brisbane boy has certainly done well since relocating to Hollywood for work. “I would say that being Australian gets you a long way in L.A.” Patrick beams. “You get a lot of free passes for it. People like Aussies out here which is really nice, and they’re very open and friendly, welcoming. The Brits that you meet here will tease you a bit about being from the colonies, but um, that’s ok ‘cuz we’re usually more talented so we don’t have to worry about that too much”. 
But does he miss the sunburnt country – and would he ever go back? “Some members of my team still live [in Australia] and I consider if it becomes practical again, whether we’d go back. I think we’re incredibly lucky to be living in a time when physical location matters far less than talent and dedication. Easily, the happiest year of my life was the year we made True Detective, because I was lucky enough to be working exclusively for clients from overseas but from my own little studio in central Sydney”.

"I think we’re incredibly lucky to be living in a time when physical location matters far less than talent and dedication."

Patrick Clair

There were lots of elements which made Patrick’s time spent working in Sydney so special. His son had been born recently, and he could walk to and from work – something rarely possible in gridlocked Los Angeles. Yet one unique feature was the time zone of his homebase. “L.A. and even to a greater extent New York would shut down by mid-afternoon Sydney time. And then you’d get this great time at the end of the day to just be creative for three hours before heading home for dinner”. 
“I gotta say, I think Sydney is, and other parts of Australia too, is the best place in the world to live” enthuses Patrick. “The people, the food, the weather, the culture, the beaches... I mean, California’s pretty great but I think Australia’s better”. The downside to living in Australia, as creatives across the land down under know all too well, is the limited number of opportunities. “It certainly must be said that, there is a caliber of work that is not just available in Los Angeles but is plentiful in Los Angeles that just isn’t available anywhere else in the world. There’s a lot of good work in London and probably Amsterdam and New York, but L.A. dwarfs even those places… The scale of the global entertainment industry and global marketing industry that happens here is quite breathtaking”. Patrick does point out that title sequences tend to have “budgets so small they’d shock people a little bit… But when we do a shoot for Adidas or for some of our bigger marketing clients, those shoots happen on a scale that just don’t happen in Sydney very often”.
Small budgets for title sequences mean that, though they are a passion of Patrick’s, they aren’t his proverbial bread and butter. “The reality of my life is that if I do a title sequence I have to do an ad – it’s the only way that I can pay the rent”. Patrick notes that the shows he works on are quite big, and very generous, he has no criticism there. It’s just the reality of the industry. Plus, for any designer to produce a quality product of which they’re proud, often requires long hours and lots of resources. “And title sequences are incredibly competitive” Patrick points out. “Whenever you get one, it means four other people didn’t. And it also means we pitch on a lot more than we make”. Though Patrick knows it’s getting harder and harder for small designers to break into the industry – especially being up against big companies willing to spend extravagantly for glamorous main title jobs – he doesn’t see this as a bad thing necessarily. “I tend to think that financial limitations drive creative innovation and that pressure is actually where we get cool new ideas, and cool new approaches from.  
When asked if he has any idea where title sequences are headed next, with all the big changes that have occurred in recent history, Patrick notes that in the four years since he’s been making title sequences for international content, he’s witnessed “a shift from it being probably laughable that Netflix may be a serious player in the original content business, to the point where, no exaggeration, most of my work is for Netflix or Amazon. And the most recent film that we did with Netflix just got nominated for an Oscar”.

“I tend to think that financial limitations drive creative innovation and that pressure is actually where we get cool new ideas, and cool new approaches from."

Patrick Clair

Patrick sees us headed into “a really exciting phase of experimentation and diversification”. With diversification in the types of shows and their formats, he says traditions “are going to go out the window”. “It’s going to be a really great time where the visual language of things like the Internet and magazines and printed books and all the sort of graphic design that goes with that merges with the storytelling of dramatic live action screen content. And for people like me that like to sort of play with melding both of them I think it’s a really cool time to be in the industry”. 
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