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How the 'True Detective' main titles set the California noir mood

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Title screen from the opening sequence to season two of 'True Detective'
HBO, Elastic
Title screen from the opening sequence to season two of 'True Detective'

Patrick Clair, the mind behind the main title sequences for both seasons of "True Detective," breaks down how he moved the visuals from Louisiana to the Golden State.

"True Detective" would have been a noteworthy show just for cementing the glory that is the McConnaissance. But it's managed to stand out in a world saturated with true crime series, thanks in large part to its knack for sleek, compelling visuals. And that distinctive type of visual storytelling beings at the start of every episode — with the show's title sequence.

The opening titles of both seasons of "True Detective" were designed by Patrick Clair, Creative Director of Antibody and one of the creative directors of Elastic, a Santa Monica-based studio that's also created the opening sequences for "Game of Thrones" and Netflix's "Daredevil."

When Clair joined us at The Frame's studios, he talked about developing the hallmarks of the "True Detective" opening sequences, finding the right amount of change to inject into season two's opening titles, and finally getting the chance to work with Leonard Cohen's music.

Interview Highlights:

One of the things that you do for the opening titles in this show is you use silhouettes of people, places and things as a kind of framing device. Is that something that you're enamored with generally, or did it feel specifically appropriate for "True Detective"?

It was absolutely about "True Detective." The creative process can be so chaotic and open that it's hard to know how to guide yourself, and one way that I like to do it is to be really literal. When I was first on the phone with [creator] Nic [Pizzolatto] for season one, he said, "What we're trying to do is use the landscape of Louisiana — the way that it's poisoned, broken, polluted — to show how these people are poisoned and broken and polluted."

So I interpreted that in a really straightforward way and I [thought], Oh, why don't we make portraits out of broken landscapes? They can be broken portraits with poisoned landscapes. That led us to this response, that hopefully comes across as a little more artful and sophisticated than it sounds there, but it goes straight to the heart of what they're doing with the live-action drama.

When you hear that song, does it conjure up specific images? Is there a rhythm, a pace?

The music is probably the most important piece of inspiration. I remember when Nic first played me that track this year, we were in a trailer in the wilds of the Santa Monica mountains. I've been a Leonard Cohen fan since I was a teenager and I've always wanted to have his voice on something I've created, so to have the chance to do a "True Detective" sequence to one of his songs was something truly exciting.

Cohen's work is such a strange combination of '80s synths on one level and then this dark, brooding insight into character and the nature of humanity on the other level. It's this really strange mix of high and low art, and that was something which we could immediately tap into and start to think about the dark and also light imagery to visualize Southern California for the show.

Does that mean that as you're kind of creating the opening titles, you're repeatedly listening to the song out loud and it's the soundtrack of the office?

Absolutely. It's been playing on loop, and I'm sure the guys outside my office want to kill me [laughs]. But it's such a beautiful track — I could listen to it forever.

What was the conversation about season two's opening titles?

In some ways, it has to be an evolution. One of the challenges for us is wondering how much we change and how much we keep the same, and we certainly wanted to retain some of the DNA of season one.

But at the same time, Nic's got this incredible talent for finding locations and finding worlds that really speak to what's going on inside these characters. So when you look at a lot of shows that might have aerials of freeways, for instance, they're just there as eye candy, whereas here those freeways serve as a metaphor for what's happening in the characters' lives.

So then California and its infrastructure become a complicating factor of the emotional lives of the characters?

Yeah, absolutely, and I think the complexity and the chaos of the freeways speaks to these people who are going through a time of great pressure and turmoil.

What were the other themes about California and how it was going to be represented in the story and main titles?

It was really exciting for me, having moved from Australia and having the opportunity to get to know California in a really deep sense for the first time. I'd lived here briefly in the past, but it's really been these past 12 months that I've gotten to steep myself in it. If you know the 10, the 405 and the 101 [freeways], you can navigate yourself around the city — they're the main landmarks.

You so often see California represented in a really clichéd way that's all about glamor and fun-in-the-sun, and what I wanted to do was see the darker, more Gothic edge — a more complicated view of California.

Something that you don't notice from Australia is that L.A. is really in a desert. It sounds silly when you hear, but we see strips of green grass and palm trees and it looks so lush, but you come here and the mountains are rocky, vivid, they're full of golds and rusty reds, and it's a dry, hellish place in some ways. But it's also a really beautiful place, and that's what we wanted to capture in the imagery we put in the main titles.

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