Beautiful & Grotesque: Emmy-winning motion graphics designer Patrick Clair on "Westworld" Titles
Imagine having to create a visual narrative introducing a complicated story exploring the nature of reality, consciousness, and the singularity — a theoretical point in the future when technological growth becomes unmanageable and irreversible, resulting in profound changes for human society. This is the exact predicament Patrick Clair found himself in 2016. As the multiple Emmy-winning motion graphics designer and creative head of Antibody was preparing to pitch his title sequence idea for the critically acclaimed HBO drama Westworld, he felt the familiar sting of creative struggle, and it was real.
Born in Australia, Clair was raised in a family with a strong sense of civic engagement. His father was a lawyer who, for over a decade, specialized in prosecuting corrupt government officials. His mother, a housewife, was very active in their community and regularly partook in a number of charities and social good initiatives. Because of these influences, Clair developed an enduring interest in politics and sociology very early on. But, even though he entertained the idea of becoming a lawyer, he ultimately went on to study live-action directing at the Queensland University of Technology, having fallen in love with movies as a teenager.
After graduating, he realized that his employment opportunities could use a boost, so he enrolled in the Australian Film, Television and Radio School for visual effects and titles design. Shortly after receiving his degree, Clair got a job with MTV, followed by a job with ABC broadcasting, where he got to design graphics packages for current events segments and quench his thirst for storytelling related to his socio-political interests. After roughly 30 episodes, however, he learned that the show would be concluding and he was going to be unemployed. So, he assigned himself a project that ended up changing his life.
Clair had access to a script about a dangerous computer virus that could be turned into a weapon. He decided to animate the story. Rather than sticking to his normal one-week turnaround, he worked on the project for four weeks and then threw it up online. “I thought five thousand views would be amazing and insane!” shares Clair. “There were fifteen thousand views by the time I got up the next morning, fifty thousand by the afternoon, half a million a few days later, and a million within the first week or so.” Suddenly, instead of “hoping for studio work around Sydney,” Clair was fielding job inquiries from around the world.
Soon, he accepted a job with Ubisoft and began working on video games, such as Tom Clancy’s The Division. He was happy to help explore questions related to ethics and how technology is affecting our privacy, security, and combat sectors. “I’ve always been fascinated with Tom Clancy’s storytelling,” shares Clair. “There are a lot of politics that are opposite to my own, but I’m quite fascinated by the extraordinary sophistication that we invest in death and conflict.” At the same time, Clair was busy collecting reference material for more “soulful and personal projects” he hoped to work on in the near future.
And then, his agent called. Clair was offered the chance to pitch a title sequence for True Detective, which would earn him his first Emmy. Since then, he has designed titles for The Crown, The Man in The High Castle, American Gods, The Night Manager, Daredevil, and more.
ARTpublika Magazine spoke to Patrick Clair about his career, interests in technology, and the creative direction behind one of the most captivating robotics-inspired title sequences ever made.
What’s the best part about your job?
I find [my clients] to be interesting people to interact with. They have crafted worlds and stories that have incredible depths on a conceptual level, on a character level, on a worldly level, and on an internal level. They’ve spent months, or years, thinking about them. They have all this wonderful information — symbolism, themes, and backstories — in their heads; and then we get to come along and pillage that, and turn it into visuals. It is the most fun, creative, and intellectually thrilling thing.
What makes a good title sequence?
If you can express what is fundamentally going on with the journey of the character(s) in some way, then you’ll have a powerful title sequence — a title sequence that will be worth returning to — because as you learn more about the character, you’ll get more out of the title sequence.
One I greatly admire and had nothing to do with is Mad Men, because if you really think about what the Mad Men title sequence is, other than a beautifully crafted piece of retro illustration animation, it’s a man in free-fall. And a man in free-fall describes Don Draper from season one, episode one, to the final episode. It’s about finding that emotional claw as to what’s going on with those characters.
What was the brainstorming process like for creating the first Westworld title sequence?
We spent about four or five weeks on the initial pitch. I am a huge Michael Crichton (1942 — 2008) fan, and I’m a huge fan of the films Jonathan Nolan had written with his brother, [Christopher Nolan]. And I really, like I really wanted the job, so we spent a lot more time crafting pitch materials than we usually do. I struggled with it a bit; because the show had such incredible production design, I felt we needed to do something more with it. The good news is that we got the job.
Then, we went into what ended up being about three or four months of storyboarding. Usually, show runners are very busy; if you get a half hour with the producers, you’re lucky. But I would go out to the production office — which is unusual, because we normally do stuff on the phone — and I would get into a room with [the show runners] and end up having this two-hour wide-ranging discussion about artificial intelligence, the singularity, God, philosophy, technology, ethics, and all kinds of things the show is into. It was incredibly rewarding.
I think by the time we had to make the CGI for the segments we had a really good understanding about what we were trying to do. It was a great collaboration.
Before you met with Jonathan (Jonah) Nolan, Lisa Joy, and Nathan Crowley, how much information about Westworld did you already have? Did you see the first episode?
They’ve released a teaser. It was just a teaser, but in terms of what we were doing, it [helped] a lot; it featured the Vitruvian figure, spilled milk, and I could see echoes in the designs of some things from the Dark Knight films. There was a natural fit between my visual language and the show’s visual language. So, the first sequence was very aesthetic driven, which was really satisfying to me.
We had a lot of conversations about it, that’s how the development process unfolded over the months. [There were] lots of storyboards — we storyboarded five times, at least — usually, we only do that once. It was really about trying to dig deeper into the heart of the show, the idea of people being stuck in loops and what happens when their roles are superseded by their own creations — [what happens to] the nature of free choice and free will.
I was really struck by the time that I did see some material from them. [For example,] things in the show challenge the traditional notion of a hero. I was really happy that there was this opportunity to make a kind of heroic figure out of a female rider, instead of a stereotypical kind of cowboy figure. I remember they shared some footage where there was a scene of a machine making an eyeball, and we reverse engineered it. So, that tickled the nerd inside of me. I’m fascinated by the process of these kinds of things, the intersection of biology and technology.
How did you approach making the lifeforms in the title sequences? The are made so beautifully and look so authentic.
That’s actually a really good question, and it probably gets to the heart of the way I like to do things. So, I had this lecturer at university who said: “At the end of the day, when it boils down to it, creativity is the association of two unassociated things.” I think every piece we’ve done, on a simple level, is strung things together. True Detective is landscapes and people; The Man in the High Castle is Nazi imagery and American imagery; and Westworld — on one level — is cowboys and robots, but — on a deeper level — it’s the grotesque and the beautiful.
We made a reference archive. At the start of every job, we usually get researchers to collect two thousand images [that are] wide ranging and varied in terms of specific [details] and [overall concepts]. For Westworld, we collected well over ten thousand images with a deliciously wide range, like industrial robotics; 3D printing, especially in the biological space; different labs; all kinds of sculpture; photographs depicting sadness; a lot of science fiction; and lots of creepy fan art, like people drawing sexy robots, which is really unsettling but very useful. And anyone who’s seen Chris Cunningham’s 1999 Bjork video “All Is Full of Love” can appreciate how much it influenced what we did; I’ve always loved that piece; I studied its lighting and symmetry and tried to understand what set it apart from other pieces.
When it came to creating the models, Jose Limon and Jessica Hurst — who are both incredibly talented — got these medical grade, 3D models that had different layers: The base layer, which is technically a skeleton. The next layer, which is all the internal organs. The following layer, which is all the muscles. And the last layer, which is the skin. So Jose and Jessica would get these models and fuse the layers together.
To make them appear strikingly beautiful and grotesque at the same time, we hid the most grotesque [elements] in the darkness. So[, for example,] we looked at where we thought the light was going to hit the lovers and left the skin there more or less in tact. But, in the darkness, we peel back the layers, so that you can see the muscle and the skeleton protruding through. In the female form, where her brain is exposed, there are bits of skull and scalp and vertebras jolting out. I just kind of like the idea of it being exquisitely beautiful and exquisitely grotesque, and using the light to communicate that.
Can you talk about the player piano in the opening sequence? Is it based on Vonnegut’s 1952 novel?
I haven’t read the Vonnegut novel, but I do have his list of ten things that make for a better writer in my desk, because they are very good and really useful. The piano was very much Jonah’s idea, it’s a piece in the show. Once they finished filming with it, they moved it to the production office; it was in the foyer. The most amazing collection of stuff was in the foyer — the piano and old foreign language movie posters, like bizarre Polish movie posters of the original Westworld.
My team and I photographed every inch of that piano and digitally rebuilt it for the sequence. And it was certainly something we talked about a great deal, in terms of using it as an anchor for the story, because it’s the closest metaphor to the hosts. I think it gets at a very interesting philosophical question around AI. We think of robots as being a really modern phenomenon, but the player piano (a self playing piano) is a quite sophisticated robot from some time ago.
If,15 years ago, I described a [machine] that could navigate through a city while responding to live dialogue faster than any individual human, [you’d be impressed with that level of artificial intelligence.] But, no one regards Google Maps as artificial intelligence. We think of something as artificial intelligence until we create a machine that is that artificially intelligent, and then we redefine AI as something else — this other thing we haven’t achieved yet.
Westworld exists at a point were they stop doing that. They have hosts that are extraordinarily advanced, that are not sentient, and that are not worth being given the rights of an individual. At the same time, these hosts exist in this very gray zone, where they exhibit all of the traceable traits that you would expect from an individual who has sentience and deserves the rights of an intelligent life form. And the player piano is a kind of perfect symbol for this questioning of the boundary between man and machine.
How did you approach the title sequences for the second season differently from the first?
I went in to meet with the show runners, basically to discourage them from changing anything. But then the normal thing happened; we started talking about themes and technology and society, and by the end of the meeting we were changing well over a third of the sequence. We met again a few weeks later, and by that point it expanded to over 50 percent of the sequence, and by our third meeting we were changing almost every shot.
The more we talked about the show and the way it was changing, the more we wanted to integrate that with the effects. I don’t normally have a reason to go back and analyze what we’ve done in the past very often, so it was interesting with Westworld, because we were able to take the title sequence apart. We didn’t really want to change the music (by Ramin Djawadi), so we knew that was staying the same, and it would stay the same structurally — that’s how we can hit all of the same emotional, intellectual, conceptual, and dramatic notes in this arrangement, but with new things.
From watching the pilot episode, the lovers — to me — were about expressing the most fascinating emotional dynamic the hosts could exhibit. Having seen the full first season, the [emotional gravity] was really [with] Maeve and her child, so we said, maybe we’ll show the mother-and-child relationship [in the title sequence for season two]. [Also, in the first season] the sequence began with a horse, it’s later depicted galloping onward, and [in season two, it’s this bison, presumably driven to its death over a cliff. The visual tragedy of that is about showing the organic, biological details that are expressed in the hosts and the animals, even though they are artificial.
There are all kinds of little details, and I expect the audience to go back and absorb that on a more poetic and meditative level. [For me,] it was surprisingly extraordinarily satisfying to go back and revisit it. We are going through the same process right now and it’s just as satisfying the third time around.
What kind of job would you like to try your hand at?
I would really like to do a title sequence for James Bond. Daniel Kleinman, who already does that job, does it fantastically. And I am deeply jealous of the fact he gets to do it.
You said that you studied filmmaking, what films inspired this interest?
I don’t know what prompted the interest, not any one thing. But, I can tell you that one of the films that sort of defined my view of filmmaking when I was young, and still does, is Fight Club (1999), which came out the week I finished high school.
Are there any shows you’re obsessed with?
The West Wing. I’ve seen every episode of The West Wing more times that I feel comfortable admitting. I have a theory, that everything in life can be explained by a West Wing reference.
Is there anything you’d like to share that hasn’t been addressed?
One of the guys I work with has a theory. It’s that the more advanced mathematical models get, the closer they are to the natural world. An easy example would be the algorithm that defines the shape of the fern plant. It’s very simple but generates something really complicated, so if you looked at a mathematical rendering of the algorithm, it looks like a fern plant.
He’s noticed that as the graphical processing units (GPU) get more powerful, the more he comes across things in his technical animation 3D work, that look like they do in the natural world. It’s kind of like this perversion; the world is obviously defined by mathematics, and the closer you simulate mathematics, the more natural looking your work gets. It’s almost uncanny how similar it can be across these two things.
Interestingly, the architecture built for GPUs to create graphics on computer screens turns out to be the architecture that’s best for simulating artificial neural networks. I find that fascinating. We get this really interesting feedback in terms of what we’re doing as artists and designers and what’s happening in much more serious fields.
Note* Image 1: Fair Use "Westworld" Season 1 / Image 2: Fair Use Book Cover of "Player Piano" (1952) by Kurt Vonnegut / Image 3: via HBO, "Westworld" Episode 11 (season 2, episode 1), featuring Jeffrey Wright, photo by John P. Johnson / Image 4: Horse by Patrick Clair and Antibody