Patrick Clair on creating American Gods' iconic title sequence

Patrick Clair is the director of some of the best TV title sequences in recent memory. His titles for the likes of True Detective, The Night Manager and Westworld have received acclaim as works of art in their own rights – as has his latest sequence (above) for US TV channel Starz' highly anticipated adaptation of Neil Gaiman's American Gods.

The show is about a battle for the soul of America between the old gods of ancient mythology and the new ones of technology and media, entered through a tale of a newly released convict (Ricky Whittle – best known for, er, Hollyoaks) who goes on a road trip with the mysterious Mr Wednesday (Ian McShane – yep, Lovejoy – in marvellous scenery chewing form). The final episode of the eight-part first season has just aired on Amazon Prime Video in the UK, so you can binge watch it if you wish.

Ian McShane as Mr Wednesday and Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon in American Gods.

Like co-showrunner Brian Fuller's previous project Hannibal, American Gods has a thick, syrupy aesthetic – dripping with blood, sex and symbolism, as in this still of the goddess of love, Bilquis.

Patrick's titles share a similar feel, though are abstract rather than narrative (or explicit). The camera travels up a totem pole covered with symbols, icons and forms from religions, modern life and pop culture. Often the subjects of these are juxtaposed – Buddha is shown surrounded by pills both recreational and medicinal offering differing ways to enlightenment or mental peace. The visual contrasts can be striking too – 'old' religions sit above and below a cowboy fashioned out of neon that could live outside either the worst dive bar in America (or the best gay club).

I caught up with Patrick while he was on a recent trip to Paris. We discussed his work on American Gods, how he got into directing TV title sequences and what makes a truly great one. I started by asking him what attracted him to working on American Gods.

“The book is iconic and fantastic – and more than that, I just think that religion is such an interesting, loaded, personal subject to be dealing with. We wanted the chance to play with the symbols that are powerful and very sacred, that require an enormous amount of respect in the way you engage with them, but that are also there to be challenged.”

“[Showrunners] Brian Fuller and Michael Green and the team had an incredible creative vision for the show – one that I think was particularly brave and daring. Generally today showrunners are really up for taking creative risks, [but] American Gods stood out for being absolutely dedicated to pushing everything to the limit.”

Patrick describes his core concept for American Gods’ titles as him wanting “to take iconic gods, and disrupt them with modern stuff.”

“The totem features deities inspired by gods across all manner of different religions – but messed up in ways that we found to be interesting, sticky, sort of sexy, challenging, dirty, wrong, but hopefully interesting,” he says.

A still from the American Gods titles.

From this concept, Patrick and his team first pared down the essence of each religious and pop culture reference to its simplest elements. Taking the title of the book at its most literal, they took the one of the most obvious icons of American life – the astronaut – and the most widespread religious icon – Jesus – and combined the two to create a crucified astronaut.

"It started there,” says Patrick, "and then once we know that was something that maybe we could get away with, we went from there to figure out the rest of the gods to add to the totem pole.

“What I didn't want to do was go through and do a statue for every god in the book that might turn up in the show. That would have been way too literal. Instead, it was a case of us looking at different icons from world religions such as the Sphinx and then saying ‘Let's make Sphinx out of that little robot puppy that one of the electronic companies makes‘.”

For the top of the pole, Patrick chose a bald eagle – the national animal of the USA. All are rendered in an aesthetic that he describes a "really modern, occasionally very tacky, vision of the underbelly of America”. It’s the look of Las Vegas if you venture down the strip a little too far, away from the casinos whose names you know to the motels where they don’t ask yours.

“[For reference], we didn't want to go look at the Trevi Fountain, we wanted to look at the like suburban shopping centre mall rip-off of the Trevi Fountain,” says Patrick. "You want to look at where corporate consumer America has taken these symbols and harnessed them.

“We looked at a lot of reference pictures of the décor and interior of strip clubs. The kind of thing that you get in tacky nightclubs: the cheap imitation leather, the mix of colour tones.”

The artistic use of iconography and symmetry is something you find a lot in Patrick's work. He applied this to 'double exposures' of hazy shots of the rural America for the Southern Gothic of True Detective.

For Westworld, as with American Gods, Patrick places objects in the centre of the screen against a relatively plain background – imbuing them with the feel of sculptures or icons. Westworld’s clean, scientific depiction of the creative process behind the design and construction of show’s android ‘hosts’ contrasts with the dust and grime of the American Gods titles, reflecting the way most of the human cast think of the hosts as soulless automata.

Patrick says he tries to bring something new to each project – rather than maintaining a single aesthetic or approach – but there is “a consistent thread through some of my work. There's certainly stuff that I always find really appealing about certain types of layout and cinematograph. Symmetry is something that I find really interesting – playing with symmetry, setting it up, and then breaking it.

“I love any chance we get to engage with something that's iconic – to do something with the Statue of Liberty, or with the crucifix. These kinds of icons carry a lot of power and everyone brings their own personal experience to them. When you get to play with them, to disrupt them and to put them on screen in different ways – that's an opportunity we seize whenever it comes up.”

How to get into TV titles

Working as a director of TV titles is something Patrick arrived at from a background in motion graphics and animation, rather than from live-action. A film school back in his native Australia he wanted to be a live-action director – "I was always fascinated as much by the storytelling side of the medium as by the design side of it,” he says – but the opportunities he had took him into motion graphics for documentaries.

This was in the early 2000s, when the emergence of powerful-but-affordable motion graphics and animation tools – notably After Effects from version 5.5 and Cinema 4D – allowed high-end work to be created on modest budgets. This inspired experimentation and new styles as the forms could be use within a much wider range of projects.

"I drifted into doing animation for documentaries,” says Patrick "especially short-form documentary stuff for broadcast channels back in Australia. We started seeing how we could use typography and motion graphics to tell short factual stories.

"That developed into a form that was based around conveying lots of information in really short little bursts of pictures, words and audio – and that [led to me working for] clients in the video games industry where they needed ways to explain and introduce audiences to the worlds of their games.

Here Patrick worked for the likes of Ubisoft on the Tom Clancy series of games – directing animations that would quickly set the mood, presenting the aesthetic of the game and distilling down the story.

"That eventually ended up opening some doors into the main titles world, which is similar in the sense that it very much combines design and aesthetics and storytelling and world-building, but in a slightly less factual way – something more about tone and character and subtext,” he say. “And that led to HBO engaging us to do True Detective.”

Visual poetry

I ask Patrick to sum up what makes a truly great title sequence, which he describes as trying to “the showrunner's vision into something that is as short and poetic and visual as possible.

“Titles design is very different art to live-action drama. Live-action drama is a very linear experience that needs to have as much emotional power and resonance to it as you watch it through. Titles have this different thing to do. The first time you come to them, they need to just be aesthetic and visual. You want to get a feel for the mood of this world – how's it going to look.

“The titles that other people have made that I look up to the most are the ones that – as you get to know this world over numerous episodes and you get to understand what's going on with the characters – take on a greater resonance, and speak more to what's at the core of these characters and what their experience is of the world.

"The one I always use as an example is [Imaginary Forces' titles for] Mad Men. If you think of that idea of a man in free fall, it's as relevant to Don Draper in the first episode of season one as it is in the finale of the final season. It really sums up what's happening to him, on a fundamental human level. So as you watch it week on week, you get something just slightly deeper. I think that's the way that a title sequence can have value and hopefully tempt people not to skip it when they're watching the show.”

The American Gods titles were produced by Elastic, which was also behind the iconic Game of Thrones titles (below).

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