Understanding Patrick Clair

At the age of twenty-one, Patrick Clair was pretty much nowhere. He was obsessed with motion graphics but didn’t even own a computer. And yet somehow, eleven years later he nabbed an Emmy for Outstanding Main Title Design for True Detective and became arguably the most famous motion designer in the world.

How in heck did he do that?

Let’s start with a few obvious facts. If you have seen his work, you know that Patrick is an incredibly talented guy with a killer aesthetic. And as I learned by chatting with him, he’s also a naturally gifted storyteller with oodles of charisma. But these qualities alone don’t explain his phenomenal success.

So what’s so special about Patrick Clair? And how was he able to progress so rapidly from nowhere to everywhere?

There is no simple answer to these questions, but let me mention two things that jumped out at me in our interview. One, from listening to his life story, it’s clear to me that Patrick possesses a sincere restlessness of spirit that compelled him at key points in his career to move forward into potentially uncomfortable zones in order to achieve his goals.

Secondly, he’s a (self-described) nerd with a wide range of non-motion design interests that inspire him. For example, in the course of our conversation, he spoke earnestly about being fascinated with politics, architecture, literature, fine art, nature, ethics, the human form, history, technology, bookstores, travel, and even the mysteries of consciousness itself.

The guy is deep.

So where did it start for him?

You will probably be surprised to learn that as a boy Patrick wanted to practice law, like his father. But when he was fourteen years old, a friend dragged him to their high school filmmaking club and in an instant, those legal aspirations evaporated. By the time he got an undergraduate degree in live-action directing and was exposed to MK12, Res Magazine, and David Fincher’s “Fight Club”, there was no turning back.

After college, he found himself with an official piece of paper saying that he was now a director. But other than that, he was still nowhere. Well, technically he was in Brisbane, Australia, which is not exactly nowhere but it sure felt that way to a restless Patrick at age twenty-one. Luckily for him the legendary Australian Film Television and Radio School was nearby, so Patrick applied and was accepted for a graduate degree in title design.

Why title design?

So you might think at this point in the story — oh, okay, so Patrick always wanted to design title sequences, and he’s a laser-focused guy who knew exactly what he wanted to do in his early twenties. But, that’s not exactly true. Mostly he just wanted to spend time learning more about After Effects and motion design, like many of us at that age. He had no illusions that he would ever design a title sequence professionally. In fact, he kind of figured that he’d wind up working in advertising.

But, that didn’t happen. Directly after graduating, he was hired by MTV to make promos, splitting his time between live-action directing and motion graphics. He had found his way into the industry. And this was wonderful for a while until that restlessness I mentioned kicked in. As a self-avowed political junkie with a strong social-justice streak, Patrick wanted to tell real stories with substance, and not just make pretty, shiny things with no particular cultural relevance or meaning.

So he quit MTV after eighteen months, with no plan for the future, just as the global financial crisis hit Australia. Some might call this chutzpah. His parents, after patiently waiting for him to obtain not one but two degrees, probably called it something else.

So then what happened?

He persisted and somehow wound up working in the hybrid realm of current affairs television and sketch comedy, first for the popular satire group The Chaser and then ultimately for the short-lived TV show Hungry Beast, which aired on the Australian Broadcasting Company between 2009 and 2011. Over the course of thirty episodes, Patrick and his team of two other animators cranked out six to nine minutes of high-level, original motion design content every week — usually with only three or four days to complete the task.

In case you’re keeping track, this is a lot of work to pull off. And, unsurprisingly, this is where Patrick put in his ten thousand hours of practice and found his confident voice as a designer. But it came with a price. Toward the end of this exhausting experience, Patrick stepped out of the office to see a doctor for a routine check-up and wound up in the hospital for a month. In all, this kept him from working on Hungry Beast for about eight weeks. And that is when things really began to change for Patrick Clair.

While he recovered, Hungry Beast kept on going in his absence. There were a few more people to help, and Patrick was no longer responsible for producing weekly content. Additionally, the show’s run was coming to an end, and with only four weeks left in the schedule, Patrick made a big decision to use the remaining time to concentrate on one project. He wanted to make something that he could be really proud of, which might help him get work after Hungry Beast, and would also end the series with as big a bang as possible.

To say that he succeeded wildly on all of those fronts is something of an understatement. Because without a doubt, Stuxnet: Anatomy of a Computer Virus is the project that pushed him from nowhere to somewhere.

Stuxnet became an instant classic when it dropped on Vimeo, racking up over half a million views in the first few days and quickly earning a Staff Pick. If you were a fan of motion design in 2011 you definitely saw this piece, and chances are it dismantled your brain like so many Iranian centrifuges. Stylistically, it is a tour-de-force — successfully combining glitchy, military-grade espionage and high-tech paranoia with a poppy jumble of flat graphics, wireframe schematics and, surprisingly, a ton of hot pink. And it still looks great today.

Okay, so what happened next?

At this point in the story, Patrick got a little lucky. It just so happened that the mega video game company Ubisoft was in the early stages of developing a few titles about tech espionage and warfare, including some Tom Clancy franchises and what would ultimately become the Watch Dogs series. When they saw Stuxnet it was clear that they had found someone fluent in this language, so they brought him on board as a collaborator.

Over the next few years, Patrick had the pleasure to work for Ubisoft time and time again. This was an exciting phase, involving lots of international travel to Paris and Los Angeles. His career was on fire. But his personal life was also progressing — he and his wife were expecting their first child.

With so many things happening simultaneously, Patrick needed some stability. So he made the decision to start his own studio, which he called Antibody. In the truly chaotic fashion of life, everything hit all at once. While he and his wife were in the hospital waiting for their son to be born, Ubisoft commissioned him to make a trailer for The Division and immediately wanted to know how soon he could have it done. So he literally found himself ducking out of the hospital in between contractions to hire freelancers and order Ikea desks.

It was also at this time that Patrick’s restlessness began to kick in again. He had ‘made it’, but in some sense, he had also become pigeonholed by his own success. After a while, he had gotten a little tired of making pieces that involved spinning guns, hacked nuclear reactors and glitchy predator drone strikes. Because of his love of bookstores (“they are my crack, my weakness”) and visual research, as well as his aforementioned keen interest in virtually every subject known to humankind, Patrick had a huge pile of imagery and concepts stacking up that he had been unable to utilize for Ubisoft. In particular, he really wanted to work with the human form and photographic elements, both of which he felt was lacking from his work at the time.

And right about then Elastic called him up, offering representation. It turns out that Director Andy Hall was a fan of The Division trailer, and had passed Patrick’s name off to Executive Producer Jennifer Sofio Hall. Although Patrick was incredibly busy with other projects, as well as raising a child, he told her something to the effect of “let’s do one project together and see how it goes.” Pretty soon he got an email from Jennifer with the subject line “True Detective”, and his life changed forever.

I don’t need to go into too much detail about this astonishing title sequence since it is one of the most well-known pieces of motion design ever made. What’s important for me is the extent to which True Detective represents a tremendous, non-incremental leap forward in Patrick’s work.

I mean, the first time I saw the show I had trouble believing that the titles were made by the same person who had blown me away years before with Stuxnet. It was so much better, so much more sophisticated and accomplished than any of his previous work, and I had no idea how he could have made such a jump.

Many years later this mystery remained in my head, and I wanted to know: how does someone who is already very good get a lot better? Constant practice? Some kind of pact with the Devil? As it turns out, the answer is much more boring.

So how did he do it?

In the brilliant book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud explains that in order to make groundbreaking work in any medium, every artist needs to first master a number of essential building blocks of the creative process. McCloud puts the number at six, but for the purpose of this discussion I’m limiting that to five indispensable elements: Idea, Concept, Structure, Craft, and Style.

Let me quickly break this process down step by step because the order of the components is crucial to understanding the theory. To begin with, Idea represents the most fundamental and important of all the building blocks. In order to say something, you need to know what you want to say. Concept comes next in the order because it translates those ideas into specific storytelling units like visual metaphors and imagery. But a bunch of concepts is not enough to tell a story. A Structure is required to shape the argument, eliminating anything unnecessary and ordering the information into a compelling narrative. Craft is the tool by which this structure is built, and Style is the top-level of polish that makes it look beautiful.

McCloud compares this structure to an apple. Idea is the core, and Style is the skin.

But there’s a hitch in the way this all works. Strangely enough, as we all progress through our individual development as artists, we go through this order backwards. We start with Style, with the surface elements, and then eventually struggle to work our way toward Idea.

Patrick is no exception. Like the rest of us, he began his career thinking about Style, trying to make something that looked as polished as MK12 or other design heroes. He didn’t ask himself “what am I trying to say?”, he asked himself “how can I make this look cool?”

During his time at MTV and Hungry Beast Patrick put a lot of time into refining his design aesthetic. By the time he made Stuxnet, he had developed a fantastic Style and began to move past the surface, focusing more of his energy on the underlying Craft of his work. He began to view materials and software not as ends unto themselves, but as tools for telling rich stories.

He didn’t stop there. His restlessness pushed him to keep going. While still refining his Style and Craft, Patrick kept progressing forward through those subjects, concentrating more attention on the basic Structure of his projects. During his work with Ubisoft, it seems to me that he started to ask more important, more fundamental questions about his work, like: What is the best way to construct this particular story? What information is crucial and what is extraneous?

By the time he made The Division trailer, Patrick had a good handle on Structure and began to focus even more on Concept. If you compare this project to Stuxnet, you’ll see that although they look and feel somewhat similar, the visual metaphors are much stronger and subtler in the later piece. With practice, he had become better suited to illustrating the underlying notions of his work.

And finally, with True Detective, Patrick had arrived at the final stop on the line: Idea. Here he asked himself the most essential and deeply personal questions of all: What do I believe about the world and the people who live in it? What do I want to say about the human beings in this story? And this is where being such a big nerd with such a wide range of interests really paid off for Patrick as an artist, because he actually had something to say.

So if you’re reading this and thinking: how can I make work as good as Patrick’s? The answer is easy. Consume books and newspapers. Travel the world. Talk and debate with the smartest people you know. In particular, make sure to cultivate interests outside of motion design. In other words, try to figure out what you really think about the world. Once you do that it should be a snap to back those ideas up with strong concepts, an unshaking structure, flawless craft and impeccable style.

Is that it?

Well, no. Because after True Detective Patrick kept improving. In 2016 and 2017 he directed title sequences for Westworld and American Gods that rank (at least for me) as some of the most stunning things ever created for television. Just when you thought he couldn’t get any better, he somehow did.

How did he pull off this additional improvement? Collaboration.

While he was making the trailer for The Division, Patrick hired a fellow named Raoul Marks to help him animate a few sequences, and over the years they have collaborated together successfully on many projects. In Raoul, Patrick found not only a fantastic designer and dynamite animator, but a true filmmaker who understands storytelling to his core. Raoul’s ability to put himself into the mind of the audience impressed Patrick deeply, and has become a model of sorts for what he seeks in his other collaborators.

After the big splash of True Detective, Patrick’s work was in such great demand that he needed even more support to accomplish it all. And so he built up a team of world-class designers, modelers, compositors, editors, storyboard artists and animators to help. Effectively this meant that Patrick stopped putting his hands on the design of his work. Let’s just say that when you have Paul Kim on your team, you don’t need to make your own style frames.

So now when he directs a title sequence, he develops the fundamental ideas with showrunners and then employs an army of visual researchers to aid him in refining those into concepts. Thousands of images are considered. After the perfect ones are found, editors weave storyboards and playblasts together into just the right structure, while a roster of insanely talented artists elevate the craft and style up beyond the stratosphere.

In our interview, Patrick went out of his way to describe the singular talents of many people on his team, often speaking about their skills in incredibly specific ways that showed a great deal of love and sincere respect. In particular he mentioned Raoul Marks, Paul Kim, Yongsub Song, Devin Mauer, Jeff Han, Lance Slaton, Carol Salek, Jamie McBriety, Paul Makowski, Jennifer Sofio Hall, Angus Wall, and Linda Carlson for all of the help and hard work they have given him over the years.

And this is important to remember, because there is no way that one person alone, no matter how talented, could make something as accomplished as the American Gods or Westworld titles. Nobody has all those skills, not even world-famous motion designer Patrick Clair.