Some television title sequences are abstract, teasing the audience to unravel their clues. That’s certainly how designer Patrick Clair approached his much-acclaimed title for True Detective, but when his team at Elastic was asked to take on Westworld, he decided to take a more explicit approach, condensing the show’s own design elements into something both simple and symbolic. From the first shot, when it appears that a sun is rising over a ridge — only to reveal that it’s the light enabling the creation of a robotic rib cage — each image can be two things at once, underlining the theme that nothing is quite as it seems. Clair took us through Elastic’s Westworld title design — from milk baths to robot sex — to explain the deeper meanings.
What were your initial conversations with showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy like?
We started talking in February, which was late in the game in terms of the process because they had filmed a lot of the series, but it was still early in terms of delivery. I knew this material really well, because I had seen the original Westworld movie, and I’m a huge Michael Crichton fan. I first heard about the show years ago when it was first commissioned, and I had been wanting to work on it. So when they invited us to have a chat, it was really exciting because I had been thinking about it for years. And they just exceeded my expectations, in terms of being cool and thought-provoking.
If you’re a fan of the movie, the show goes beyond the original Westworld movie …
I thought it was going to be as simple as Jurassic Park — there’s a theme park, the creatures or inventions go awry, and the people trapped inside have an adventure. But what was interesting to me was that they were approaching the show from the point of view of the hosts, and that inherently made it a much deeper psychological study of these people. This has some darker themes about human temptation, exploitation, vice, all the dark things people want to do deep down. And that was present in the original film, but not as fully explored. So it was really exciting that they were exploring this darker side of humanity over this epic piece of storytelling.
Did you use extra footage from the TV show? If not, how did you recreate the sequences where robots are made?
By the time I came on the show, they had already created the most beautiful and poetic version of creating robots that I could imagine. I could have abstracted that, but when I looked at the hosts inside the show, and the beautiful white translucent liquid, I thought the process itself seemed very poetic as it was, so instead of trying to represent that in an abstract way, I wanted to use the same design elements, the same robot arms, the same way the people turn in the circle. But in doing that, we wanted to make sure it wasn’t just pulled from the show, so to make stuff that felt like design, we used versions of those objects we created in the computer.
So technically speaking, we recreated it. But the show shared with us all sorts of footage, such as the actual player piano, so we went and photographed that, and rebuilt that in a CGI world. Ramin Djawadi made a fantastic video for us of the piano being played, and our animation team pored over that in great detail. The player piano is a primitive form of robot, so we’re exploring the difference between animal and man and machine in very specific ways. The player at the piano is heartbreaking. It’s the bizarre nature of someone being created to be made redundant, and that is something we can all relate to, and the kind of thing that will provoke stories as it goes on.
You called it a “white translucent liquid.” It looks like milk, which is also used in the show.
We never gave it a name, but I found it one of the things that was most aesthetically exciting. The footage already existed of them filming with this milky, glue-like, white substance, and it struck me as a fantastic juxtaposition to the dirty, dusty Wild West. Two completely different genres: this industrial, clean, robotic sci-fi with its geometric circles and squares, and then this really rich heritage of the Wild West and cowboy dramas — dirty, dusty, gun-slinging, hard-drinking, pioneer storytelling. And we combine them. The tension between the two genres is critical to the story, and a great jumping-off point to explore the contrast between real people and fake people, and the gray area in between.
Let’s talk about the motif of those circles, because you have the Vitruvian Man-esque people turning in the circle, as you mentioned, and also the eye.
The Vitruvian Man, that goes back to Da Vinci’s anatomical drawings, and it gives the story an epic take on the formation of human beings. One of the things that the show does well is the naked human body. It makes it strange and alienating, cold and mechanical, which makes us think about the body and the way people use it, or are used. And the eye, we were looking for ways to tie the Western landscape into this world where the robots are being manufactured, and we thought the way to do it was inside an eye. You’ll see the eyes being formed with this chaotic liquid material, being laid by these needles, and then it creates the craters and valleys you’d get inside an iris. A human eye is an incredibly soulful thing. A lot of our brains are dedicated to figuring out the emotional connections that we feel when we look in someone’s eyes, that truism that the eyes are the window to the soul. And if you push beyond that, you can see, especially in an extreme close-up, that the eye becomes fascinating, terrifying, abstract. Cold, even. There’s a whole landscape right inside the iris. And we thought it was a great canvas, to make this parallel between the iris and the park itself using this constant repetition of the circular forms.
You’ve also got sex and violence covered. Two of the robots seem intimate, and then there’s the gun …
“These violent delights have violent ends.” We were really tickled by the idea that two hosts might be in love and engage in sex, when really, they’re the machines who were created to have sex with the human guests. They might sneak off for their own trysts! It’s fascinating and heart-wrenching. These creatures are created to be killed, or to have sex with the guests who come for pleasure seeking — it’s a dark thought. This was in the original movie, so it’s a thought from a story that’s 43 years old, but J.J. [Abrams] and Jonathan [Nolan] and Lisa [Joy] understood that there was an interesting story within that which hadn’t been told yet. It gives us a whole new world that goes to dark areas of the human mind, and our willingness to use people, or things that are like people.
We get one face that’s half-finished, half-skeletal. Who is that? Is that a hint that someone who seems human might not be?
[Laughs.] Now we’re getting into territory where I might get into trouble for going into too much detail! Certainly, we took care with every detail. I think what’s important is that we created something that you’ll enjoy watching the first time, and the more you watch the show, the more you’ll see how these images reflect the story and its significance. Nothing is in there by accident.
This interview has been edited and condensed.