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[Exclusive] Why True Detective's New Title Is Seeing Red

Raoul Marks helped turn Harrelson and McConaughey into an Emmy-winning title sequence. Here's how.

From a shoebox office in Sydney, designer/animator Raoul Marks worked on the opening credits for HBO hit True Detective season one, a job that later won him an Emmy for ‘Outstanding Main Title Design.’ Now that the crime drama is back for a second season, Raoul is too.

The internet allows him to carry out his practice despite the 12,000-odd kilometres between Australia and LA. From reading a couple of scripts and seeing snippets of the show reel, Raoul and a creative team conceptualize titles that establish the setting without giving the plot away. The Creators Project spoke to Raoul about the art of the title sequence:

The Creators Project: How did working on True Detective come about?

Raoul Marks: I was originally working with Pat Clair. We’d collaborated on video game called The Division, which had been noticed by a producer over at Elastic, who have done a bunch of jobs for HBO [Games of Thrones, Carnivale]. The first job they asked us to pitch on was for a new HBO series, which for motion designers is like a dream come true.

Do you watch the episodes before creating the titles?

They usually share the scripts from the first three episodes. These might still be in a rough form, but they give you an idea of the plot and themes. We get a lot of rushes—basically offcuts and parts of the show, usually without sound—and that also influences what we use in the titles and gives us a sense of the tone of the show. 

It looks like you’ve taken a new direction with the titles for True Detective season two. Can you tell us a bit about sourcing the textures and backgrounds?

The more gloomy monotone vibes of the first season weren’t going to work... We needed some brighter turquoise and reds. We relied heavily on still photography for a lot of the locations and textural elements in the sequence. In fact, the majority of imagery comes from still images. So a large part of production was bringing the photography to life. It needed to reflect our new setting of fictional Vinci, California, and feel like a lucid dream—unsettling and full of Californian heat. The goal was to be recognizable, but also to take a new angle on the iconic aesthetic of California. We were lucky enough to have been given a whole bunch of work by photographer David Maisel. He has some beautiful photographs that we referenced: high contrast black-and-white imagery of all the snaking freeways in Los Angeles, wider California and the Lake District, and also abstract aerial photography.

How did you guys create the ‘moving collage’ feel?

I used a technique that I developed for the season one titles that involves recreating a 3D version of the scene and projecting the still imagery back onto that topography. That allows us to move a camera through these scenes to create a sense of movement. This can lend the shot a lovely surreal quality. It gives the titles a sense that they’re an abstraction of our characters and their environments. That blending of character and environment is something we explored heavily in the first season and have aimed to develop further with season two. I think at the core of Nic Pizzolatto’s writing... he sees people as products of their surroundings. No matter how hard one might try to escape their world they are inevitably molded by the landscape they inhabit.

True Detective

It must’ve been pretty damn surreal to win an Emmy.

It was. We were doing a lot of work out of this tiny little box of an office in Sydney so even that seemed a little bit surreal as we were working on a large HBO property, but the Emmys were just a whole other level of craziness. Going over to LA and seeing all the glitz and that glamour and the partying was kind of hilarious but very fun. It was straight back to work afterwards. 

Did you make any smart life decisions to get to where you’re at today?

I’ve never sought out working for larger companies because it always sounded a little bit intimidating/scary. In smaller places you don’t end up being a little cog in a large machine. I’ve found that useful because I can jump into different situations or tasks and be reasonably adaptive. I think a lot of Australian designers have a large range of skills because they’re used to working with a small team.

Image from the 
 season two title sequence

True Detective

It must be pretty cool seeing the finished product when it comes out.

Yes, exciting and slightly terrifying. When season one came out it got a bit of press and then built and built and built. There was such an anticipation for season two that I’m stopping myself from reading all the comments on the message boards and blogs because there will always be debate going on about the titles, let alone the show.

We imagine there’d be some pretty hardcore fans out there.

There’s already, like, 50 remixes on YouTube of just the titles with different music and people are getting quite heated about it. It’s been a slow process of learning to not pay too much attention to it. 

Images from the 
 season two title sequence

True Detective

Title sequence credits:

Design Studio | Elastic

Creative Director | Patrick Clair

Lead Animation and Compositing | Raoul Marks

Animation and Compositing | David Do

Design | Patrick Clair, Paul Kim, Kevin Heo, Jeff Han

Associate Producer | Danny Hirsch

Producer | Carol Collins

Executive Producer | Jennifer Sofio Hall

True Detective season two is now screening on HBO. See more of Raoul’s work on his website.

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