A Behind-The-Scenes Look At The Chilling Opening Credits Of “True Detective”

How production studio Elastic drew inspiration from double-exposure photography to design the eerie opening sequence of everyone’s favorite new detective show.

HBO consistently has some of the most critically acclaimed programs on television. Less touted are the shows’ opening credits, often works of art in their own right. True Detective, which wraps up on Sunday night, is no exception.


Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s cop show takes place in the pits of rural Louisiana, where characters contend with oil industry pollution, religious zealots, and satanic sacrificial murders. To allude to that, production studio Elastic created an opening sequence filled with morbid images of the show’s characters and the Gulf Coast. “We’re looking at a dark tale, told across the poisoned wasteland of Louisiana, where we’re seeing broken characters working through personal moments of death, violence, lust, conflict, and tragedy,” says Elastic director Patrick Clair, who has also created content for Joss Whedon’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and TED. “What was most important to me is that the sequence had depth to it that unfolded with the show.”

In an interview with Art of the Title, Clair (whose Australian studio Antibody contributed work as well) says that after meeting with showrunner Nic Pizzolatto, he knew almost immediately what he wanted to pitch. Clair calls the opening credits of True Blood and Six Feet Under “legendary,” and like those, his work is based on spliced imagery, rather than filmed footage.

The True Detective sequence is heavily inspired by the look of double exposure photography. Instead of using stills, Clair created “living photographs” that combine shots from the show’s footage with work from American landscape photographer Richard Misrach. Early on, Clair and his team came across Misrach’s book, Petrochemical America, which documents a stretch of industrial plants on the Gulf Coast called “Cancer Alley.” True Detective’s production team had already chosen The Handsome Family’s Far From Any Road as the opening sequence’s musical number, and as it turned out, the slow strum of the song provided perfect pacing for Clair’s vision of “living photographs.” The images they grabbed from the show’s footage–McConaughey and Harrelson’s faces, a stripper, an off-kilter church member–were slowed down to about a tenth of their actual speed, to create a floating, other-wordly atmosphere.

These shots, and Misrach’s photographs, were then digitally laid over one another–but with painstaking care to avoid a too-crisp, computerized look. “The most crucial thing to me was that this didn’t feel digital, so we went to great lengths to incorporate as much organic imagery as possible,” Clair tells Co.Design. This meant scanning antique photo plates, with gritty textures, and tinting them with oily yellows and greens, to “make sure the final images were dirty in all kinds of ways.”

Read more over at Art of the Title.

The King in Yellow, the innovative book underlying “True Detective,” is Fast Company’s Hot Pick this week. Download a free copy at Zola Books, which just reissued the short-story collection as an ebook for iPad and iPhone. Look for more of our book recommendations here.

About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.