In some careers, the easiest way to get a job is to figure out how to sink the Titanic.
“The first question (Drunk History showrunners Derek Waters and Jeremey Konner) asked was ‘We’re scratching our heads because we have this Titanic episode. How are we going to show the boat sinking?’” Chloe Arbiture says.
“I said ‘Well we could make a miniature of the Titanic and I could carve an iceberg out of styrofoam and we could just go in a swimming pool and then crack it in half.’”
And that’s how Arbiture was hired as the production designer for Comedy Central’s flagship drunk storytelling series Drunk History.
Arbiture is part of the army of behind-the-camera talent that goes in to creating television shows and movies, regardless of budget or size. As the production designer she oversees the aesthetic language of everything on film. We chatted with her about the nature of her job, her work on the Emmy-nominated “Hamilton” episode and what we can expect from Drunk History season 5.
Den of Geek: Where did your interest in art and production design begin?
Chloe Arbiture: That’s an awesome question. I was always kind of a crafty, artsy kid. I thought I wanted to pursue a career in fine art like painting. I went to college and took some fine art classes and although I loved it I felt like there wasn’t much of a practical application. I had taken a film class and I realized that this was a really cool way to apply fine arts. As I went to school and realized you could have a career in that that’s where it took off for me.
Where did you go to school?
I graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.
Actually that’s Madison. We were Panthers. Close enough.
Why do branch schools need their own mascots?
I don’t know!
What falls under the banner of production design?
A lot of people think production design is just set design. That’s true in that the production designer designs all of the sets. But really anything that’s on camera that’s not an actor falls under the production designer. There are other branches of that like costume designers but when it comes to the overall aesthetic and look that’s the production designer. Really it’s the person who sits down with the director and talks about what they want their project to look like – the aesthetic, the vibe.
What is your creative process like?
A lot of it comes from the director or the showrunner for TV. The first thing that I do is sit down with the director. We’ll pull together references and a collection of images, palettes and colors called a Lookbook. I break the script down by location. If there is a particularly emotional scene in a certain room we’ll talk about how the room can support that emotion. Then of course the production designer has to oversee the whole budget. A lot the decisions come from a budgetary standpoint. If the director wants to shoot in a Medieval castle and wants to shoot in 360 degrees but we don’t have the money for that we find a way to support that vision. Especially with Drunk History, we don’t have an endless budget. We have to make sure the creative vision we come up with fits the budget.
What are some of the challenges and advantages of production designing for Drunk History – a show in which you’re recreating sets from someone’s half-remembered drunken memory.
It starts the same way I do anything. I get the script and sometimes I get them with a lot of notice and sometimes I don’t. I do the same location breakdown. Drunk History shoots up to 15 sets a day in a 12-hour shoot day. Which is pretty insane. So I figure out what our biggest priority is – where do we spend the most time? Because we shoot everything on location I sit down with the location manager and figure out what we can pitch for our two directors Jeremy (Konner) and Derek (Waters). For our Hamilton episode, we shot at the Wilshere Ebell Theatre, which is in Los Angeles. It’s like a 100-year-old theater. It had these amazing interiors.
But Hamilton had all these battle scenes. We got to shoot it in three days so we did all the battle scenes and battle scenes at the Golden Oak Ranch. After we settled all the interiors at Wilshere and the exteriors at Golden Oak there were just a couple of outliers. There was a flaming boat, the hurricane in the Caribbean. And that’s when we start to lean on the goofier things like backgrounds, miniatures. Which is awesome as a production designer. Sometimes if you’re not able to shoot at a castle or whatever, Drunk History always has a creative out. We can just make it out of cardboard or paint a goofy cardboard thing or make it in miniature. We can create any world even if it’s a little off. But hey, your narrator is drunk so we can shoot anything a drunk person can say even if it means it’s made out of cardboard.
That sounds unexpectedly creatively freeing.
It is! We had this episode in season 4 where we had to fill an entire downtown area with molasses. To do that on a real scale for a movie let’s say would be SO expensive. It would require all of these special effects. So what we ended up doing is I built a scale of downtown Boston at 1/87th scale. We just spilled some molasses on it. It still allowed us to show it that we wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.
What was it like going back to the Hamilton well? Particularly now that Hamilton is a bigger figure than the first time around?
I think it was a really cool idea to go back to the very first episode. Initially it made me nervous. It’s become so huge with the musical. Then when I found out Lin-Manuel Miranda was the narrator I thought there would be a lot of pressure to live up to the Hamilton hype. Then as we got into it and I listened to the narration and talked to Derek and Jermey we wanted to make sure we put our own Drunk History spin on it. We didn’t want to do a drunken version of the musical. That was exciting for me. In the narration Lin even says there’s a part of the story they couldn’t tell in the play which was the flaming boat. It was cool for me because it was blending the cool parts with the play with part of the Drunk History parts.
You got to do a Hamilton deleted scene!
Exactly. That ended up being my favorite scenes of the episode. First of all when we light the boat on fire you can see the guy’s hand, which is hilarious and very Drunk History. Also we had never done a fire stunt that big. The excitement that day on set was palpable.
What can we expect from Drunk History season 5?
Season 5 is gonna be awesome. We’re doing more stories than we’ve ever done before. It’s a huge season. The thing I’m most excited about is we’re trying to duplicate some of those old Hollywood tricks. There are two episodes that have matte paintings in them. I’ve never been asked to create a matte painting. They’re still used but not a lot of people do them. I’m really excited to see how that cuts together. Hopefully it looks like Drunk History real enough.
I’m also really excited about the stories in season 5. We really focused a lot of stories of women in history and people of color in history. I just think that especially in today’s climate it’s important to tell those stories in addition to the ones we’ve heard about Lincoln and Washington. I’m proud to work on this show. It’s a silly show, it’s a comedy show, it’s a drunk comedy show but at the heart of it it’s like a really important show. I don’t know if anyone has said that about Drunk History.