Shooting “Drunk History” With Blake McClure

Comedy Central

BY: Marjorie Galas, Editor

Blake McClure never imagined himself standing amongst his peers and idols at an American Society of Cinematographers event.  However, on February 1st, 2014, he not only rubbed elbows with the DP elite, he received a coveted ASC Award for Best Cinematograph for a Half Hour Series or Pilot.

“I started sweating, I was so nervous, standing up there on the stage in front of everyone,” said McClure.  “It is so amazing, I still can’t believe this is really happening.”

McClure’s first nomination and subsequent win was presented for his work on “Drunk History,” a television series that sprung from Funny or Die webisodes. Although McClure shot a number of Funny or Die sketches, he wasn’t involved with the original incarnation of “Drunk History.”   When Comedy Central picked up the series, happenstance
connected McClure with the show’s producer/host Derek Waters at the moment he’d
begun searching for a DP, and McClure gladly jumped at the opportunity.

“Drunk History” involves the telling of a historical event by a person who becomes increasingly inebriated as the tale advances.  Each story intertwines three components: an interview between Waters and a narrator (and each narrator has a personal connection to the story) and a re-enactment of the story-teller’s words (including stutters, burps and other alcohol induced slip-ups) by A-list actors such as Bob Odenkirk, Kristin Wiig, Connie Britton and Jack Black.  While the story telling and re-enactments are shot in LA, the final component sends McClure to the story’s location to gather B-Roll that is added for local flavor.  The budget is small, the time-line tight, and the crew minimal.

 

“With a small budget and just a week to prep, we have to work very quickly and there’s not a lot of time to think,” said McClure.  “Jeremy (Konner, TV series creator, director and writer) goes out and scouts locations – he does a lot of research and is very knowledgeable about the periods.  Then Eric Archer, the production designer, goes to the location and does prep.  He does a lot of research and finds ways to convey the space with a tiny budget, often improvising on the spot to capture the look.”

 

To inform his lighting and shooting styles, McClure also does period research for the stories.   He’ll often experiment with lenses and a variety of gels he and his gaffer have on hand.  In an episode exploring Elvis Presley’s encounter with Richard Nixon, McClure utilized yellow gels to intensify the color of draperies that were employed to give the illusion of a room at Graceland.  In another scene, McClure referenced a photo of Elvis in a red-themed Los Angeles dining room, and used red gels to evoke the atmosphere of the historic location.  While the budget prohibits the crew from achieving extreme historical accuracy, McClure uses whatever resources are available to evoke an authenticity to the period.

 

“The best part of the show is working with different time periods; you get to really experiment,” said McClure.  “I use different lenses and lighting styles.  For the Deep Throat piece, I was inspired by ‘All the President’s Men’ and wanted to pay homage to the movie.  Being the 70s,  we used top lighting with fluorescent bulbs.  I used Baltar lenses; they added a nice affect to the piece.  A lot of the decisions are subconscious when you are working fast – you can’t be worried about making too big of a mistake.  You think on your feet.  It’s very refreshing.”

 

McClure’s roots also gave him strong ammunition to prepare for budgetary and scheduling confinements involved with “Drunk History.”    He spent many years in Nashville working primarily on music videos with budgets ranging from highs of $100,000 to lows of $10,000 or less.  Working on these productions, he learned to avoid letting frustrations cloud his judgment while working quickly and making rapid decisions.  He also saw how “happy accidents” – a frequent by-produced of low budget productions – aided the affect.  Despite the budget, majority of these earlier pieces were shot with McClure’s personal Alexa.  Over the last few years he’s primarily been shooting digitally.

“I prefer film, but haven’t shot on film since I moved to LA two to three years ago,” said McClure.  “It seems to me that film has plateaued, and I hope it stays viable and used.  But, the content should always dictate the format choice.  I recently saw ‘Her’ and thought that was a perfect example of how digital added to the style of the movie.  They tried adding grain, but it didn’t work.”

Once the excitement from the nomination settled, McClure recognized the bar would be set higher for his work on subsequent seasons of “Drunk History.”  Overcoming his nerves, he’s now embracing the challenge and feels excited about experimenting with more techniques moving forward.  McClure declined the producers’ offer to provide an additional shooter, choosing instead to continue the close collaboration he’s forged with the current creative team, and he’s looking forward to utilizing a more instinctive approach during future episodes.

“Now I know the producers and the crew.  I feel more comfortable, so there is actually less pressure that I would place on myself,” said McClure.  “Towards the end of season one, I didn’t want to focus on the genre of the story so much, but go with my gut.  Now, I realize I can play more with the lenses, the colors, and do more gut work.”

To learn more about “Drunk History,” please visit:

http://www.comedycentral.com/shows/drunk-history