John Dondertman Interviews ‘The Hot Zone’ Production Designer Britt Doughty

DGC Ontario Production Designer John Dondertman (Orphan Black, Titans, Kim’s Convenience) chats with fellow Member and award-winning Production Designer Britt Doughty. Britt’s latest work includes the recently-renewed Netflix show Sex/Life and the upcoming second season of The Hot Zone: Anthrax. She is also currently working on a Roger Kumble feature film shooting in Bulgaria.

Armed with a background in fine arts, Britt has worked in every area of the Art Department over the last two decades, from Graphic Designer to Art Director to Set Designer and finally Production Designer. Creating the “Burn Book” in the 2004 comedy Mean Girls is among her most notable credits, along with Guillermo del Toro’s horror drama The Strain and DC Comics’ Suicide Squad. Britt’s work on the Netflix series Self Made, where she transformed Stratford, Ontario, into  Harlem, New York circa 1918, was profiled by Architectural Digest

JD: How long have you been in the business?

BD: Officially I have been working in film for about 20 years. I initially wanted to get into fashion design but my Dad was an Editor, so at the age of 15 he started getting me work on local productions with the Art Department and Set Decoration departments. I still enjoy sewing in my spare time.

JD: What is your background, education or training?

BD: I went to OCAD for sculpture and film and left in 4th year to work building props for SPFX companies. I spent 3 years doing that before joining the DGC in the Art Department.

JD: What are your film influences?

BD: I enjoy palette-based films like Her and Amélie, story-wise I enjoy Wes Anderson and Danny Boyle. Really I love it all, and my taste is largely based by the project I am working on, so Zero Dark Thirty and Sicario are inspiring my work on Hot Zone.

JD: What do you feel that others, including your co-workers in the industry, do not understand about what you do as a Production Designer?

BD: I feel people not in film default to you’re an “artist”, and I also feel people get Art Director and Production Designer confused, but mostly people are savvy and understand what I do.

Production Designer Britt Doughty on the set of "Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker"
Production Designer Britt Doughty on the set of “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker”

JD: If you could work in another position in the film or media industry, what would you do?

BD: It would require starting over, but I would be a Director of Photography. I always enjoy the D.P. – Designer collaboration on my projects.

JD: Sex/Life on Netflix was a huge success and has a very striking visual style. What can you tell us about designing that show?

BD: Sex/Life was a blast to design – the story was fun and nothing was too much in terms of colour and textures.
In portraying the two very different lifestyles of the main character, I was tasked to make them both as envy-worthy as possible to portray the struggle in choosing one over the other.

JD: What was it about The Hot Zone series that made you want to be a part of it?

BD: This was such an incredible story to tell and a great opportunity creatively. We go through so many different time periods and live in many interesting spaces throughout this story. I remember when the actual Anthrax attacks happened but like the rest of the world, I was still in shell shock from the 9/11 attacks. For me, this project was a chance to learn more about the event and to retell a very important part of history.

JD: Tell us how you prepared for this project.

BD: Many hours of reading and researching. There are some fantastic books published about the event and Bruce Ivin (American microbiologist and the suspected perpetrator of the 2001 anthrax attacks) himself, as well as FBI files on the event. We also had several consultants on with us in order to achieve the authentic procedures and looks of spaces and characters. We had an ex FBI agent, medical advisor and media researcher for the countless hours of actual news footage. All of which helped us prepare for the show.

As there were many different worlds within the story, I wanted to designate each with its own look and palette while staying within a harmonious palette throughout the series. Given that our story is based on a real event, I did want to stay historically true. I also wanted to capture our characters’ struggles within the spaces. I played with a lot of reflective surfaces, especially in Bruce’s world in order to amp up his growing anxieties about his mental health.

Lightning Round Questions:

  • Analogue or digital? Both
  • Favourite non-work activity? Hanging with my daughter
  • Fiction or non fiction? A healthy amount of both
  • Rap or Rock or R&B? Probably Rap
  • Place you would most like to visit on your next trip? Nepal
  • Favourite crew lunch? Grilled cheese sandwich day
  • Favourite thing about Toronto? It’s home!

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