Speedy Dive into Set Design – Interview with Gabriella Douglas

Whenever you watch something, you may notice some interesting scenery given where it takes place. Sometimes you recognize places like the town you reside in, or maybe you discover the film was shot in a town elsewhere. Or sometimes it’s a place you don’t even recognize. Oftentimes, a film or a series takes place either years ago or years from now. But how do you make that possible given a city’s architecture? That’s when you call in a Set Designer to create your world for you. One of the best of all time is Gabriella Douglas. She’s been doing so many sets lately it’s insane. 

Gabriella has done so much in just a few years and has quite a high level of education as well. She started out on Chaos Walking as her first Set Design job right as she got out of Architecture school, and continued to progress from there. Gabriella has worked on sets such as Star Trek Discovery, Rock-a-Bye, SEE, Sweet Smell of Success, Tall Boyz, The Truth About Unicorns, and a few more. Lately she’s been working on Chucky Season 2. 

Of course, I just had to talk to Gabriella about her experience and what she’s been up to. Upon scheduling an interview and talking to her, I learned so much about Set Design and what Gabriella’s best accomplishments were.


HNMAG: I understand you have you learned your craft here in Canada. Can you explain how the university courses went?

Gabriella Douglas: I did my Undergraduate and my Master degrees in Architecture at The Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism in Carleton University. At the time I went, it was the #1 ranked Undergraduate program in the country. But going through the Architecture program, there was never any education on how our degrees could laterally connect to film. My degrees were specifically designed for me to become a ‘Capital A’ Architect, the person who designs skyscrapers, stadiums and things like that. After graduating my Master, that’s when I started doing research on other careers I was interested in. I’ve always been in love with design, and design can be parlayed into thousands of different career options. Film has always been a passion of mine. It just worked out, a lot of people in film come from interior design, and there’s a small percentage of us who are Architects. It’s been proven to be extremely beneficial for me in my field because I understand structure, and physical organization. This helps me move a lot faster in my career and understand spaces.


HNMAG: And what was it like working on Chaos Walking? Did it seem difficult at first or did you really get into it right away?

Gabriella Douglas: Being that it was my first job, it was incredibly daunting because film productions are such a massive amount of people, where there are so many moving parts and so many opportunities to drop the ball in film. I was incredibly trepidatious at first because I had no idea what I was doing, but I had some really great Art Directors. One was Caroline De Bellefeuille: she really took me under her wing and explained to me how to survey a space as a Set Designer. I’d say it was an aggressive jump into film but there’s no other way to go about it. Eventually you adapt.


HNMAG: So with lots of experience, is set design a lot less stressful for you now?

Gabriella Douglas: I think every job whether film or anything there will be a certain level of stress. I would hope that even as I progress in my career I don’t lose that stress because there’s a fine line between stress and good anxiety-like excitement. As whole, this career is a high-paced, zero-summed job where there’s a deadline, there’s no pushing it because so many other people have their schedules based on this. There’s nerves in every single job, but you learn to manage. 


HNMAG: With it being a tough job, what keeps you from stressing out too much?

Gabriella Douglas: That’s a good question. I try to remind myself that I’m not saving anybody’s life. I work so much, but is a blessing for me to do what I love. I try not to take it too seriously because then I’ll lose my mind so I try to never bring my work home with me. I get to work around 7:30 AM and leave at 8PM and I try not to answer any emails unless they’re absolutely imperative that I should answer right away. I don’t work overtime unless requested and approved by the production because I just think demanding more of myself without pay is cheapening my value. I don’t support burning the candle at both ends.


HNMAG: What would you say is fun and enjoyable about this job?

Gabriella Douglas: Almost everything, but I think the most fun is getting to work with people who come from such a different background than yourself. Not everybody is an Architect, you have people who come from a background of dance, costume, and the music industry. It’s such an asset when you learn the way their mind works, the way their creative spirits flow, their scheduling methods and their conflict resolution. It is a melding of the minds. Of course, sometimes people butt heads as you would in any job. But just being able to work with really talented people has been the best part of the job.


HNMAG: Working with teams, how do you even things out with everybody, especially in a fast-paced environment?

Gabriella Douglas: I rely on my leadership skills from when I was younger. I played competitive hockey at a high level when I was a captain and assistant captain. Through those years of being in a really high-level competitive sport, I learned that the best kind of leader is the one who sits back and listens to everybody and takes their opinions into consideration. I may have my own knee-jerk reactions to some people’s behaviour and their actions, but I’ve always taken the approach of letting everybody speak, making sure they all say their piece and listening to their needs. Sometimes you have to say, “Okay, but this is how it’s going to go.” and sometimes you can preach to the more calm and mature minded, saying “Okay, so this is perhaps a problem, but can we move forward?”

Gabriella said sometimes it involves two people disagreeing or even something that might escalate, but sometimes it’s not so much a problem as it is an obstacle. 


HNMAG: Since you work as a leader, do you decide who does what and keep their skillsets in mind to get the job done in the fastest way possible?

Gabriella Douglas: For the most part, it’s the Art Directors role who give certain jobs, but I’ve evolved in my career where I get the biggest, more challenging designs. The biggest factor is always time: how fast they need it. If they need it yesterday, it’s going to be me who does all the work. If we have time to afford, I might give the assignment to the person who’s my junior so they can go build their skills, all the while managing the design. I try to offer as much guidance as I possibly can, and aim to teach best practices through healthy work demands. 


HNMAG: You’ve done most of your work in Toronto where you now reside. How did your previous time in the United States differ?

Gabriella Douglas: I was in New York for a short time and I can say New York is incredibly fast-paced, but not way ahead of Toronto. The difference is that literally renting spaces in Toronto is cheaper. If it takes you three hours to complete a task in securing a location, you’re probably afforded an hour or two more in Toronto because it’s not as expensive. New York demands a lot more from people, and I would say that the Set Designers there are more multi-talented.


HNMAG: Since you’re also a member of the DGC, what kind of opportunities do you get to work on Canadian productions?

Gabriella Douglas: On the DGC, I have worked on Star Trek Discovery, which is a CBS show and I worked with Tamara Deverell. I also worked on Mrs. America with Mara LePere-Schloop and Cate Blanchett for the DGC. This past year, I worked on SEE Season 2, and Season 3 for Apple TV+ also under DGC. Presently, I’m working on Chucky for NBC and they’ve all been very supportive. 


HNMAG: What have you worked on outside of DGC? Was it any different?

Gabriella Douglas: Chaos Walking was DGC but in the Quebec sector. That was a different kind of cog in the same machine. 


HNMAG: What is one of the most elaborate sets you’ve ever built?

Gabriella Douglas: Definitely the Enterprise for Star Trek Discovery. We had to rebuild the entire Enterprise, and it was virtually a carbon copy but with materials that are contemporary. For example, construction was made out of different materials that were more eco-friendly. That was a very complicated and dense set. Very few right angles and also very iconic that you cannot mess up because you will have armies of people coming for you.


HNMAG: What about props? Do you build any of those yourself or do you leave those to the team?

Gabriella Douglas: No, but on Season 3 of SEE we had props working with us closely. On that particular show, the characters were blind. Because of this, physical touch had to be incorporated in every set for the actor to interact with. For example, they made a map of an area of land but instead of a typical 2D image on a piece of paper, we had to make a 3D model of found objects for the props team that would explain the land on a tactile level.


HNMAG: Now when constructing a film set, what are the first factors you think of before starting the building process?

Gabriella Douglas: Budget and schedule. Those are the absolute pinnacles of any single design. In film, anything can be achieved if you have money and time.

Gabriella gave me an examples of discussions between a Set Designer and a Production Designer; they would talk about what kind of place the character would live, based on their hobbies, spiritual beliefs, socio-economic background, etc. Working with the psychology of the character is the key to making the right space, she said. Eventually an idea would be pitched to producers.


HNMAG: What are some of the most durable materials that make a sturdy and reliable film set?

Gabriella Douglas: It would depend on where you’re building the set. If it’s an indoor set, it’s plywood. There are 3 dozen kinds of plywood that you could use but it’s the factor if it’s relatively affordable. Inflation and availability has made material costs skyrocket in the past 3 years. A lot of exterior sets that would emulate foam, the skeleton of the set would be made of some kind of scaffolding. If outside, the elements must be taken into account. 


HNMAG: Now, I understand you’re doing work on Chucky Season 2, what is it like designing sets for that?

Gabriella Douglas: It’s fun. This is my first horror show so it’s actually been very eye-opening because I’m not one that particularly gravitates to horror movies or shows at all. There’s certain kinds of gothic architecture, very old Catholic schools can really emote this kind of ghost-like and eerie disturbing-the-peace nature. It can really play with the actors, the script, and it’s something I’ve never seen before in other genres. The space can really carry the scene and really bring that extra level of fear. 


HNMAG: Do you see yourself working on more horror sets in the future?

Gabriella Douglas: I’d love to, I think it would be fantastic. Since I’ve grown a new appreciation for it, I would never turn down a horror.


HNMAG: Is there any kind of set design you haven’t done but would like to do in the future?

Gabriella Douglas: I’m partial to anything historical fiction, I just find there’s so much artistry and scenic skill to beautiful cathedrals and work in sculpting that is amazing. I would like to work with people on that and learn from people who are at the top of their craft.


As you can tell, Gabriella is on a good track and shows no signs of stopping in set design. While it may not quite be the same as designing actual buildings, she’s doing great work making sets for productions that look so realistic it’s stunning. Who knows where it will take her? No telling, but I have a feeling her skills will continue to grow as her sets expand in size.

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