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The Beauty Behind "Ugly Betty" - Art and Design Team Shares Inside look at the ABC Hit Show

January 29, 2009 - Fashion students and TV devotees were out in force at a recent panel featuring the talented members of the creative design team behind “Ugly Betty.” Presented by the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting, The Art and Design of “Ugly Betty” took an inside look into the colorful, behind-the-scenes world of the ABC hit show in a discussion moderated by Commissioner Katherine Oliver at The Fashion Institute of Technology.

“Ugly Betty” tells the story of Betty Suarez (America Ferrera), a sweet, intelligent and hardworking girl from Queens who tries to make it in the cutthroat world of a high class fashion magazine. Currently in its third season, the ABC Studios’ “Made in NY” series shoots on location throughout the five boroughs and at its production home, Silvercup Studios. At The Art and Design of “Ugly Betty,” various members of the design team shared their experiences bringing Betty’s world to life.

Patricia Field, a two-time Emmy winner for her trendsetting costume design, worked on the show's pilot, which shot in New York City in the spring of 2006. “We were fortunate to have Richard Shephard as a director [on the pilot],” Field remembered. He wanted the episode “to explode with color” which was exactly what Field wanted to hear. “Usually, they’re holding me back.”

“My career started in retail,” said Field, whose Greenwich Village boutique is a fashion institution. “After being in the fashion business for twenty years, I was reaching the point of, ‘Is that all there is?’”

She was given the opportunity to work on a movie through a recommendation and was astounded by the pay. “I never took it for granted,” she said. “Too many years I worked too hard.” She soon realized just how much she enjoyed the work. More jobs followed, including “Sex and the City,” The Devil Wears Prada and the upcoming Confessions of a Shopaholic.

Attempting to explain her role as associate costume designer, Molly Rogers joked, “I compare it to being first runner up at a beauty pageant.” Originally from North Carolina, Rogers was living in London when she read an article about Field’s store and thought she’d like to meet her. On her first day in New York City, Rogers headed straight to the store and introduced herself. Field asked if she could fold t-shirts and offered her a job that day.

Preparing for an episode, Field and Rogers read through the script, and then the costume supervisor tells them how many costume changes each character will go through. “We go out and shop like mad,” said Rogers. “We go all over New York, to showrooms and retail stores.” Often, they’ll be approached by sales clerks who offer an item they think should be on the show.

Field also shared an anecdote about the origin of Betty’s signature red glasses. During the pilot, Field and Rogers worked to get the right clothes and accessories for Betty, but they weren’t having any luck finding the perfect pair of glasses. “I had some red glasses on my head,” said Field. America Ferrera asked to try them on, and they instantly became Betty’s glasses.

Answering a question from the audience about how she sees Betty’s fashion sense evolving since the first season, Field explained how it was never Betty’s intention to be in the fashion world. “She’s a fish out of water,” she said. Betty’s been working at Mode for two years now, and she’s interpreting the fashion in her own way. She knows tights and leggings are in, but how she puts them together is done in her own special way.

Mark Worthington has been the production designer for “Ugly Betty” since the first episode and has been integral to the show’s overall look, using style and setting to create “the world the characters inhabit.” As extreme and as wacky as the show gets, it’s still grounded in reality. “This show allows you so much latitude,” he said.

Rich Devine, the show’s set decorator, works each week to add texture to the sets with furniture, wallpaper, lighting fixtures, and other items that personalize a scene. After they’ve read the script, Worthington and Devine talk about what they’d love to do for that episode and what they can afford to do.

“Ugly Betty is an ideal place for me to land,” Devine said. Growing up watching MGM musicals and Bugs Bunny cartoons was the perfect precursor to decorating something like Wilhelmina Slater’s home, which Devine compared to Cruella de Vil’s apartment.

As the graphic designer for “Ugly Betty,” Robert Bernard designs everything from the menus that become props for the actors to 50 page layout spreads of the fictitious Mode magazine. “I like the fast pace of having to create something that’s out the door in a few hours,” he said.

Victor Nelli, Jr., a co-executive producer and director for the show, credits his career success with his willingness to go beyond his areas of interest and try other things. Before becoming a director, he spent time as an electrician, a PA, and a transportation captain. “You have to be willing to fail,” he said before sharing a piece of wisdom he’d received from his father: “The difference between disaster and adventure is attitude.”

The panelists also offered their advice to students just starting out and interested in working in the entertainment industry. “Take the blinders off,” Devine said. “Go where the opportunities are. Meet people. Talk to people.”

Worthington recommended internships as a way to learn about production. “Don’t resent that it’s grunt work,” he said. “Be energetic, enthusiastic. Listen carefully, watch carefully.”

For those who study fashion, whether retail or design, Field stressed the need to diversify. “There are so many branches [where] you can take fashion. The demand for media is growing. It’s a great way to make a living.”

“Ugly Betty” airs on ABC, Thursdays at 8pm EST. Stay tuned to www.nyc.gov/film for streaming video of the entire panel.
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