Getting Ebbets Field just right as the legendary home of the Brooklyn Dodgers was the greatest challenge for production designer Richard Hoover on “42,”
the stirring biopic about Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) as Major
League Baseball’s first African-American. It’s both an arena and a battleground for Robinson’s crusade in 1947 to fight racial prejudice and prove his greatness as a baseball player. But without digital enhancement they never could’ve made us believe we were there.
“The first thing we had to do was figure out what Ebbets Field was in a planned view and then continue an investigation in more detail,” explains Hoover, who previously collaborated with “42” director Brian Helgeland on the gritty “Payback” “We were able to find scanned drawings and conjured various approaches. The best and most cost-effective approach was building a digital green screen from scratch, 1,200 feet long and 40-feet high and we could rely on VFX [from Hammerhead and overseen by production VFX supervisor Jamie Dixon] to handle the outfield and some of the infield.
“Fortunately, we discovered a stadium in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Engel Stadium, which was in disrepair. It’s one of the oldest existing ballparks [where Robinson actually played], and we were encouraged to use it to help energize the community to renovate it someday. We laid our Ebbets Field over that with a little bit of digital cheating. The Ebbets infield was on a piece of property that had an 80-degree angle and came to a point. So we took one of the sides of our existing stadium, which was 90 degrees, and rebuilt it out of wood and angled it in. Ebbets was very intimate and we wanted to make sure that we delivered that accurately and have a sense that you’re really at the game.”
Ebbets was built right up to the property line adjacent to a sidewalk and a street. Of course, this was long before the modern era of luxury box seats. Steel structure stadiums were common. But Ebbets was its own icon being small, even though they later added seats to the infield and outfield. The production changed the outfield fences as well as the infield fences along the grass; they changed the dugout; and they rebuilt the scoreboard. For the exterior shot of Ebbets, they took a classic photo and replicated it with VFX. With modifications, Engel Stadium also functioned as Cincinatti’s famed Crosley Field.The production also used two other stadiums where Robinson played: Luther Williams Field in Macon, Georgia; and Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama, the country’s oldest existing ballpark.
“Now we’re living in a digital era of layering, as opposed to photography back then,” Hoover continues. “It makes it easier to cheat and enhance. Either you don’t ever shoot wide shots, which would be disappointing, or you invest in a lot of effort in digital work, which they did. I sat with artists and shared what I learned from the research.”
The early post-war period was fascinating to research and reconstruct. It was right before the economic boom, so they were small and dirty and not very colorful. Hoover says it was like the cities were coming out of a dark period. So the general design profiles were late ’30s and early ’40s, but Brooklyn was 19th century and so the design elements were simple and direct. However, they saved the most colorful moments for Ebbets and the other ballparks, which was a wonderful metaphor for the allure of baseball and the spotlight that shined on Robinson and his historic achievement.
“Hopefully, the baseball folks are gonna be happy. It is an icon. You just have to say, ‘I’m working for you, icon.'”
It’s more than that — it was the backdrop for a revolutionary change in our national consciousness, and for that Ebbets works wonders.