Beyer Field on "A League of Their Own", courtesy of Victoria Paul

Production design of “A League of Their Own” – interview with Victoria Paul

December 6th, 2022
Beyer Field on "A League of Their Own", courtesy of Victoria Paul

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Victoria Paul. In this interview, she talks about changes in the way stories are made in movies and television over the last few decades, the ever-raising quality and expectations bar from the viewers, the impact of Covid on the industry, and the advice she would give to people just starting out in it. In between all these and more, Victoria dives deep into her work on “A League of Their Own”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Victoria: I started designing for theater, working as an assistant for some terrific designers on Broadway and designing myself off Broadway. I lived in New York, and I thought that was my path. It’s a rich collaborative experience, and in a way it’s more temporal than working on a movie because it’s immediate, it happens every night. It’s a genuine family that gets formed there.

As an assistant designer, the equivalent to an art director in the film world, I was dealing with a lot of the technical and logistical parts, mounting the show and making that train run on time. At some point I was contacted by a friend who told me that a film was coming into New York which needed a draft person / assistant art director. That was “The World According to Garp”, and the production designer was Henry Bumstead, who’s a legend in American film design. Doing that film was a transfomative experience. It was a big learning curve, not technically because those skills translate, but about what the world of film was.

Kirill: How has that experience changed for you over time. If you go back to early ’80s and then jump straight into 2022, would it be a big shock, or is it based on the same building blocks and just the technology is different?

Victoria: The way we make movies and television has changed in a couple of fundamental ways. I don’t think you can say it’s just the technology that’s different, because the technology is fundamental to what we do. We’re artists, but we’re also craftsmen, so our toolkit is how we function.

The process now is much faster. We used to have many weeks of prep, and that’s all been shortened. And it’s been shortened because we can turn visuals out quicker, because of how we draw now, because of how we pre-vis. We can get decisions quicker because we can turn out pre-vis and 3D models, and show directors what they’re going to get sooner. The technology helped speed up the train, but what was lost is maybe some of the time we would spend ruminating and talking and thinking. Back then it was a harder to visualize as quickly. I think what the technology has done is let us communicate better.

I can take a ground plan or a 3D model of something and show it to a cinematographer, and we can have a chat about where windows are, or where doors are, or where lighting sources are, and get that sorted out quickly.

Concept art and set photo of Beyer Field outfield on “A League of Their Own”, courtesy of Victoria Paul.

Kirill: When I talk with cinematographers, there’s the big topic of the industry transitioning from film to digital, and a lot of people miss the physicality of film as medium. Is there such a big thing that in your part of this industry that would be perhaps equivalent of that?

Victoria: Maybe younger set designers and assistant art directors may not miss it, but when I started, all drawing was hand drawing – and it was beautiful. The drawings themselves were wonderful objects. And the great thing about the drawings was that you could always tell who did them. They had the mark of the maker.

Although the information is the same and the layout is the same, you could tell by the style of drawing, the style of lettering, the size of lettering, the kind of font they use. You could immediately tell who drew each piece.

And now we’re in a digital art department where one set designer can start on something, build a ground plan and some elevations for me, and then I can give it to someone else to do some modifications or a quick director’s plan, and they exchange it, and when we look at it, it’s not clear whose iteration was the last one. In some way, it has lost personality. But it’s a small quibble, and certainly not as quite as big a discussion as the look of film versus the look of digital.

Kirill: What used to be special effects is now done digitally with VFX, you have new technologies available in different departments, and the world of visual storytelling itself is shifting with the advent of streaming platforms. Do you find that the boundaries of what it is that you’re responsible for are shifting?

Victoria: I don’t see a lot of difference between film and episodic in terms of how we approach the work these days. The big difference is in how many weeks of prep you have, and how much money you have – which translates into what you can build, and also into how big your art department can be. It’s not so much about film and TV, but rather about where’s your overall budget.

In terms of what the art department and myself as a production designer are responsible for, I don’t think that has changed very much. What has happened is that we have more tools at our disposal. There has always been a big conversation with special effects. If something is getting blown up, or a vehicle is going to crash into my building, I have to know what special effects needs from us to make it work. We still need to design and build it. That has not changed. I just wrapped a show called “Twisted Metal” and it’s all about vehicular mayhem. We were in constant discussions with the effects people on how to achieve things. But no matter where the effects take over, we’re still designing it.

Concept art and set photo of the factory floor on “A League of Their Own”, courtesy of Victoria Paul.

Kirill: There’s so many shows these days, and I sometimes have to decide what I’m not going to watch because I don’t have enough time to watch all of it. Do you feel that the level of expectations from the viewers and the production side of things keeps on rising, even as you still have the same number of days in a year and the same number of hours in a day?

Victoria: The bar has gotten so high because we have these new tools. The art department lives or dies in prep, and we’re seeing a big compression of time particularly in prep. I don’t know that it’s hurt the final product, because most production designers and art directors will just work their butt off to make sure that what has to be in front of camera is there, and that it looks the way they want it to look. But it certainly has added to the feeling that we’re “just” going to be working every weekend. Maybe it’s a little bit of our own obsession with our work [laughs].

Audiences don’t care how long it took. They don’t care how much money you had. Isn’t it amazing to be sitting at home with your little cup of tea and be watching something like “The Rings of Power”? Audiences are very sophisticated, and we’re all very aware of that. We’re constantly aware of how high the bar is.

Kirill: Do you look back at your productions and sometimes wish you could do it today, or do you see them as a product of their time, sort of a closed chapter?

Victoria: I see most of it as a closed chapter, but I certainly look at everything I do with a beady eye. I look at the dailies with a critical eye. Some things look fabulous, and some things could use some more work – and I take all of that for the next time.

Kirill: You mentioned watching “The Rings of Power” on your TV, and there are so many screens in our lives, from big screen TVs down to iPads, iPhones and the rather terrible airplane ones. When you design your episodic productions, do you think about the size of the screen?

Victoria: I don’t think about the size of the screen. What bugs me is the variety between screens in terms of how their color calibrated and in terms of the resolution. You have to give that up. I watched some cuts of “A League of Their Own” at home, and it looked pretty good. And then we had a screening of the first two episodes at a baseball stadium on this fantastic backlit LED screen, and it blew me away how beautiful it was.

None of us can control how the rest of the world is watching our work. So all any of us can do is use our eyes.

Concept art and set photo of the factory floor on “A League of Their Own”, courtesy of Victoria Paul.

Kirill: Getting to the show, how did you get into it?

Victoria: I was still shooting “NCIS: New Orleans”, which was coming to a close, when an old friend, a wonderful set decorator named Diana Stoughton who lives in Pittsburgh called me. She said that “A League of Their Own” was coming to shoot in Pittsburgh, and that I had to get hired on it so I could hire her, because she really wanted to do it.

I reached out and it turned out that a producer I knew had done the pilot, but he wasn’t going to go to Pittsburgh. He got me in touch with Will Graham and Abbi Jacobson, the creators, we had a good meeting, and off we went. I had also previously worked with Jamie Babbit, our great director.

Kirill: Except for the pilot, you worked on all the episodes in this season. Does that help to maintain continuity and consistency across the story arc?

Victoria: The consistency comes out of our attitude about the world that we’re making. It’s production design, cinematography, costume and the rest of the departments. Once we have a map of what that road is, we can apply that to sets and locations that are coming down the pike, that we haven’t built yet or we haven’t thought about yet.

Another part of the consistency in this show is we had a lot of locations that we went back to every episode – the baseball field, the locker room, the Peaches’ house, Max’s world. Of course we went to new places, but it wasn’t overwhelming. We knew what the world was going to look like, how aged the world was, how weathered it was, the overall color palette. Knowing all of that, we could work on integrating all those elements into our world.

Set photo of Beyer Field on “A League of Their Own”, courtesy of Victoria Paul.

Kirill: Did you find that the city of Pittsburgh gave you a lot of things that you could build off of in terms of the overall look of the ’40s?

Victoria: There was a lot there for us in terms of being a period piece. The town where we shot some of the exteriors that stood in for the African American part of town – that was a small town outside of Pittsburgh. What we did a lot was take away 2022. We didn’t have to do a ton of adding 1943.

There was a lot that is invisible. For example, we painted out yellow street lines for blocks and blocks. But we only had to cover one or two facades. We had to be careful about newer windows, to make them look like wood rather than steel or aluminum. But by and large, there was a lot of architecture that worked quite nicely. We shot the exterior of an old movie palace that was pretty great. When the girls went on a bus and stayed at a convent, the whole exterior where they pulled up in the alley and in the street was really so rich and dense. We did almost nothing there but signage.

Kirill: How did you approach your research? Is it easier to do research nowadays where a lot of things are accessible via internet, or do you go to archives and libraries?

Victoria: We didn’t go to archives or libraries. We did a lot of online research and found photos. Coming into it, Will Graham and Abbi Jacobson had been working on this for over a year and a half during the worst of the pandemic. Will had accumulated binders and binders of research. He had a researcher. He was on good terms with a lot of baseball historians and people who had been involved with the American girls’ baseball leagues. So he had this extraordinary gift for us of all his research.

A lot of that research was written, and then we went on a deep dive and found photographs. We looked at photos of everything – every aspect of the story. We spent a long time looking at photographs of women factory workers in the ’40s. There was one photo that I saw, I knew that was it – that was our factory, that was our women welding those shiny steel airplane fuselages.

Kirill: How big was your art department?

Victoria: We had a great supervising art director, Matt Horan, and our art directors, Nathan Ogilvie and Sam Kramer. We had two set designers, one of them physical in the office because I needed to have somebody who could go and measure sites, and one remote. We had two excellent assistant art directors. We had a lot of signage on this show. I had one graphic designer in the office and one remote working on signage.

Kirill: Speaking of the signage, what’s the story of the patches shown in the opening sequences?

Victoria: Amazon designed the opening sequence. They did a great job with it.

Concept art and set photo of Beyer Field on “A League of Their Own”, courtesy of Victoria Paul.

Kirill: I was reading that you took over a local college baseball field for the team’s home field.

Victoria: We spent a long time trying to figure out if there was any way we could not build a field, because it’s an expensive undertaking. We looked at fields outside of Philadelphia, in Quakertown, and in Erie PA. They were too far away, unwieldy in terms of logistics or getting there. And it was during the summer, so many local stadiums were booked with teams playing baseball. That was a deal breaker. We needed to be able to go to the stadium based on our schedule, not based on their schedule.

The next step after that was finding a diamond that gave us enough room to build the stadium, the parking lot, the concession stand, the ticket booth entrance to it all. We found a diamond, about 40 minutes outside of Pittsburgh. It was at a community college. It was a regulation diamond – 90 feet between the bases, and about 380-385 to the outfield. Our hope had been to find something in a slightly more urban environment, which we did, but there was not enough room to build out the stadium and the other parts of it that we needed.

We started from scratch. The first thing we did was build a road that let us get into the field. And then there was quite a lot of engineering that we had to do before we could even start building. We had to pour the pad. We had to put in a retaining wall. We had built a French drain. It’s all the infrastructure, and it takes time.

We built out the structural parts. and we waited for a very long time for our steel posts that hold up the roof because of global supply chain issues. We waited so long that the construction team had the entire stadium built and stacked. Once the steel went up and the roof went up, construction went quite fast with the rest of it because it was built and ready to go. Then the painters started on it, and they are the ones who really made the magic.

Set photo of locker room on “A League of Their Own”, courtesy of Victoria Paul.

Kirill: Were the lockers there, or were they built separately?

Victoria: The locker room was on stage. I loved that locker room, it was one of my favorite sets. There was just something about the lighting in it. There’s sort of top light from the outside through those high windows, and the hanging lights that were warmer, and it just had a wonderful vibe to it.

Kirill: What about the Peaches’ house where the team lived?

Victoria: When we found that particular exterior, as we were scouting houses, there was a pretty universal sense from everybody that this was it. We were all happy with that blue house. What we learned in Pittsburgh was that a lot of the streets were made out of a yellow brick. So we had a blue house on a yellow brick road. And the interior was built on two stages.

We needed the interior for at least one or two days for every episode. We needed it to work for camera, we needed it to work for our flow. Victorian houses present very nicely from the outside. This house in particular was on a bit of a rise, so you are looking up at it, and it presents wonderfully. Then you walk in, and there are a warren of small cut-up rooms. So there was never a question about using it for the interior. We assumed from the get-go that we were going to build the interior on stage.

We matched exactly the windows and the exterior front, but we took liberties by making the place bigger on the inside. We owned it, if you will, and could do what we wanted. With all of the girls, and all of the comings and goings, we wanted to be able to have as much flexibility and movement fluidity for the camera. No room ends in a wall. There’s always a little door, or a bit of a hallway that lets you go to another room, and another room. And then the stair goes all the way up to the upper hallway, which is where all their bedrooms are arranged around the surrounding balcony. That balcony and the bedrooms in that hallway were built on another bit of stage. It was built about six feet up, replicating the hallway and building the bedrooms, and then we had half a stair down so you can tip down just a little bit.

Set photo of Peaches House on “A League of Their Own”, courtesy of Victoria Paul.

Kirill: What about the salon?

Victoria: It was built. Again, we found an exterior that we really liked. It looked great from the outside, but it was certainly far too narrow. And it was an actual functioning shop. They were happy enough for us to paint and sign the front, and do what we wanted in their front bay windows. That was all fine with them, but to do more we would have had to move them out. The wall surfaces were wrong, and we would have been building our walls over their walls, and re-flooring it. When you get to that extensive of a revamp, at a certain point you have to call it and say that this is going to be so much easier for us on stage.

Kirill: I loved the team bus. How difficult is it to procure the old cars and buses?

Victoria: We had such a good picture vehicle coordinator. Angelo Sotereanos did an outstanding job. He found the bus, and I don’t have any idea where he found it. He had to find a second bus that we could cut up and wild for us to shoot the interiors. The second bus that we used for interiors was pretty decrepit. We had to rebuild the oval slanted windows. The structure of the seats was okay, but we had to pull them out and put in new floors. We had to reclad the walls and the curved roof, reupholster the seats, and put it back together with pieces that were wild for camera. But the bus we used for exteriors was in a really good condition. All we did was paint it and sign it.

We had a stable of maybe 20 cars that we carried with us and used in many scenes. Some of the more pristine cars were available only for a day or two. We definitely had some cars that we would only use to park because they did not run [laughs]. But we had enough cars that could roll by in scenes to keep it alive.

Kirill: The show was shot in summer and fall of 2021. So that puts it into a timeframe where Covid was very much present in terms of restrictions and regulations.

Victoria: We had our protocols and a whole Covid department, just like every show at that point. The back-to-work protocols were still in effect. Depending on what zone you are, we were tested either three times or twice a week. The mask mandate was in effect. It was difficult. The rules eased up slightly after we began shooting, so if we were outdoors and could separate more than six feet, you could drop your mask. Pittsburgh in the summer was unbelievably hot and humid. It rained every other day, but that’s a whole other story.

Kirill: Do you feel that it’s coming back maybe not to what it used to be, but coming back to some sort of a new normal that is almost like the old normal?

Victoria: I would say almost. I don’t think we ever shut down the production on “A League of Their Own”, but we had to work around some people having Covid.

The show I just finished had us still under Covid protocols, and we had many more cases of Covid on that. It didn’t actually shut us down, but there were certainly some mad scrambles about actors’ availability, and production asking us if we could have sets ready earlier than the scheduled time so they could have something to film.

Kirill: During the course of these last two and a half years, was there ever a thought in your head that the industry might not be able to survive through it?

Victoria: I don’t think so. I think we’ve proven that we know how to do it in the worst of it, and we certainly know how to do it as it’s getting better. I don’t know that Covid will ever be gone. I think it will always be with us in some way. The whole back-to-work protocol has been relaxed somewhat, and we’ll just see what happens going forward. But we certainly know we can work through it.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as your favorite set or sequence on the show?

Victoria: Hands down, my favorite set is the baseball stadium. I’m very pleased with how it turned out and how we aged it. And also the Peaches’ house. Diana Stoughton, our set decorator, and her team did a stunning job dressing it. The painters were unstoppable. We had painters in there, sanding and waxing every window sill and door frame for days [laughs]. All the wear and tear was pretty wonderful. And the third one is the locker room. There’s just an ineffable je ne sais quoi about it.

Set photo of locker room on “A League of Their Own”, courtesy of Victoria Paul.

Kirill: Once one of your productions is out, do you get to relax and watch it as a “regular” viewer, or do you always look at your own part of it?

Victoria: In art department we’re usually working ahead. We’re not on set all the time. We see dailies, which are disjointed with separate takes and no through lines. You don’t get continuity. I’ll see a producer’s cut or a studio cut on some shows.

What I’m always surprised about the first time I see it whole is how it all fits together, the continuity and the flow of story, and the over-arching themes. That’s what I work on early in prep, the big picture. During prep I’m thinking about who’s saying what, and who’s doing what, and what it all means. And then suddenly we’re in the execute part of the process- looking at drawings, changing fabrics, thinking about that wallpaper that might not get here on time, and getting a sign from a shop and that’s two shades too dark.

So after all of that, to once again see the whole thing – the actors, the meaning of the lines, the story structure, and how the story structure ebbs and flows against the physical structure – to see it all together like that is always a wonderful moment.

Kirill: What is it that you are looking for in a production?

Victoria: I’m always looking for a story that I think is going to be interesting. Sometimes I’m looking for a show that’s in a flavor I haven’t dealt with before. For example, after making “A League of Their Own” I went on to a show called “Twisted Metal”. It’s a reboot of a video game from a while back, and it’s as different from League as it could be. It’s a dystopian future vehicular mayhem, and it was great for the art department. Constant explosions and car crashes. To do that, to go from the one flavor to the other, is exercising a different set of muscles.

What I always hope for in a production is a great group of collaborators. You’re going to be with these people day in and day out for a long stretch of time. It’s not so much about my crew, as I have a little bit of control over that. It’s more about the show runners, the writers, the cinematographer, the costume designer. What I’m hoping for is real collaboration.

Set photo of Beyer Field on “A League of Their Own”, courtesy of Victoria Paul.

Kirill: What advice would you give to people who start in the industry today?

Victoria: I would tell them to learn as many programs as they can, to give themselves as big a tool bag as they can, so they can be useful in many ways. I would tell them to learn Vectorworks, SketchUp, Maya, all of it, so that they could say to someone “I can draft, I can do elevations, I can do a floor plan, I can do a 3D model, I can do an illustration”. The more is in your toolbox, the more you’re going to be able to offer.

Kirill: But that’s the technical part, that’s not the artistry of it.

Victoria: It’s not, but I do think that when you’re starting out, how do you get into an art department? You need the technical part. And then what you do is you be as wide-eyed as you can, and be a fly on the wall as often as you can, and absorb absorb absorb what’s going on in the design part.

I told you that I worked for Henry Bumstead when I began, and he was a terrific mentor. Everything that happened, he would tell me to join him. It was watching dailies with him, joining conversations, joining meetings. And that’s how you learn.

I have production assistants that are just starting out, and some of them are very interested in progressing in the art department. Before Covid, if I was going on a scout, I would tell them to come with me, to bring their camera and take notes. Or I was walking to stage when we were in the middle of building a big set, I’d invite them to come with me. It’s harder now since Covid. You can’t just invite somebody to be on set with you.

Kirill: Do you feel that you will at some point run out of stories to tell, or do you want to keep on going as far as you can?

Victoria: I don’t think I’ll run out of stories to tell, because the stories come from a multitude of other people. I’m a bit of an omnivore. I’m interested in so many different kinds of stories. As long as I can find some kernel of truth in it and some real humanity, I’d like to build that world. Let’s figure out what the rules of that world are.

There are so many people out there who are writing interesting scripts. There’s always something new and wonderful and innovative.

Concept art and set photo of Schwartz’s Market on “A League of Their Own”, courtesy of Victoria Paul.

And here I’d like to thank Victoria Paul for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of production design and for sharing the supporting materials, and Daria Wilk for making this interview happen. The first season of “A League of Their Own” is streaming on Amazon. And if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.