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Immersed in Movies: Recreating Iconic Ebbets Field for Jackie Robinson Biopic '42'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood April 12, 2013 at 4:05PM

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.
Chadwick Boseman as Robinson in '42'
Chadwick Boseman as Robinson in '42'

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.

This article is related to: Immersed In Movies

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.