Exploring Period Accuracy and Realism with A League of Their Own

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

In our latest interview, we spoke with Victoria Paul, the production designer on the Amazon acclaimed series A League of Their Own, which currently boasts 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. A League of Their Own is a comedy series about the WWII All-American professional women's baseball league. 

To reconstruct the entire world of the 1940s, Victoria built multiple sets from the ground up, including the baseball stadium featured in the show. With a wide variety of locations ranging from shops and restaurants to factory and sporting facilities, her team spent weeks aging sets to not only look period accurate but also to add a layer of realism that fully immerses the viewer in the story. 

PH: Hi there Victoria! Can you share a bit about your professional background? How has your role as a production designer evolved since you first started? 

Victoria Paul: As designers, we always create the world. That world has grown as technology evolved. 

Now the world we create is more encompassing and cohesive; we can build it physically or digitally. Our toolkit has grown exponentially because of technology. We're artists, but we're also craftspeople, so our toolkit is how we function. That technology is fundamental to what we can do.

We design the VFX looks that expand the world…set extensions, elements (signage, etc.), wide shots, and distant vistas are designed by us. In the physical world, the tools have advanced as well. We have 3D printers that allow us to make a myriad of things not possible before. We have huge printers that can print on all surfaces; we have large format CNC machines… the list of advanced tools goes on.

Our process now is much faster. We can turn visuals out more quickly because of how we draw, how we pre-vis, and the programs available to us. We can have discussions, make decisions more quickly, and show directors what they're going to get sooner. Technology has helped speed up the train and allowed us to communicate better. I can take a ground plan, a 3D model, or an animated walk-through, show it to a director, and figure out the blocking. I can show that to a DP, and we can talk about where windows are, where doors are, and where lighting sources are and get that sorted out quickly.

PH: What made you get into production design? What types of jobs and experiences landed you where you are today? 

Victoria Paul: Coming out of design school at NYU, I began as an assistant designer in a theater on Broadway and designed smaller shows myself off-broadway. My first foray into film was “The World According To Garp” with the storied production designer Henry Bumstead. It was a wonderful learning experience about the language of the movie because of the generosity of the creatives involved in that film, and Bummy was a tremendous mentor.

Shortly after that, I joined the design team at SNL, which was a whole different kind of experience. After that, I went on to art direct a couple of big features. Since then, I’ve worked in the US and Europe on small indie films, larger studio films, and network and streaming TV series. 

I think the task is the same in all of it- finding the best way to tell a particular story visually.

PH: How did you come to work on your latest project, A League of Their Own?

Victoria Paul: I was shooting a TV series," NCIS: New Orleans," which was coming to an end. A great friend of mine, Diana Stoughton, a wonderful set decorator who lives in Pittsburgh, called me. She told me 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 Pittsburgh. He got me in touch with Will Graham and Abbi Jacobson, the creators,  and we had a really good meeting- we were definitely on the same page about our viewpoint and the characteristics of the world. I had also previously worked with Jamie Babbit, our great director, so for me, that was a happy turn of events.

PH: What did the planning process look like? How did you reconstruct the world of the 1940s? 

Victoria Paul: We started with an incredible research archive that producers Will Graham, Abbi Jacobson, and Hailey Weirengo had put together. They had worked on this for over a year with a dedicated researcher while making deep connections in the historic baseball community and with people who had been involved with the All-American Girls' Leagues. They had accumulated binders and binders of research: about Rockford, the league, individual players, the African American population in Rockford, what that community was like in the 40s, and its history. Their research was very thorough and detailed.I have to say what they handed us, the information they'd done in their COVID downtime, was a stunning gift and quite a leg up for us.

Much of their research was written, so we took a deep dive into photos and built our visual archive. Jamie Babbit, our director, was also constantly sending photos, so there was a great back-and-forth between us.

We take the research very seriously– we want this world we're creating to be as truthful as possible. But then we use the details that work for us – we can't possibly use it all. So what we want are the details that amplify our version of this world.

We had photo files on every aspect of this show. 

Baseball stadiums, baseball culture, of course, the AAGPBL, storefronts, store interiors, war production, factories during WW2, and how the assembly lines looked for different armaments, tanks, airplanes, and more.

I would sometimes find a photo that unlocked an entire set for me- some combination of action & attitude & architecture that clicked. We found some great pictures of WW2 women factory workers. One series of photos showed women welding and assembling plane fuselages. Once we saw that, we knew that had to be our factory, that was our women welding those shiny steel fuselages. 

PH: Does this series have any callbacks to the 1992 film? Is this a reimagining or something different entirely? 

Victoria Paul: I think we come at this story, the story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, from the vantage point of 2022. It’s a version reflective of our times, a refraction of that story.

Today we can tell the stories of the queer players, of living and hiding as a gay person, with the constant tension of being found out. We can tell the stories of black women whose aspirations are dismissed. Most of our story would not have been possible to put on the screen 30 years ago. 

Now, we can talk about it through the lens of our time…about gay athletes, black players not getting their shot, and what women contributed during the war by working in factories. We can talk about how these women were still oppressed after all that, the sexism and racism that was so ingrained and common.

PH: What were some of the challenges working with so many locations? How did you and your team age the sets to look time-period appropriate?

Victoria Paul: The sets we built, the baseball stadium, the interior of Peaches house, the factory, the gay bar, Max’s house, Clance’s house, and many others, were designed to be period correct.

As for locations, Pittsburgh turned out to be very rich in terms of our period. There are many areas of the city and surrounding towns where most of the architecture is from prior to the mid-20th century, so that was great for us.

The town where we shot the exteriors for West Rockford, the African American section of Rockford, was Ambridge, a small town outside Pittsburgh. What we did there was erase 2022. We had to make many of the details right - a layer of “invisible” design, 

For example, we painted out yellow street lines for blocks. Next, we had to clad the framing of newer windows and doors to make them wood rather than steel or aluminum. Then, of course, we added all the signage and window dressing. Finally, we built period façades over newer storefronts and made a new pocket park feel old & highly used. If the details are off, the whole world starts to fall apart.

But many locations worked quite nicely with not too much work. For example, many old streets were paved with yellow brick in Pittsburgh and surrounding towns. The exterior Peaches house was on such a street, so we had a blue Victorian house on a yellow brick road. The rest of that street was quite good- we hid most of the anomalies with greens.

We shot at an exterior of an old movie palace that was wonderful and needed nothing but signage. When the team went on a bus and stayed at a convent, the alley where they parked and the street next to it was so textured. We did almost nothing there. 

PH: How do you push your own creative boundaries and take risks for these types of set designs? 

Victoria Paul: In a piece like this, there's so much research, so many locations, and so many choices of architecture, signage, color, and pattern- it's not so much about taking a risk as it is having confidence in your choices and decisions. It's about which details to highlight and which to let fall away.

During prep, I'm thinking about the script, who's doing what, and what it all means—and how to support that with the physical reality of the sets. 

I'm working on the big picture, the ideas of palette, texture, and layering that we'll carry with us to every set. The ideas I develop with the director, showrunner, and writers early during that time will be the roadmap & will influence my choices for the rest of the show.

And then when 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 that's two shades too dark, all the pivots and changes that are a normal part of that process. So that roadmap we developed earlier allows me to confidently make choices.

PH: I'd love to hear more about how you utilize and work with your team of showrunners, directors, producers, etc. to make these intricate designs come to life. What's that like? Can you give insight into what a day of collaboration might look like? 

Victoria Paul: I always hope for a great group of collaborators in a production. We're going to be together day in and day out for a long stretch of time. It's about the showrunners, the writers, the cinematographer, the costume designer, and how we each approach our work and the work of our colleagues, so in the end, we're all creating the same world.

For me, some of the most useful moments are in a scout van as we look for locations. We have time to discuss the locations based on how they work for the story and what each of us hopes for in a location. As we talk about each location, the pros & cons, we hone in on our creative goals for each space and the story as a whole. We all see it through our own lens, so this is always a great time to discuss all points of view and come to a shared vision.

I also use very early, loose-ground plans to jumpstart a conversation about a set. I'll talk with the director, showrunner, and DP as soon as possible to get everyone's take on it. The sets need to work for blocking, lighting, the storytelling over time if it's a permanent set. So It's great to have an early version and mark it up as we talk.

PH: What's one secret (you can share!) that helps bring a script to life visually? 

Victoria Paul: One of the first things I discuss with a creator on a show is their notion of verisimilitude as it applies to their story. If hyper-real is a 1, and highly stylized is a 10, where on that scale do they want their world to fall? That conversation is so enlightening because where your story is on that scale can answer a myriad of design choices- the overall look and feel and a host of specifics, like texture, color, sheen, aging, fabric, and wall treatment. 

PH: What's one of the biggest lessons you've learned doing your job? 

Victoria Paul: The ability to stay flexible and solve problems in real-time. Sometimes we’ll lose a long-planned location shortly before we shoot. Or an intense storm will render a location unusable for a day or two until it dries out. Or we’ll have to change the schedule because the actor who’s supposed to work tomorrow just tested positive. When we have to make a quick change, it’s a little like an ocean line making a u-turn because all our departments are working by the schedule. So we have to be very nimble to accomplish the change in time.

Figuring out how to quickly pivot yet keep the creative intent is a very necessary skill. And always having a Plan B in the back of your mind doesn’t hurt.

PH: What does this upcoming year look like for you? Is there a certain type of project that you'd love to work on that maybe you haven't yet?

Victoria Paul: I'm always looking for a story that I think will be interesting and offer us, the art department, great opportunities. Sometimes I look for a show with a flavor I haven't dealt with before. After finishing "A League of Their Own," I went on to a show called "Twisted Metal," which wrapped a short while ago. It's a reimagining of a video game that was first released in the mid-90s. It's as different from League as it could be.

It takes place in a dystopian, violent future rife with vehicular mayhem, which was terrific for the art department. We were able to design a fleet of heavily armed, futuristic vehicles, each of which belonged to a different "tribe" with its own looks and requirements. Constant explosions and car crashes. To do that, to go from one flavor (League) to the other is exercising a different set of muscles.

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