Anyone who has looked behind the scenes of Robert Eggers’ films knows that authenticity and strict realism are paramount obsessions in his work. 2015 The witch took five years of research into period dialogue, clothing, tools and architecture, and Eggers had his team of craftsmen build the main set using hand tools and materials his 17th century figures would have used. For 2019 Lighthousehe used real camera lenses from 1912 and 1930s and built an authentic period lighthouse to achieve the cramped, stuffy spaces he wanted.
And his new drama The man from the northbilled as “the most accurate viking movie ever made”, involved meticulous research into everything from helmet styles to the type of animal leather the Vikings would have used in clothing. It’s one of the reasons why a shot from the trailers, in which the warrior protagonist Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) grabs a spear thrown by an enemy from the top of a fort palisade and throws it away, is particularly surprising to watch. As ridiculous as it might seem to assume another director would actually pull off this stunt, Polygon had to ask Robert Eggers if he actually did it.
The answer is no; this spear trick was managed with CG. “Someone threw a spear from the stockade onto the ground,” Eggers told Polygon. “And then Alex, in some takes, had a spear the whole time that he was holding and then throwing. And then with CG, you take one out and put the other in. This kind of situation. So there was a physical reality in the shooting.
Talk about using digital effects in The man from the north, Eggers seems a little frustrated and defensive, as if those kinds of questions could only be accusations that he somehow violated his ethics. “I’m sure of my business on this,” he said. “Like, if that’s what you’re trying to figure out, I whip myself every night.”
The question of the CG in The man from the north is only relevant because so much of the film was made practically. Eggers prefers to work with natural light when he can and build entire villages where his actors and cameras can explore at will. He used a single camera throughout the film, rather than the traditional multi-camera setups that cover all angles of a scene, because this style feels more focused and real. The four-minute, one-shot Viking raid in the film was meticulously planned and executed with no hidden modifications. Skarsgard wore only one pair of boots during filming, and the film designer repaired them by hand when they were damaged. In a village where lines of fish were hung to dry, designer Niamh Coulter used real fish rather than plastic models: “The stench was absolutely genuine,” Coulter talked about handmade sets.
Whenever possible, Eggers started with a practical effect before adding CG. For an opening shot zoomed in on a crow’s eye, Eggers started with a hands-on shot of a real animal, and only replaced the bird with CG once it took off and swooped down. is away from the camera. “I wasn’t going to start the movie on a fake bird, you know?” he says.
But Eggers says using digital effects is still an unfortunate necessity. “If you’re making a movie today on any scale, it’s impossible to do it without CG, just because of modern health and safety issues, cost of labor, unions and the like” , he said. “So you can’t do stunts on horseback like in old westerns or Soviet movies. Neither should you. But that means at least you clear the security cables. And when the horses fall, there are mats hidden in the mud for them to fall on. We can’t actually get the muddy ones, so they’re covered in mulch, and then we use CG to cover the mulch with mud, so it looks consistent. It’s not a sin, it’s just practical.
It clearly frustrates him a bit to talk about the digital elements – no one but him is suggesting that CG might be “sinful”. In the case of the spear trick, the shot was important enough for him to agree to use special effects, because he was putting something on the screen that had been shot from a authentic Icelandic folk tale – in the 13th century Njáls saga, also known as The story of Burnt Njálone of the most powerful warriors in history pulls off the trick.
“I think for the most part the CG of this movie is tasteful,” says Eggers. “There’s just no way anyone could have done this spear trick. No way. If we had done this in, say, 1972, there probably would have been a 2D animation painted on the celluloid to get that effect. I think as long as you use as many practical elements as possible, CG is a good tool. It’s just when it’s overused that it becomes something you can’t believe.
The audience’s ability to believe what they see is Eggers’ main focus when using digital effects – he complains about the poor effects of the past and how they removed people from the narrative. He points out a scene in The man from the north with a ship in a violent storm, where the storm itself is entirely a digital effect.
“If we had shot this in the past, it would have been a model,” he says. “In white squall and Master and Commanderwe have some of the best models ever to do storm footage with ships, but there have been a lot of movies where the models look like modelsYou know?”
But while the storm is a digital creation, the ship itself is real. “It’s a 3D digital scan of a ship we actually built, an exact replica of the ottar kurras in the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmarksays Eggers. ” We thought, Alright, it’s gonna be backlit, it’s gonna be night, we’re gonna have rain, there’s a lot we can do to disguise the fact that this is a plan of visual effects. But you can’t shoot a Viking ship at night in a storm at sea and be exposed. Even if you could film it, you wouldn’t get the exposure of the film.
Even the sequence that looks the most CG to movie audiences was full of practical elements. In The man from the north, Amleth and his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), engage in a manhood ritual involving hallucinogens and blood. They envision some kind of tree made of vines or veins, all connected by a beating heart, which represents the shared blood bond of their royal family. Dead and rotting ancestors hang from the tree, which vibrates with purplish necrotic light.
“Even the Tree of Kings, as portrayed by Ethan Hawke’s character, the arboreal lineage hallucination nonsense, was done with practical elements,” says Eggers. One of his crew members does chemical photography, so the light shining through the scene was “created with chemical reactions”. And “the mummies of deceased ancestors were physical constructs, or were made-up actors that we photographed. There’s also some pure CG stuff in there, but the vast majority of the elements even in those sequences were practical.
Ultimately, although Eggers favors physical and practical effects in his work, he’s willing to use any tools at his disposal, as long as they don’t distract people from the story.
“You’re trying, like with that picture of a storm at sea, to really plan ahead so it doesn’t look like a fucking cartoon,” he says. “It’s always about trying to have as many practical elements as possible. There are about 20 Viking ships in the movie, and we didn’t build that many. We were reusing them, putting new masks or new veils or different shields on them, and different head sculpts. And then film several passes and plug them. It’s a way to use CG as a tool to tell the story, to stretch your budget, but also to keep it on track.
The man from the north is in theaters now.