The success of the title sequence for History Channel’s series Vikings lies in its ability to establish the appropriate atmosphere. Submerging the viewer in the aftermath of a mythic conflict, it lays bare the thematic undercurrents of the show while leaving much of the barbarous detail to the imagination.
Coupled with Fever Ray’s dirge “If I Had a Heart,” The Mill’s sequence is enveloping, entrancing, and an excellent emotional primer for the visceral drama to follow — which, after all, is exactly the point. On its release in 2013, the title sequence pulled audiences into a world of rugged landscapes and haunting warriors. For its fourth season, the sequence gets a smouldering update, adding footage of characters and battles fought from the previous seasons, and amping up the visuals with the double exposure style popularized by the True Detective opening. For the team behind the Vikings title sequence, the battle rages on, the war is never won.
Nominated for a 2013 Emmy in Outstanding Main Title Design.
A discussion with Director RAMA ALLEN and Art Director AUDREY DAVIS.
How did History Channel approach The Mill about this title sequence for Vikings?
Rama: We were approached by Michael Hirst’s production company. He’s the showrunner. He was a fan of some work I’d done in the past, he’d liked True Blood. They sent me some unfinished pilot work and some scripts and I flew to Toronto, where the production company is, and we spent some time talking about what the heart of the show was and what the tonality would be. After returning from Toronto, I did two rounds of creative for them.
Audrey: I had been working with The Mill for about two-and-a-half years at that point. Rama, who I’d worked with at Digital Kitchen before, brought me in as a freelance designer. The project had to do with vikings, and killing, and darkness, and I was like, yes! Definitely!
That’s your bag? [laughs]
Audrey: You know, it is my bag! I can do happy things, too, but for some reason I just get pulled into those dark projects, I get waist-deep into those projects and I love them.
Rama: Audrey freelances with us all the time. I work with her regularly, we have a good creative sympatico. She works with me a lot on entertainment projects.
What was History Channel’s desire when they came to talk about this show? Because it’s entirely different from stuff they normally produce.
Audrey: I know, we were pretty psyched because this was one of the first original content projects they did. Mostly they did documentary shows, reality stuff, so we were wondering what this was going to be like. Michael Hirst, the writer for the show, had done Elizabeth and some of The Tudors, so he is really steeped in history and period pieces.
Rama: I mean, in the end, there’s of course an enormous amount of creative liberties applied in the show. It is a very stylish historical drama. I would be remiss to not say that the showrunner and the writers don’t have their thumb on the scale.
Audrey: They wanted us to research vikings, their history, their culture, and be truthful about it. They didn’t want helmets with horns on them. That was never a real thing. Our process involved a lot of research, going to museums and looking at the Icelandic sagas, reading all the folklore.
Rama: You know, Ragnar was a real person, and a lot of this stuff really happened. But viking history is mostly an oral history. And history is written by the winners, so most of the people that were vanquished by the vikings didn’t write this history accurately and the vikings definitely didn’t.
We made a trip to the Natural History Museum and the Met to study elements of their culture and their time. The fact is, the vikings are usually represented in caricature. You can even think of Hägar the Horrible, the comic strip. You think of raping and pillaging, but there was so much more to them. I learned a lot about their relationship to the afterlife, their relationship to nature, to sex and death, to family. Why they were constantly exploring and spreading. It was a fascinating culture! The thing that I tapped into the most were their myths and their relationships to sex and death. I used that to start to develop the heart of the idea.
How did you develop your concepts? Can you walk me through that process?
Rama: Sure. It was myself and a team of three designers. What I knew I wanted the sequence to be about was the space between life and death – one person crossing that gap. I wanted to create a mournful quality. This loss of life, this loss of family, all embraced by ritual. So we created directions around that concept.
Audrey: A lot of our research and just the aesthetic and feel and story of the title sequence came from music. We started a shared playlist on Spotify. And that’s all we listened to while we were working on this. Anytime that we were making frames and storyboards, we were always listening to this.
Rama: I always pick music before I start working, so Fever Ray’s “If I Had a Heart” – I already knew that was going to be the track. So what I typically do is I build up a big playlist of music and I listen to it on loop while I’m writing and developing ideas and all the way through, because it keeps me in this tonally correct place. In the right emotion.
Audrey: I was researching a lot of viking folklore and came across one of the viking gods – Ægir – and his nine daughters, who were all references to different kinds of waves that the vikings would see in their travels. And these waves, they would say – these daughters, these goddesses, these nymphs, almost – would pull men from their ships to seduce them. So that’s kind of where we got our story. And then Rama actually had a dream about drowning!
Rama: I’d spent one night working very late just listening to the Fever Ray track on loop, and I went to sleep and I had this really crazy drowning dream that night. One of the images of that dream was looking up, and seeing the silhouette of these massive objects moving over the top of the ocean above me. I came back in the morning and I was like, “I’ve got it! This is going to be a drowning sequence!” I’d written down all the shots, typing furiously into my phone on the subway on the way to the studio. We had our team meeting that morning for everyone to share their early ideas, and Audrey had also had this idea of creating a drowning sequence.
Audrey: I was like, I have this idea about the waves, and Rama was like, I have this drowning idea, and we were like, we have to do this. We have to do this drowning, last rites, kind of coital death. It worked out really nicely, I’m glad that we synced like that!
Rama: It was perfect, it was cosmic.
Did they have episodes already filmed at that point? What did you see from them?
Audrey: No, and that’s why we had to film things ourselves. We didn’t have any of those resources!
Rama: The first edition of the sequence is all original footage. There’s a couple of stock shots I bought, because I couldn’t fly to Iceland and shoot massive waves crashing against rocks.
Audrey: When we finally picked our concept, this drowning, this goddess taking this man into her arms, into death – we started doing sequences of boards. We were thinking, how do we show this without completely storyboarding it out? It was almost a mix, a marriage of moodboards and storyboards. We took our mood imagery, a lot of textural water shots, a lot of photography, and kind of put it into a sequence from A to B, and then sprinkled our actual styleframes within that. So you could get an idea of how editorial this was, rather than your regular storyboard sequence.
Rama: The goal of this sequence is to place the viewer in a cold, lonely, primal, violent, ancient, supernatural, sensual, and haunting world. We’re building in intensity so that, you know, by the time the first frame of the show starts we’ve already transported the viewer from their everyday reality into the reality of the show. That’s what a title sequence does, it eases the viewer into the bath. So you have to know the show really, really well and create something that always works, on every single episode, on all of the seasons.
Tell me about the live-action shoot. How did you shoot all the underwater scenes?
Audrey: So, we went to the sausage king of New Jersey’s pool… [laughs]
Oh, does he know Abe Froman?
Audrey: [laughs] Yes! We started out thinking we needed an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and we’d black out the sides, and do this whole thing, and then, you know, budgets and time and things like that came in. We realized we didn’t have as much to work with as we thought.
Rama: Almost every title sequence is a labour of love. It’s not like these things are incredibly well-funded, so you have to be enormously inventive. The idea of creating a drowning sequence in the middle of a vast ocean is expensive at first blush!
Audrey: So we went to his pool, and we shot over 48 hours, almost non-stop, overnight. It was freezing cold, and we had our two actors – the woman and the man – they were total troopers. Especially the woman because she was pretty much not clothed. She was in these silks, and in the water for hours at a time. Our cameraman was in a wetsuit so he was fine. It was a really arduous shoot, but it was fun. I mean, we only had like a five- or six-foot pool to work with, and it was supposed to feel like the ocean? [laughs]
Rama: The actor that you see sinking is six feet tall! Even standing in the water, he couldn’t get completely submerged. We actually turned the camera sideways and lined the entire pool with black duvetyne so you couldn’t see the bottom of the pool – because it was right there! – and turned the camera sideways and shot everything sideways. So they would try to get down into positions where it looked like they were sinking. Just spent an entire night improvising with these two actors in the pool to get all that.
Audrey: Variable were our DPs, the guys that were shooting in the water. They do incredible work, and they work with The Mill all the time. In fact, I think Rama did Killing Kennedy with them. They are the ones who filmed this.
Rama: The DP, his name is Khalid Mohtaseb, he and I have shot several things together. They provided production support and a DP.
We also built a large-scale aquarium tank in the Mill studio for experimenting with particles and blood and coins.
Audrey: It’s really hard to pull focus on tiny little coins in a pool, you know, so we had to build a tank. We filmed it on top of The Mill, like on the roof, in the middle of the night. We had that axe on strings, we kept dunking it over and over trying to make sure it doesn’t turn. It’s really hard to get that control but after many, many tries we got it.
Rama: The stuff that takes place in daylight, we shot on the beach in New Jersey with another actress. I wanted to capture a couple of specific rituals; the spreading of blood on the face of a loved one before leaving for a raid was something that I found really profound.
Rama: I wanted this drowning viking to have flashbacks to his loved one, this woman that he left behind, so we shot that there. We bought a raw fish and ripped it open in front of the camera to make a cool effect.
Rama: [laughs] Yeah, it was very down and dirty.
And what did you shoot with? What equipment did you use?
Rama: We shot with an Alexa. Maybe it was a RED. It was either a RED Dragon or an Alexa.
How did you work with the typography and the logo, that ornate "V"?
Rama: The “V” was provided by the network. They had this Transformers-looking-Michael-Bay-3D-viking logo reveal. The network really wanted to use it. It was very bombastic, very big. They really wanted this huge flying logo so we took their CG assets and did a subtle alteration. I like the idea that the “V” is the tip of a spear and it looks like it’s coming down from the clouds to pierce the land during the raid. That implied violence.
Audrey: We added the blood, we made it a little more tattered, we animated it, and we added the actual “vikings” type around it. That serif type on the horizontal. We fought with that for a long time to include the logo that they provided.
Rama: We tried all kinds of things when we started this. We made some handmade type at first, trying to find something that felt like it was clawed out of earth or wood or stone, by fingernails, you know, this sense of implied violence and desire. I wanted to communicate that with the type. It ended up that we had so many credits, though. So I wanted the picture to breathe and the typography to take a backseat, so we chose something very simple and small and clean. Audrey chose that final typeface. We just kept it super simple, and fortunately that’s what we got away with.
What was your workflow like? What did you use to edit and put it together?
Rama: The whole piece was edited in Final Cut. We did considerable work in Flame and Nuke. Obviously to make a pool in New Jersey look like the ocean, it takes some of the wizardry of The Mill to make those things look good. There’s also some CG – we used Maya to develop the last two shots, looking up to see the silhouettes of the ships. All those ships and the turbulence, the bodies falling, those are all CG elements we built in Maya.
Then the last shot is matte painting and CG and – the last shot was actually really, really complicated, but we built that out of many different things.
It’s been about three years since you worked on the original sequence. How did it feel to return to it, to make it fresh for season four?
Rama: Getting an opportunity to revisit your work is relatively rare. Season four is a double season, it’s twenty episodes, it’s massive. They wanted me to revisit the title sequence and see if there was anything I wanted to change based on this new information. My gut reaction was, “No! I love this title sequence.” [laughs] You know? But once I started to think about it, there were a lot of things I wanted to do.
It’s season four, the story has grown considerably, the richness of the character threads has grown, the viking empire has expanded and continues to grow, and the original title sequence is really claustrophobic and intimate and small. What I wanted to do now is begin to contrast that with these massive shots and aerials and battle sequences. I wanted to make the sequence feel bigger, to reflect the viking empire. We still have this spine of the drowning viking, but you’ll notice in the new sequence that I use fire now. I use a lot of fire.
Rama: It begins with a small, isolated fire on a cliff, and it grows in ferocity and scale. I’m using the fire to represent the vikings’ almost virus-like spread through Europe. While the fire is burning and conquering everything, it’s also destroying itself. There’s a self-destructive nature to all the character arcs.
Right, so it’s like a new consuming element.
Rama: Yeah. So you’ll see a crescendo of fire. That’s the new big add to this sequence.
Rama: My decision to add the characters – that wasn’t a request from the show, and I’ve actually never done a title sequence with the talent in it – but because there are some very strong characters, I wanted them in the opening to hint at their characteristics. Four seasons in, everybody knows who everybody is and even in these faint glimmers and these silhouettes you see, you know who that person is – is it Bjorn, is it Ragnar, is it Lagertha? So it’s interesting to work in that way now.
Audrey, what did you think when you saw the new version of the title sequence?
Audrey: I was kinda terrified to see the new one. Rama sent me the link, but I’m happy to see that not too much has changed in terms of what we originally shot. When we initially shot it we didn’t have any of the footage from the show to cut in, so it seems like they filled in that problem. The colour is a lot more saturated, there’s more shots from the show, there seems to be a lot more story from the show being integrated, which is great.
When you’re watching films and TV, do you pick apart the title sequences? Do you have a favourite of your own?
Audrey: Yeah! [laughs] I would almost call it designer’s disease, when you have this lens that you see the world through and you notice things that other people don’t see. So I’m constantly looking at title sequences. Imaginary Forces is doing the title sequence for HBO’s Vinyl, and it’s actually my favourite thing right now! I liked Halt and Catch Fire, it really sticks with me, the Scott Pilgrim one really sticks with me. Broad City I love. But the one that I can’t wait for other people to see is Vinyl. It’s so energetic, it’s so violent, so rebellious and in-your-face. I see a lot of title sequences that are very slow and nice and calm, and that’s great, but that’s not what this show seems to be. And this title sequence – everytime I see it, my heartrate goes up.
Audrey: Also, it’s really embarrassing, but an older title sequence I love is Sailor Moon! I love it! There’s a nostalgia factor, but there’s also just so much going on. It’s the prime of anime, you know, that time, and it’s just so optimistic. There’s so many really fun transitions. The original series – not Super S or anything – with Tuxedo Mask’s cape wipe across the screen, it’s just such a delightful title sequence.
What have you watched or read lately that’s been really exciting to you?
Audrey: I would say two things. One is that movie It Follows. Oh my God, it’s so good. It’s just such a wonderful homage to those ’80s horror films, and it’s done so well. The music is so great, by this group Disasterpeace, and I’ve been listening to it on repeat. It haunts me. That movie haunts me – in a good way.
Rama: A lot of what I’ve been reading lately – I’ve been reading a lot of Oliver Sacks. I love discussions of the unknown. I’m fascinated with dreams, hallucinations, myths, and the haunted, and I think that there’s something really interesting about the way that the mind perceives the world, particularly when it’s slightly broken. Oliver Sacks speaks very eloquently to that.
Audrey: The other thing that really got me excited – I’m sure you heard about it – The New York Times Magazine put out a Google Cardboard with their regular monthly issue and there’s this VR film called The Displaced. It’s about the refugees of the world from war, and it follows three children and what they go through – in VR! It’s incredible. Especially with Google Cardboard. You can just watch it, you don’t need Google Cardboard with it, but if you do, it’s really powerful.
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