VFX house BlueBolt has revealed its work on the Robert Eggers-directed feature film The Northman.
BlueBolt provided 279 VFX shots out of a total of 388 for the film, over 90% of which involved visual effects. Also, the majority of the shots were very long; the average shooting time was 474 frames, or just under 20 seconds. Nine shots had over 2,000 frames, and the longest shot, which was five plates stitched together, had 4,851 frames – or 3 minutes 30 seconds. This more complex work was fully covered by BlueBolt.
BlueBolt was brought on as lead contractor by producer Mark Huffam, with Angela Barson serving as overall visual effects supervisor. Barson was brought into the prep process early on and worked closely with Robert Eggers, Jarin Blaschke (DP) and Craig Lathrop (production designer) for months before filming to help plan what would be shot practically and what would need VFX.
The entire team consisted of 47 2D artists and 36 3D artists led by VFX supervisor David Scott, VFX producer Theo Burley, CG supervisor Philip J. Robinson and 3D head Nic Birmingham. The project included extensive environmental work, CG ships and water, creature work, and an erupting volcano. One character had to have their nose digitally removed and replaced with a stump. On top of that, the feature was shot on 35mm film, so the crew had to work with exposure and film grain, and eliminate a lot of dust shots.
“Robert and Jarin were very keen to film as much as possible behind closed doors,” Barson said. “However, with an erupting volcano, a noseless character, and combat on an active lava field, VFX was always going to play a big role. There are some very complex shots in the film that required a lot of planning, especially the invisible stitches for scenes that ended up being one long shot.
Much of the environmental work was required as the majority of the film was shot in Ireland and had to be edited to look like Iceland. Craig Lathrop, has designed and built many sets on stage as well as on location. There were three main village locations that were convenient builds, only one of which needed to be expanded with CG buildings. “I was amazed at how well Craig was able to practically build,” Barson said. “The whole village of Hrafnsey was built on a very exposed promontory on the north coast of Northern Ireland. It was constantly battered by wind and rain with drops shearing along the cliff face until the sea crashing below. It was an amazing place and an impressive build. The team improved the environments by adding Icelandic mountains and the Hekla volcano, as well as adding snow, sky replacements and modern deletions.
The film’s second shot shows the King’s ships approaching the village of Hrafnsey, and it’s particularly visually heavy. There’s a full CG sea with four CG sailing ships, each containing a full CG crew, cargo, and even horses. “The original plan was to shoot a practical vessel at sea, but they couldn’t navigate the very rough seas there,” Barson explained. “We shot a sea plate from a helicopter, but the water wasn’t choppy enough, so it was replaced entirely with CG water. However, the plate was a great starting point for framing, timing and lighting of the shot, and the promontory with the construction of the village of Hrafnsey was in the plate, giving us a major starting point for the extension of the village.
CG crows lead the camera over water and ships, towards the Hrafnsey set, which has been extended with CG buildings and CG palisades embedded in the real-world cliff face, meaning a remodel of the natural environment was necessary. “The entire hands-on environment featured a DMP projection of snow cover, with FX passes for snowfall, which the camera passes through,” said VFX producer Burley. “Village items were then used to populate this environment.”
Another sequence in which the characters travel to Iceland by boat required the team to create stormy seas in CG. “There was a wide shot of a full CG ship traveling through very rough CG seas with big waves, spray, lighting and rain,” Barson revealed. “The close-up of the ship was filmed on a green-screen stage with a partial ship on a gimbal, and huge dump tanks were used for practical water to crash into the sides of the ship. All in all, a very impressive setup from the special effects team. We added massive CG waves in the background.
This film is very heavily rooted in Norse mythology, which brought with it some sequences centered around Yggdrasil (the tree of life), Valholl, and the “Place of Visions” that depicted the ancestral line of Amleth. These were all CG constructions, coupled with an element of chemical macro photography by artist Chris Parks, which had to fit in with the gritty realism of the film.
The location of the visions was heavily predicted and is first seen when King Aurvandil’s body melts away to reveal a “tree of blood” sprouting from his beating heart. The camera then pans up the tree past many ancestors and through various atmospheric halocline and particle FX elements. The ancestors (5 prosthetics and several costumed extras) were filmed against a green screen at high speed – all to specs determined by BlueBolt during the predictability and technology stages.
As the story moves to Iceland, the Hekla Volcano plays a very central role. It is visible from Fjölnir Farm and is the location of the final battle. A film crew was able to wait out bad weather and film clear patches of Hekla. BB then added large scale FX smoke plumes, with volcanic lighting emitting from within the plumes. Hekla is then seen in full eruption mode – the mountain has split open and lava, rock and smoke are thrown from the volcano and spewed down the side of the mountain. The long durations of these shots produced beautiful, eye-catching images.
The final fight between the two main characters takes place on the side of the erupting volcano, requiring the addition of lava, fire, and smoke, as well as face replacements for stunt doubles, and blood and wounds.
“It was shot at night in November in a quarry just outside Belfast. To say it was cold is an understatement,” Barson said. “Both actors were naked, wearing just enough clothing to protect their modesty and their feet, but not enough to keep them warm, all of which had to be removed in post to leave them fully naked. Lights were placed on the floor and sides of the quarry where the CG lava would eventually go, so the lighting for the actors worked with the CG lava. We filmed with smoke and fire SFX, which were then heavily augmented afterwards.
The opening shot of this sequence was filmed in sections and then assembled into one long shot. The actors and stunt doubles swapped during this scene and seamless changes as well as face replacements were required.
BlueBolt added CG lava flowing down the hill in the background with a river of lava running through the combat action area. There were CG sword extensions, the addition of some nasty wounds, blood, and decapitation. Additional fire, smoke, ash and embers have also been added in CG. The resulting sequence makes for a visually stunning and memorable fight.
The Northman was the first UK production to start filming after the Covid lockdown. That meant relentless testing, the wearing of masks, and strict safety protocols on set. There were other additional complications due to Covid travel and testing restrictions. “One of the final scenes takes place on a small ship at sea, just off the coast of Iceland,” Barson said.
“We heavily pre-aimed the scene so we knew camera angles and what backgrounds would be needed. A separate small team in Iceland shot back plates from a helicopter off the coast. We used these plates for the distant land and sky, adding the volcanic smoke plume, but we replaced the water with CG so we can get the exact water level and movement speed.
Overall, the biggest challenge in this production was the length of the shots. “Working on it, rendering, reviewing, tech checking, etc. all took 10x longer than usual,” said Scott, VFX Supervisor. One of the most difficult shots to put together was a sequence in which the character Finnr, whose nose had to be removed and replaced with a CG stump, walks through a village at night holding a flaming torch. Getting the lighting on the nose stump was tricky.
“It was a night shot, which has the added difficulty of lighting gels, and a character with his nose removed is in the center of the frame, close to the camera, with a torch burning throughout the shot for more of 2500 images,” explained Scott.
Working with the lighting setup was also a challenge. DP Jarin Blaschke used bespoke filters to remove certain wavelengths from the color spectrum when shooting at night. A series of tests were shot before filming began using different combinations of film, lights, filters, gels, blue screen, green screen and red screen to find the best combinations for filming .
“Robert is a director who knows what he wants, has a fantastic eye and incredible attention to detail,” Barson said. “Jarin is one of the most focused, technical and demanding DPs I have ever worked with. This combination meant there was no room for anything but perfection. It was a difficult process, but ultimately enjoyable and rewarding. I am very proud of the work accomplished by the talented team at BlueBolt. »