How Robert Eggers Handled the Filming of The Northman
Check out these camera movement tips and tricks from Director Robert Eggers and Producer/actor Alexander Skarsgård.
While it may now be buried under headlines from summer blockbusters, one of the year’s best films might be Robert Eggers‘ epic historical film The Northman. Starring Alexander Skarsgård and based on the medieval Scandinavian legend Amleth, this Viking-era film might be best classified as an indie thriller. It features some of the most fascinating acting and storytelling of the year.
It also was one of the most innovative films in terms of how Eggers—an indie filmmaker with some specialized folk horror roots—was able to bring audiences into this epic world of Vikings, murders, pillaging, and revenge.
Let’s explore how Eggers and Skarsgård were able to handle their camera coordination and choreography in one of the best scenes of the film with this cool behind-the-scenes featurette . . .
Setting the Scene with Static Shots
So, as you can see in the anatomy of a scene-style breakdown in the video above by Vanity Fair, there’s a lot of information to dissect, which Eggers and Skarsgård discuss. However, while they give some fascinating insights into the fonts, spellings, and titles, we’ll focus on this pivotal long-take action sequence which they begin to discuss around the three-minute mark of the video.
In it, we’re introduced to the next chapter of the film, which re-introduces the audience to Skarsgård’s hero character several years in the future. The scene begins with a static shot of the banks of a peaceful and serene flowing river. The shot holds for quite some time in the theatrical experience, putting the audience slightly at unease as they anticipate what might come next.
Eggers’ also cast an interesting framing, creating a frame-within-a-frame as the audience’s focus is drawn into this window, anticipating what it might reveal. This leads us into the action and motion contained within.
Putting the Camera into Motion
As Eggers and Skarsgård discuss, the timing of a shot like this—even from its original static standpoint—is quite challenging to pull off. However, it becomes even trickier as Eggers elects to put the camera into motion as we (the audience) begin to follow along after the boat as it passes across the frame.
These films are stellar examples of motivated camera work as his lens—even when static—is always leading the viewer to anticipate the move or action that it will catch next.
This scene in particular is an excellent example of how a filmmaker can offer a piece of visual information to entice the viewer, then follow up on the enticement by giving the audience what they want—which is to see more.
This camera move is also quite difficult. Not only have we established the ground in front of the camera (so it can’t be a dolly track), but we also seem to float over across the bank and through the air as we go from the land onto the boat.
Working with Historically Accurate Props
This sequence is fascinating to explore as Eggers and Skarsgård share more information about just how much thought and effort they put into striving for historical accuracy in the film. Not only are the boats in the film recreated relics of the past, but every piece of the costumes, props, and sets were also created (or sometimes even borrowed from museums) to be as historically accurate as possible.
While this is quite helpful for world immersion and fascinating for audiences with an interest in history, it’s indeed quite problematic at times for modern filmmaking.
As the duo discussed, it required a great deal of effort to time this sequence out so that the boats are passing in just the right time and speed in coordination with the camera moves—and without many of the prosthetic elements you might find on other sets to “cheat” the shots with unrealistic objects.
Choreography and Action
The shot is made even harder still as Eggers and Skarsgård chose to continue to build to the scene by adding choreographed action to the sequence to further immerse the audience into this world. For a shot that started from a quiet and still picturesque river bank, we’ve now traveled right into the heart of the action as we, too, are voyagers on this murderous Viking boat. Eggers mentions this scene was particularly difficult to score because of the pacing of the scene that follows.
It’s fun to hear Eggers and Skarsgård talk and joke about the choreography. It takes a good deal of planning and timing to pull off what ultimately became precision dance moves, as the actors must play dual roles of performers in addition to actual rowers.
The camera itself is also a character in the scene, which requires all the mechanics and crew members to move in coordination with the rest of the scene elements to create an active and realistic shot.
Tips for Your Own Camera Work
Ultimately, while it’s quite entertaining to watch Eggers and Skarsgård break down one of their favorite scenes from the film, it’s genuinely a masterclass to put your camera into motion in your own film projects.
When first starting in film, it might feel more natural to just run around handheld to get whatever shot you want. However, as you begin to learn the basics of cinematography and start understanding the myriad of principles behind even a static tripod shot, you’ll realize there are more techniques behind putting a camera into a smooth control circuit than you thought.
It should also lead you to constantly question what you’re trying to achieve with any camera shot or sequence. Are you trying to draw the audience deeper into the river of your story? Or do you want them to feel like they’re watching from the shore?
These decisions can help define how much time and resources you might want to put into a complex shot like this, versus a safer one from the riverbank. Plus, you’ll learn just how a shot with a good deal of focus and work can be beneficial to your story overall.
Check out these additional articles below for more filmmaking tricks and tips.
- How to Actually Bring Your Storyboards to Life
- 5 Preparation Tips for Directing Your Next Commercial
- Your New Best Friend: 5 Tools to Mount Your Camera Vertically
- Favorite Focal Lengths of Famous Directors
- Which Camera Movement Should You Use — and When and Why?
Cover image via Aidan Monaghan / Focus Features.