In a show that hinges on wild feats of technical innovation and production design, every moment and detail of Vikings is planned with expert precision. But occasionally, and in some cases necessarily, production is forced to take short cuts to keep the world depicted as impressive and authentic as possible.
We went behind the scenes with the cast and crew of the show to discover their production secrets.
None of the weaponry is real
That’s right, not even a shield. One swish of a sword reveals its lightweight form. Head of armoury and weapons John McKenna, whose main responsibility is bringing to life weapons that are already vividly realised in the minds of fans, explains why everything, including spears, quivers, archery equipment and shields, have to be nimble and safe to use, saying, “For starters, real metal would weigh about five times as much, proving difficult for actors to work with. You can still do some damage but essentially, everything is made from lightweight material.”
Swords are bamboo; shields, spearheads and axes are rubber and then hand-painted. Even the heaviest axe weighs less than one kilo.
“Everything has to be done fast to keep up with the pace of the show, so, for example, we mould hundreds of spearheads, which can be replaced in a minute during a battle scene. We do have some hero weapons made of steel for close-up shots, but we can’t have any real practical weapons for safety reasons.”
The show’s zero accident rate is down to the rigorous safety procedures and skilled stuntmen that work closely with actors to ensure accidents don’t happen. No mean feat considering the show started with approximately 30 Vikings and one boat in season one, and is now sending 10 ships and 250 Vikings into battle.
Fake blood by the bucket load
Special effects expert Tom McInerney might actually be the most overworked person on the show, responsible for making stain-free blood spurt in a six-foot arc, countless axed (fake) heads and temporary tattoos that cover entire bodies.
“We have made hundreds and thousands of litres of blood, and have had to develop techniques that allow us to meet deadlines,” explains McInerney, who oversees makeup and prosthetics on the hit show. “We have to make approximately ten 50-litre barrels of blood for every battle scene and the challenge was to make something that doesn’t stain costumes or the actors’ skin. We’ve invented a new type of ‘blood’ made of sugar syrup and food colouring that washes out."
"I’m not sure if I’ve done myself a favour,” he laughs. “Making blood is an endless task here.”
Off with their heads
Some of you might remember Ragnar’s (Travis Fimmel) battle with the Kingdom of Mercia in season three, when he sailed towards the coast in his ship decorated with the decapitated heads of 40 Mercian warriors. That’s a lot of heads, and a major challenge for makeup and prosthetic designer Tom McInerney.
“That was a milestone in terms of turnaround. I got a phone call saying I had 40 heads to make... fast. To speed things up, we enlisted any cast and crew we could find. If you look closely, Travis Fimmel’s head is in there, too. We sometimes use 3D prints of the actors’ faces, but if I want to punish someone, I’ll make them sit through the whole plaster cast process, which can be pretty claustrophobic. Travis and Alexander Ludwig (Bjorn Ironside) are both very claustrophobic, so I enjoyed making them feel uncomfortable,” he laughs.
One of the first things McInerney does when a key character joins the show is to make a plaster cast of their head. Vikings has quickly established that nobody is safe from the axe so, having the casts’ "decapitated heads" ready to roll is a prerequisite, but it also serves as a speedy way for McInerney to design new tattoos or scars.
“Actors don’t like getting their heads cast – it normally instigates terror and whisperings of character kill-offs – but one thing I’ve learnt working on this show is how unpredictable it can be and how fast you may have to change or invent something. Having head casts means I can work faster.”
York, Paris and Norway – all in one
“I had a hard time convincing the crew we could recreate Morocco in the West of Ireland,” laughs creator Michael Hirst on his decision to move production to the Mediterranean and Morocco for season five. Thankfully, the show’s production crew is adept at recreating locations in the same spot in Wicklow when required.
Kattegatt started with a couple of houses and is now a sprawling, not quite metropolis, but established village. Behind it are the walls of York, and further down the hill is what looks like a Russian palace. The backlot of the studio in Wicklow has been England, Algeciras and Paris, and the tiny stream that runs alongside it doubled as the Seine for the infamous attack on Paris in season four. In a given week, there could be up to 240 people working in the construction element of the show.
“We have to build a lot of new sets, but if we know we are finished with one particular location, we’ll try to recycle the sets and reuse the timber,” says producer Keith Thompson. Furniture and props are often made from scratch, but when Vikings started, much of the furniture was imported from India. A large warehouse on the backlot, suitably christened "Vikia", houses much of the old furniture and props which are occasionally rolled out and redesigned for future episodes.
When Vikings started, McInerney used lace beards for the actors, which would involve a lot of maintenance throughout the day. The yak hair was knotted onto a piece of tulle and then stitched or pleated to fit the face, then glued.
“This method was posing problems because it didn’t allow for much mobility for the actors to perform and when they ate food, it got messy. We cheated a bit and now hand-lay all the beards on to the actors’ faces and use little ties that we’ve developed here to keep them secure. It’s sped up the process considerably and eliminates the micromanaging of facial hair.”
Transfers versus tattoos
Historically, tattoos were used as both rites of passage and medallions of honour for Vikings, and serve as a wonderful way of illustrating the passage of time in the show, developing into more elaborate versions as the seasons pass. While working on The Tudors, McInerney discovered a clever technique that makes the whole process faster and more accessible.
“We developed a tattoo paper much like a transfer. It’s actually made in the west of Ireland, and we print it onto decal paper and then use sterilised water to apply to the skin. Removing it is pretty easy as we have a special gel which goes on the skin first and dissolves the adhesive in the tattoo, allowing us to get the actor out faster.”
Despite the shortcut, it can still be an arduous process, with tattoos being applied and removed every day.
“We’ve developed tips and tricks to help us get the actors in and out within a reasonable time frame, but sometimes the days can be long. We have a new character that has just joined the show. She’s a warrior queen shield-maiden and is covered from head-to-toe in tattoos. As you can imagine, it can take a while getting the symmetry of her tattoos correct and then removing them all at the end of the day.”
After five seasons and much lugging of gigantic Viking ships through tiny Irish country roads and icy, unrelenting waters, the production team devised a quick and easy method for scenes that required little or no ship action: outboard motors and rubber tyres. That’s right, next time you are looking at docked ships in Kattegatt, spare a thought for the rubber tyres propping them up and the outboard motors that very quickly got those ships exactly where the director wanted them.
Ships in swimming pools
On the backlot somewhere between Kattegatt and York, there’s a very large green screen, the largest in the country apparently, and in front of it is an industrial-looking tank, a double for the stormy North Sea.
“It’s difficult to get boats in the water in the wintertime,” notes Mark Geraghty, head of production design on Vikings. “The roads in Wicklow can be narrow, icy and really difficult to access, especially with a very large Viking boat. This is when the green screen and tank comes in.”
The square shallow tank is filled with water, and CGI is used to create the storm sequence and geographical location.
“Viking ships had a shallow draft to allow them to go up rivers and land on beaches, so the tank doesn’t need to be deep. This also allows us to physically work in the water with the boat.”
Of course, real locations are preferable – the production crew have just finished building a real village in an Irish marsh. No mean feat, but they like a challenge.
“Every time you move with a CGI image, it costs a lot of money. By doing something ‘real’ you don’t limit the directors. They can take different angles and revisit it as many times as they like.”
Geraghty recalls the challenge of moving several Viking ships through the mountains and forests of France, saying, “No CGI was used for that scene. We had five locations and we did what the Vikings did historically, using logs to rolls the boats through terrain.”
The effort paid off – the scene is a remarkable feat of engineering and logistics as we see Ragnar and his fellow Vikings physically moving their enormous ships over mountains and through forests. Seasons five and six brought production to Morocco and Iceland.
“CGI is an amazing tool but there’s nothing like the real thing. Our program looks amazing because we leave the studio.”
The wardrobe department of the Vikings set is a veritable Aladdin’s cave of creativity and organised chaos, full of visual motifs, pretty trinkets, beads and buttons, and rails of Viking garb. Head of costume Susan O’Connor is busy finalising an elaborate suit designed for King Oleg, who will feature prominently in season six. Hirst is detailed in his description of what his characters will wear, giving O’Connor a good base on which to build the costumes, but her job still requires a lot of research, scouring markets and fabric shops abroad.
“Our fabrics comes from everywhere: England, Spain, Italy... and every single costume is unique to the person and the episode, so we rarely reuse what viewers have already seen.”
Each dressmaker is assigned one character to avoid confusion, and the challenge for the team is keeping up with the speed with which the show requires wardrobe changes, tweaks and new garments.
“The quickest item to make is a piece of armour, but it’s still incredibly intricate. It starts as white cowhide, and then we stamp it, hammer it, colour it, shape it on a mannequin and dry it out.”
Five people are working on one piece that’s due on set the following day and when that’s finished they’ll start on its double.
“We make two of everything due to the messy nature of battle scenes – everything gets covered in mud and blood, and is rarely salvageable, but we do have a 24-hour drying room for the battle-weary wardrobe.”
Watch Vikings on Wednesdays at 9:30pm on SBS.
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