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How ‘The Northman’ Shot One of the Most Immersive Battle Sequences in Film History

"You plan it out on a map with little soldier figurines, and work it out like a puzzle, one kill and one layer at a time," cinematographer Jarin Blaschke told IndieWire.

Alexander Skarsgård “The Northman”

©Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection

Director Robert Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke began their collaboration with the 2008 short “The Tell-Tale Heart.” In the 13 years since, they’ve developed a methodology that yielded the visually striking likes of “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse” — but as impressive as those features were, they were a mere prelude to the duo’s latest achievement.

Shot on 35mm on an 87-day schedule, “The Northman” is a jaw-droppingly ambitious Viking epic, filled with precise detail, extravagant action, and mythic grandeur. The film is as clear as it is complex thanks to the purity of expression that Eggers and Blaschke have been working toward since that now-far-off Edgar Allan Poe adaptation.

“Over the course of our time together I’ve tried to simplify the visual experience so that things are presented in the most direct way,” Blaschke told IndieWire. “We’ve been working toward distilling things to their essence, working with blocking to streamline the visual language so we’re not just cutting from one thing to the other. You can layer so much information into one image, and it’s really satisfying and less cluttered to have one rich, complex shot instead of four less interesting shots.” Blaschke added that his intention wasn’t to fetishize long takes for their own sakes, but to try to find the most effective way of drawing the audience into the film. “We were motivated by the desire to create a really dense frame with a lot going on where you’d see something different every time.”

Perhaps the fullest realization of this filmmaking philosophy came in a berserker raid filmed entirely in one elaborately choreographed, unbroken shot. Eggers and Blaschke eschewed the conventional method of shooting large scale action with multiple cameras in favor of a one-camera long take approach that put the cast and crew under immense pressure, but resulted in one of the most immersive battle sequences ever put on film. “Sometimes I wonder if my approach comes out of inexperience,” Blaschke said. “The conventional way to shoot that kind of scene feels almost like a military operation, where you’re just covering things and describing what’s going on rather than designing a sequence. It’s easier for my brain to see things unfold in a shot that’s like a ribbon, or a scroll — it might just be naivete, or my simplistic mind, but I don’t see things as a mosaic.”

The visceral impact of Blaschke and Eggers’ purposeful camerawork is awe-inspiring, as is the sense of scale engendered by the camera placement. “We really wanted to maximize the set,” Blaschke explained. “To do that you put the camera at one side and use the maximum amount of depth, so that you’re showing everything — there’s really no village behind the camera. You plan it out on a map with little soldier figurines, and work it out like a puzzle, one kill and one layer at a time.” The increased resources compared to Blachke and Eggers’ previous collaborations allowed the cinematographer to experiment with ideas he had been keeping in his back pocket for years. “There are so many things you think of that you want to try that you’re just not able to,” Blaschke said, “so eventually you have a backlog of ideas and you think, ‘Someday, someday, someday.’ There was stuff I wanted to try for a long time that we finally had the resources for and that happened to be appropriate for the movie.”

“The Northman”

Aidan Monaghan / Focus Features

Night exteriors were one area where “The Northman” offered ample opportunities for exploration. “We had a lot of night work, and I’ve always been interested in capturing how nights look to the human eye,” Blaschke said. “You start losing your color perception under a certain light level. During a summer when it looked like this movie was going to happen, I was on Mount Kilimanjaro under a full moon and everything looked black and white, but in people’s tents they’d have flashlights or lamps on and it created bursts of color. That was interesting — my eyes perceiving color and monochrome at the same time.” Blaschke’s observation gave rise to a desire to replicate that experience on film, presenting a black and white night pierced by areas of color created by firelight. “I used gels with no red information in them — just pure cyan — and over several rounds of tests found the right combination of gels and filters,” he said.

Eggers’ insistence on authenticity meant, ironically, that Blaschke had to employ an immense amount of artificial light to achieve his realistic look. “People assume that our movies are all natural light, but we use a lot of electricity,” Blaschke said. “All the firelight is actually tight grids of 500-watt bulbs.” In order to remove any barriers between the story and the audience, Blaschke wanted a clean look for the film, which meant a slow stock and clean lenses with minimal distortion. “There’s no funky optical texture or film grain,” he said, “and I gave myself the additional challenge of shooting at 80 ASA, which is about one-tenth the light level people are shooting nights at these days.” Using extreme cyan gels cut the lights’ power down even further, but when asked whether he ever considered making his life easier by shooting digitally, Blaschke had a quick answer.

“Never,” he said. “There’s no satisfaction in that. I wanted to challenge myself to the point where I knew I was going to mess up a little bit, otherwise I’m not going to grow. Every movie after this is going to benefit from ‘The Northman’ just like ‘The Northman’ benefited from what came before it. I really wanted to take this opportunity to stretch myself.”

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