During the opening scene of The History Channel series Vikings, we find ourselves somewhere in Eastern Baltic in 793 AD where Viking warriors are battling to the death. Recreating the world of Norse traditions was a task production designer Tom Conroy embraced wholeheartedly. No stranger to recreations of historical drama, he has also designed for the series Camelot and Titanic: Blood and Steel. Conroy’s work on The Tudors has earned him an Emmy in 2010.
Bringing back the Viking era authentically required extensive research, which Conroy approached like a scholar. “I looked at a couple of museums in Scandinavia and a lot of museum websites, even in the national museum in Ireland,” said Conroy. “There’s a lot of Viking-era stuff. Also the British Museum in London has quite a large collection.” The Vikings didn’t leave much in terms of written documentation because their form of writing was used only for accounting and legal documents, so Conroy had to scour the history books for writings from Christian cultures that wrote about the Vikings. He was careful to assume a myriad of bias existed in the Christian views of the Vikings so he crossreferenced his research with cultures from the same time that were parallel to the Vikings in their way of life. “Cultures that would have been coastal, in Northern latitudes, such as the Ainu, who are indigenous people of Japan before the Japanese,” Conroy explained.
Imagination played a role when careful investigation could not uncover all of the minute details. “In a way, that is the challenge with something like this, and also the joy of something like this, because you have to make an informed, educated guess to design something that is going to work for the screen, because obviously, we aren’t doing an archeological reproduction. It has to be a living, breathing story so the research is one thing and then there’s the interpretation of the script and collaborating with [series creator and writer] Michael Hirst, and the lead director Johan Renck.”
Straying from historical accuracy had to be done at times to serve the storytelling. “The Viking houses didn’t have any windows, they had a door that opened and basically a hole in the ceiling that would let the smoke out,” Conroy explained. Reconstructing the Viking houses with unwavering authenticity would have created immense lighting restrictions so some liberties had to be taken. “We didn’t call them windows but we had to invent various openings or apertures to get light into the darkness. Collectively we felt the interior should be kind of gritty and quite dark, but at the same time you have to have enough visual information to tell the story and get the scene and show where the characters are in the social order of this world, and to give the audience a sense of the world.”
Staying true to the Viking way of life as much as possible when it didn’t hinder the practical aspects of storying telling was paramount. In keeping with supplies that were available to the Vikings, only natural dyes were used to color the sets. A creative decision was made from the beginning to keep the color palette restrained for the production design and across other departments – camera, direction, and costume. The darkness that draped the Viking homes was carefully considered. In place of color and light, texture became the focal point. Successfully displaying the Viking homes required creative lighting methods. “We knew some of the interior would be quite dark so we had to look at things that would reflect back, like firelight or the oil light to get a glimpse into the darker atmospheres.”
Conroy was meticulously devoted to every detail. “It was a mixture of having the broader picture, keeping your eye on the arc of the story, the characters and the feel you want to get but also the details.” The effects of Conroy’s work is on full display in the monastery in Lindesfarne. “It’s a coastal community so there is a bright light reflected all around it. There’s quite a contrast to the Viking homes. You see frescoes being painted on the walls. There are illuminations of the manuscripts so there are intense parts of color there. The walls are whitewashed so it feels very different.”
Individual characters also benefited from Conroy’s designs. “Particular attention was paid to the shields. We felt that this was a collection of individuals so every single person was given a coloring and design on their shields that were reasonably muted so that when you look at them there’s a coherence on the screen.”
As with any creative endeavor, challenges were bound to arise. The first of these was perhaps the most obvious when it comes to Vikings – ships and boats. Two identical boats were needed: a fully functionally sailing boat as large as it could practically be made and a replica to be shot against blue screen. “The chances of finding two identical Viking boats of the right size were pretty slim. So we decided to make them. I contacted boat makers all through Europe, Ireland, England, Estonia, lots of different places and the answer was, ‘Yes, we can do it but for June of the following year.’ So eventually, I found a chap in the Czech Republic who had built lots props for films and had built a number of boats before. I went over and met him and he was confident he could do it.” The ship maker worked night and day to build the two boats from scratch. At nearly 50 feet long each, the tremendous task was completed in three months
The boats adhered to the same dark color palette as the rest of the Viking environments. The sail became dark russet red after earnest consideration. “It took a lot of experimentation to get the right dye for that.” After selecting the color, it was a great effort to find the optimal method to dye the sail, which was handwoven and eventually colored in individual strips.
“It was quite a relief when we launched the boat into the water and it sailed off beautifully,” said Conroy.