The Northman's Use Of CGI Was A Compromise For Robert Eggers

If you are making any kind of film with a larger budget nowadays, there will always be some amount of CGI and digital effects involved, even if it is in a tiny capacity. This goes without saying with all the gigantic action blockbusters that flood the multiplex. A lot of the time, however, you will never notice the implementations of these effects in movies, like changing the color of street signs in "West Side Story" or "Licorice Pizza" in post-production to fit the time periods they are set in, or that almost all the sheep in "Brokeback Mountain" were CG (my personal favorite).

When you delve into the realm of Vikings and fantasy though, you know going in there will have to utilize these digital tools to bring that world to life. "The Northman" was always going to have a decent amount of CGI in the film, which co-writer and director Robert Eggers was never thrilled about. This is a guy who makes movies where he tries to have everything as real and authentic as possible. Obviously, this comes through most in his use of language, where he will painstakingly recreate speech patterns and colloquialisms to fit whatever setting his film is set in, but it is also true of the physical production as well. Every swatch, lantern, and floorboard has been thoroughly researched to make sure it is accurate. What Eggers did not count on before making "The Northman" was that he would not be able to shoot where he intended, forcing his hand on the visual effects.

COVID-19 made everything more difficult

The vast majority of "The Northman" takes place in Iceland, the land of Björk and "Ja Ja Ding Dong." Originally, Robert Eggers planned to shoot the movie in Iceland. For one, it would be accurate to the story being told, but also, it's an absolutely picturesque country that has become a favorite place for a lot of filmmakers to shoot their stuff. That idea was cut off at the knees, however, when a little thing known as the novel coronavirus came along. In an interview with IndieWire, Eggers talked about the change of plan in shooting the film:

"Unfortunately, because of COVID, there was more CG than I would've wanted because we were only allowed to go to Iceland after we wrapped principle photography. A decent amount of principle was done in I[r]eland. That meant that we had to plonk in Icelandic backgrounds sometimes in a way that it's not a sin to do — people do it all the time — but it's not really how I like to make films. I'm not happy about it. But what could I do? It was COVID. Sorry."

This is not the first time mixing and matching Ireland and Iceland has been implemented for a fantasy epic. "Game of Thrones" frequently melded the two, more specifically Northern Ireland, together for scenes that took place north of the Wall. However, that show still had somewhat of a separation between the shooting locations, where the further north you would go the more you would be in Iceland. For "The Northman," it truly was a marriage of the two nations. Eggers continues:

"You'd have a scene that's supposed to be in Iceland and the foreground and midground would be Ireland, but the background would be a photographic plate that we shot in Iceland. When they arrive at the beach in Iceland, we shot that in Donegal. We found the most Icelandic-looking beach in Ireland, then we shot a bunch of plates of the beach I wanted in Iceland. The main hill is Irish, but it looks Icelandic. Then we put some rock formations in the sea that we filmed in Iceland, and then we had to make the sand black with CG. The main background behind everyone is Iceland. That's the necessary evil of not being able to shoot in Iceland."

Obviously, shooting in Iceland would have been a whole lot easier than performing all this digital trickery, but in the final product, I am happy to say you cannot tell that they did not step foot in Iceland during principal photography. This is the digital evolution of matte paintings, and when it is done well, you don't even think to look for the seams. Because so many think of CGI as being used for creatures, de-aging, digital doubles, and the like we think we know what a computer has helped make, yet sometimes a great effect stares you in the face without you even realizing it.