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Main Titles Up Close: 'Vikings' Plunges Deep for Imagery
April 26, 2013  | By Eric Gould  | 1 comment

Editor's Note: The season finale of Vikings airs Sunday, April 28, at 10 p.m. ET. The History Channel series has presented a unique look inside an Old World warrior culture. In this new installment of our continuing series on main titles and their makers, Eric Gould talks with director Rama Allen — who created the show's main title for the production company, The Mill — about how he expresses an entire series in a single minute. Allen is a director, writer and multi-media visual artist, who brings his varied expertise to his video work.

The sequence shows the watery death of a Viking, sinking into the dark ocean surrounded by the ornaments of his life: weaponry, gold and bone. The production company provides the following description: "His fading memory flickers throughout before he is consumed by one of the Sisters, a Norse goddess. He is left a shell below the waves before we learn he is not alone, but one of many sinking below the creeping surge of Viking raiders above. As the titles draw to a close the fiery massive raid assaults a darkened coast line." The theme, sounding much like a funeral chant or a dirge, is "If I Had a Heart," by Fever Ray.

TVWW: In the Vikings titles, there is what looks to be quick cuts to raw flesh. You also directed the [HBO series] True Blood main titles, and in that there's the well-known rapid time-lapse of the coyote, or wolf, being consumed by maggots. There seems to be this fascination with the frailty of the flesh. Is that a theme in your work?

ALLEN: Yeah, I know what I like. (Laughs.) That's a fox, actually. Those are about priority shift. We think we know what's exactly important to us, but in a critical moment in time, when the stakes are very high, your priorities shift, and these things help us remember that. Those images truly help you remember what's important... As death-oriented as all that stuff is, it's mostly a celebration of what life's supposed to be all about.

TVWW: Looking at your other video and installation work, there seems to be an emphasis on ultra-quick cuts, almost as an analog of bit-culture.

Titles are great because they allow me the most creative freedom. I get this universe that's been authored by the showrunners and the show creators, and my job is to create this tonal piece that bridges the gap between the viewers reality and the show's reality. So, my job over the course of one minute or less is to ease them into the bath. That's how I've always looked at it. It's to create something that is relatively timeless, because the challenge with titles is that shows arc may shift, and the characters or plot may shift, but its core essence will probably never shift, so, I create title sequences around what I find are the most intriguing and universal qualities that I can identify in the show.

TVWW: Tell me a little about the imagery in the Vikings sequence. It's very dim and haunting, and follows a Viking as he drowns and drifts to the bottom of the water.

ALLEN: Without getting into something too specific, without relying on specific characters, we wanted to find what we identified in the script, [which] was their overarching relationship to nature, their beliefs in gods, their myths, their constant thirst for conquest, their relationship to the sea — and there's simply loss. There's this haunting tone of being separated from your loved ones and these flashback memories. The whole thing was supposed to seem like a dying man's prayer and would always feel appropriate to the show. Life expectancy was extremely short, especially when you're in a warrior culture. We figured death was going to be an essential theme.

The final shot, the view from below up to the bottom of the boats that are rowing away, that really got  me. It's so final. How did you come to that idea?

ALLEN: It sounds corny but it's true. I stayed up really late when we first started this project, and I picked this piece of music that ended up being the soundtrack for it. That was the very first thing I did, and I put it on loop, and started writing ideas against it. I had a really late night of just thinking about this passage thing. I woke up the next morning and had had this drowning dream, and one of the only images I could remember was looking up through the water and seeing these dark passing things on the surface above me.

There were two images that the showrunners were absolutely in love with: the view of the ship bottom from below, and the other, near the beginning of the sequence, [was] of the Viking sinking below, in a wide expanse of ocean, very small. There's this extreme separation, this extreme vulnerability of being a tiny object in this enormous expanse of water.

TVWW: You say on your website that you shot a lot of footage for the title sequence. How do you know when you have the right 60-second edit?

ALLEN: My shoot strategy, when you have a small budget and a short amount of time, is to shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot. I know the keystones of the edit that I want to hit — specific images I know I must have to tell the story. I get those in the can, but throughout the rest of it, I play around to find happy accidents.

TVWW: Do you let your editors go for a bit, give them a little space, or are you involved from the beginning?

ALLEN: I spend a lot of time in the room with them. It becomes a collaborative effort where we discuss symbol and metaphor and emotion, and we just experiment endlessly. I consider editorial so much a critical part of my process, I'm crazy about it, and I spend a lot of time there, because it's the juxtaposition of unexpected images and their connection to the music that you can't plan — you have to feel it. You see these two things rub up against each other and your heart skips a beat and you know that's it. You couldn't have story-boarded it, you couldn't have scripted it.

TVWW: Why do directors go outside for main titles? It seems as though this is something that is critical to the look of the show, that they would rather have control and do it in house.

ALLEN: I don't know! I haven't been asked that before. I know if I were directing my own show, I would absolutely want to do my own titles.

TVWW: Maybe it's like a doctor going to be treated by another doctor — they need another outside, fresh opinion. They're too close to it.

ALLEN: Yes. Also, some shows use the title sequences to define their marketing effort, as well. And there's a lot iconographic imagery that comes up in some television shows that get used for marketing. So, I think that the title process is very specialized. There are 6-10 houses that the large production companies will go to — Digital Kitchen, Imaginary Forces, etc. They do most of that work.

TVWW: We were big fans of Rubicon, and its title sequence, and the show got its only Emmy nomination for the main titles. Will you be submitting Vikings for the Emmys this year? We hope so.

ALLEN: Thanks, yes, we will be sending it in for June or July, I think. We'll see what happens.

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The upshot of the boats is brilliant. At first you don't quite register what you're seeing -- looks like some kind of giant creatures or something. Then you recognize it with the creature image you imagined still superimposed. Good find, Eric. Thanks for turning us onto it.

The whole thing's a real work of art.
Apr 26, 2013   |  Reply
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