Working with Vikings: ‘They just ... kick a few heads in and shag off’

Stills exhibition from series shot in Wicklow opens at Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray

The Vikings land on the Northumbrian Coast, in reality Silver Strand in Co Wicklow. Photographs: Jonathan Hession and Bernard Walsh

The Vikings land on the Northumbrian Coast, in reality Silver Strand in Co Wicklow. Photographs: Jonathan Hession and Bernard Walsh

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Things have been going on in the Wicklow Mountains that most people are not aware of.

The television series Vikings is being shot at Ashford Studios in the Wicklow town and at a number of locations throughout the county such as Luggala Estate in the Wicklow Mountains, the Devil’s Glen in Ashford, Newcastle, Silver Strand and Brittas Bay Beach, the Avoca Mines and the Blessington Lakes.

A few months back stills photographer Jonathan Hession was editing some photographs of a massive battle that had been shot for the series

It had been a particularly good day for stills: hundreds of extras, horses, firewalls and huge mayhem . . . and he got some great shots of the general carnage.

The Vikings charge into battle against the Saxons. Filmed in Hollywood, Co, Wicklow
The Vikings charge into battle against the Saxons. Filmed in Hollywood, Co, Wicklow

However, it occurred to him that in all likelihood probably nobody in Ireland would actually ever see the photographs he had taken. They would end up in a digital graveyard on some photo editors computer in the US.

He approached series producer Morgan O’Sullivan, also responsible for The Tudors and Penny Dreadful, proposing an exhibition of stills from Vikings so the Irish public could see behind the scenes of the local, yet globally popular, show.

O’Sullivan approved and, in conjunction with The Wicklow Film Commission, agreed to sponsor an exhibition of publicity stills.

Hession has photographed Vikings with his colleague Bernard Walsh for the last six seasons of the show. Between them they have come up with a selection of 35 action photographs and 20 “behind the scenes” images.

Their exhibition “Vikings in Focus” opened on Thursday at the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray and runs until March 17th.

Hesssion has been shooting stills on film sets in Ireland and around Europe for the last 30 years. His first film was My Left Foot back in 1988 with director Jim Sheridan and actor Daniel Day-Lewis. Then there was The Field and In The Name of the Father.

Since then he has worked on some 50 feature films and plenty of television, the best of which he believes to be The Tudors, The Borgias and more recently Vikings.

Filming Vikings in Hollywood, Co Wicklow
Filming Vikings in Hollywood, Co Wicklow

He credits O’Sullivan for the recent renaissance in the Irish film scene, saying he has kept him and hundreds of film technicians busy for the last decade.

Typical film set shooting days are 10 hours long with lunch eaten on the hoof. Better than the old days though when 12-hour days plus one for lunch, six days a week, were typical.

Asked about the best and worst parts of the job, Hession names a couple of actors, including the late Richard Harris, as “attention seeking idiots”.

Alyssa Sutherland – Princess Aslaug in Vikings, in Ashford Studios, Co Wicklow
Alyssa Sutherland – Princess Aslaug in Vikings, in Ashford Studios, Co Wicklow

However, he concedes the work can be especially difficult for method actors such as Day Lewis or Andrea Riseborough to ignore the stills camera during live shooting, despite being surrounded by movie cameras.

He says it is different on Vikings.

“They just come out, say their lines, kick a few heads in and shag off. It’s the best show I’ve actually worked on.”

A bonus of the job is that many actors are extremely photogenic and good looking.

“ My absolute fave would be Eva Green, the French actor in Penny Dreadful and Cracks, a movie shot here a couple of years ago. She’s just delightful. Pete Postlethwaite was my favourite male actor. Total gent.”

Gabriel Byrne during the filming of season one of Vikings
Gabriel Byrne during the filming of season one of Vikings

Vikings shoots regardless of weather conditions, up in the mountains , night or day. There is big camaraderie amongst the shooting crew and Hession rates the production as one of the friendliest and most organised on which he has worked. Last season, he shot more than 40,000 frames for 20 episodes.

Modern digital recording capacity means he would shoot about 1,300 frames a day, while back in film days he would peak at about 10 rolls of 36 exposure film.

The images are used mainly as publicity stills but also for continuity purposes.

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