ON THE BLOG: Scottish production company Maramedia on their Viking documentary

Alberto Valverde, Creative Europe Desk UK's MEDIA officer in Scotland, sat down with Nigel Pope, Founder and Creative Director of Maramedia - an independent TV production company specialising in wildlife filmmaking -  to hear about the production process behind Wild Way of the Vikings

A recipient of TV Programming funding in 2017, this documentary follows the Vikings' footsteps from the Norwegian Coast to Newfoundland and features narration from Ewan McGregor. 

Can you tell us a bit about Maramedia and Wild Way of the Vikings?

Maramedia is an indie with a speciality in natural history and over the last few years we’ve made shows about the Hebrides, the Scottish Highlands and Shetland amongst other things. We strive for the highest quality production values we can achieve.  Most are narrated by Ewan McGregor which gives the films a touch of Hollywood stardust. Wild Way of the Vikings was the most recent show in this cycle. We have a passionate and dedicated team and we are very proud of this latest film.

You received Creative Europe funding for WWOTV, what interested you about the story? What were the most important aspects for you to cover in this series?

Wild Way of the Vikings grew out of our desire to create a blue-chip natural history programme about the North Atlantic Islands. We added a re-enactment element when we realised that the broadcasters found this interesting and exciting. I’ve always loved history and drama, so this was a great opportunity to create a passion project that also had pan-European resonance and real commercial potential too. We tried to find interesting stories connecting the Vikings to the natural world that we could dramatise at each step of the Atlantic journey. And alongside this, we filmed blue-chip animal behaviour to give the film depth, context and spectacle. There were a lot of challenges, but ultimately many of the sequences were among the most spectacular we’ve ever done. 

Creative Europe does not usually fund conventional nature documentaries, yet WWOTV got the TV programming funding. What makes it a different species?

It has some elements of a conventional nature film in that the viewer experiences some fascinating and beautifully shot behaviour in a range of beautiful wild places. However what really makes it different is that each animal that we meet has an interesting connection with the Viking worlds – sometimes the connection is mythological as in the raven scene; sometimes there’s a commercial connection as with the walruses; sometimes it's about navigation as with the humpback whales and sometimes the Vikings are connected by behaving or travelling in parallel with the wild animals as in the orca scene. 

You filmed outdoors in Iceland, Norway and Scotland. Can you tell us a bit more about the production planning and how you adapted to weather change?

We built up the film a scene at a time. Generally shooting to a running order, but making many changes and amendments as we went. Sometimes we picked up a natural history sequence and added the Viking material later, then edited the sections together. More frequently however we risked everything and filmed the animal behaviour and Viking re-enactment at the same time. This was quite a gamble but when it came together as in the gannet and reindeer scenes it really is quite something!

Of course you are always at the mercy of the weather which can provide dramatic material but sometimes you have to completely re-think. One of our most expensive shoots was to film humpback whales off the Newfoundland Coast with a very expensive stabilised rig on a boat. A storm came in and all the whales dispersed and it took us a week to find them after that! There was no time to get two shots with a Viking re-enactor so we had to go back to Norway and shoot some completely new Viking ship material to cut in! 

Can you tell us a bit about its broadcast journey?

The first broadcast will be on PBS Nature in February, thereafter France TV and ORF in Austria will broadcast, then DR Denmark and SVT Sweden in Scandinavia before it appears globally on Nat Geo WILD. 

How important has MEDIA funding been for the production?

Essential. It would have been hard to achieve our level of ambition without it. 

Why was co-producing with other EU countries important to you?

We absolutely love co-producing with the European broadcasters. There’s such a wonderful culture of support for documentary films and you really do make a lot of friends through working across the EU zone. Collaboration between different countries is strong too. Franz Fuchs the Austrian commissioner introduced us to France 5, Henrik Eckman the Swedish buyer from SVT helped with DR in Denmark and ORF-E the distributor helped with the overall application. We also have a good relationship with a company called Crossing The Line in the Republic of Ireland, They’ve made some great films with the help of MEDIA and they helped out with introductions and advice. In fact now I think of it, it was John Murray the MD of CTL who introduced me to Franz and that started it all off! So we are grateful to him and his team. 

The film also allowed us to blend disciplines and work with historical and natural history experts right across Europe bringing together not only film makers but also academics and has helped us forge new relationships with whom we hoping to create further interesting films about our shared landscapes and history. 

The call for TV programming funding is currently open. Do you have any tips or advice for those considering applying?

Just go for it if you have a project that fits the bill. The application isn’t as onerous as you might think once you get stuck in and the assessment process is very fair and transparent. There are very few strings attached once you win the grant, so its well worth the effort. 

Would you consider applying again?

Definitely. Though of course the spectre of Brexit always lurks in the background. I hope that with a suitable deal we can carry on being part of things. 

What is the next project you’re working on?

We have a new children's drama and a new mini-series which yet again takes us to the Nordic lands and looks at how animal families deal with the overwhelming conditions!

If you're currently applying to the TV Programming scheme, make use of our resources and guidance here, before the deadline closes on 28 May. 

See a preview of the documentary here: