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Interview with Hans Weise, Director of National Geographic's "A Fearsome Fleet: Secrets of the Vikings"

A frame from A Fearsome Fleet: Secrets of the Vikings featuring the shipbuilder hero, Harald. Source: Vimeo.



More often than not, manmade beauty, art in general, and stories themselves make very little practical sense. For art, like beauty, is subjective. More often than not, if we are truly honest with ourselves, our art, our stories will not stand the test of time. Thus, art, stories, and beauty do not provide one to leave very much of a legacy – at least an infallible one – through using it as a means. Often, manmade beauty, stories, and those daring choices we make in putting pen to paper, brush to canvas, camera to subject, more often than not can only be justified for the sake of beauty, the sake of telling a story, the sake of art, whatever “the sake” of something actually means.

It seems paradoxical, though perhaps it is not: Perhaps, innately, we as humans need stories, need art, need beauty. Not for any utility they propose, but simply so that they can be, quite simply, exactly what they are – flexible mediums of expression that, in their lack of practical utility, like a clear glass window, purely perform as a lens through which we can analyze and examine ourselves and the world around us. And yet, at times, by looking at the world through art, as through a glass window, one can often glimpse the glint of ones own reflection – translucent, but still there – a faint memory of ourselves that remind us of the limits art: A persistent reminder that stories, manmade beauty, and art don’t originate from their own accord, but from ourselves, providing an invitation to further explore that reflection, which is, more often than not, a most elusive thing.

A frame from A Fearsome Fleet: Secrets of the Vikings in which a Viking longboat sets sail. Source: Vimeo.

So perhaps it’s not such a curious thing that, in the wake of human history, humans have left behind them a traces of scattered trail of beauty and art – most of which has since then been forgotten. And yet, at times some such art is preserved, if unwittingly, and is, by later generations, rediscovered, and proves for us – as with art from our own age – a new kind of lens, both like and unlike that which the art in question meant to those who created it, and the key which it provided them in their own time. Such artifacts provide for us, the curators of history, a lens through which to look and examine not only them – our long-lost ancestors, tenants of this big blue-and-green planet – but to examine ourselves, and the human condition as it has shored up today. It’s a lens through which to see that we as humans haven’t changed, or, more precisely, that our desire – our insatiable need – for stories, for art, for beauty, for meaning, are, in and of themselves, part of what makes us human.

The final frame from A Fearsome Fleet: Secrets of the Vikings, in which Noridic god Odin sits upon his throne. Source: Vimeo.

Award winning filmmaker, photographer, and multimedia journalist Hans Weise, in his most recent stop motion film, A Fearsome Fleet: Secrets of the Vikings – a short commissioned by National Geographic (for which Weise also established the magazine’s video presence) in conjunction with the titular magazine’s March, 2017 cover story – explores and itself proves a prime example of such themes concerning art and the stories we tell ourselves: The ninth century art of designing, engineering the incredible longships crafted by Nordic Vikings.

The creative team behind A Fearsome Fleet: Secrets of the Vikings (Hans Weise fourth from the right). Photo courtesy of Hans Weise.

Practical tools at their heart, Viking longships prove such a wonderful example of the very human need for beauty, as is explained and epitomized in A Fearsome Fleet: Not just any trees were selected by the Vikings to build the components of longboats – the keel, planking, ribs – but only very specific, beautiful trees which proved to create a sleek and beautiful look of the longships as well as certain utility – “perfectly” beautiful trees the eyes of their beholders, Norse shipbuilders. After building the frame of longships – their most utilitarian component – the shipbuilders would then decorate the longships, painting intricate patterns on them, patterns one might consider quite beautiful.

A frame from A Fearsome Fleet: Secrets of the Vikings, in which a shipbuilder paints a Viking longship. Source: Vimeo.

One might argue that the longships were decorated in such a “beautiful” way for a utilitarian reason – to ward off defenders against Nordic attacks. Yet the very mode through which such a means was achieved – frightening paintings – is itself a mode of storytelling, proving merely another testimony to the basic human instinct to tell stories. In the case of the Vikings this can be seen through the fearsome image which the Vikings themselves projected with their longboats – “stories” which they told those who might defy them about who they, the attackers, were – as well as their interpretation by the defenders, who interpreted such stories and told themselves the narrative which their attackers told – that they, the defenders, were on the losing side.

A young Harald, the hero of A Fearsome Fleet: Secrets of the Vikings as he appears in the film. Source: Vimeo.

Part of the reason A Fearsome Fleet is so thematically resonate with the themes of art and the basic human need for stories and art lies not only in its subject matter – the intricacy and beauty Norse shipbuilders injected into their creations – but also in the way in which the film itself is told – as a narrative. The opening shot is of a character who proves as the film’s narrator (or storyteller), and who is later revealed as the Nordic god Odin. Odin then proceeds to tell a story about the Nordic tradition of crafting the aforementioned longboats, though in doing so he give not only insight into the craft of shipbuilding but he also tells the story of a Nordic shipbuilder, Harald, whose fate is inseparably intertwined with his art and the stories which it tells others. In finish, the film ends with passing of the shipbuilder from life to Valhalla – a kind of paradise in Nordic mythology – where the shipbuilder enters Odin’s court, at which we hear Odin’s voice narrate, “Now I’ve invited Harald to my home, for I live in the Realm of Asgard. My name is Odin, Father of the Nordic gods. Now, I will hear Harald’s story from his own lips, here in the halls of Valhalla,” allowing for the film to come full-circle.

A grown Harald meets with Nordic god Odin in Valhalla in A Fearsome Fleet: Secrets of the Vikings. Source: Vimeo.

A truly extraordinary globetrotter and polymath, along with having directed four stop motion short films for National Geographic (two of which were nominated for Emmys), Hans Weise’s accomplishments include being the pioneer of National Geographic magazine’s first video production team across all of its digital video presence, having produced many documentaries such as the National Geographic television series NatGeo’s Most Amazing Photos. Moreover, he has been a producer, editor, and science reporter at Discovery Communications, the supervising producer of short form video at the Travel Channel. He’s also done an impressive amount of traveling the world to places all across North and South America, Antarctica, Africa, New Zealand, the Galápagos Islands, and Europe.

A scene from A Fearsome Fleet in the midst of being shot. Photo courtesy of Hans Weise. 

In our interview, Hans Weise discusses how he left high school at age 17 to pursue a career in photography, his work with Jane Goodall for Animal Planet, the expectations he faced as a multimedia manager for National Geographic, and the lasting impression that traveling to Antarctica left on him when he traveled to the continent as a part of a project to film the huts of explorers Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott. He also gives us an in-depth look at how he went about directing A Fearsome Fleet and his prior work in stop motion. You can read our interview below in full.

A.H. Uriah: Hello, Hans! Thank you so much for doing this interview! Just taking a look at your career, it’s become clear to me that you’ve done so much that it’s hard to know where to begin: You’ve worked as a producer of documentaries, the supervisor of National Geographic’s first multimedia production team, a photographer of sites and people all around the world, and as a cinematographer...not to mention that you’re also stop motion animator and the Emmy-nominated director of several animated short films for the likes of National Geographic and the Travel Channel. Looking back at your career now (as well as your academic career at the New York University, Poynter News University, and Harvard Extension school), is it clear to you that you intended to get to where you have now gotten or did you start out with different intentions and plans, only to have certain people, events, and areas of study influence your career path?

Hans Weise: I knew from a pretty young age that I wanted to be a photographer and filmmaker, but I had no idea how I would get there.

A scene from A Fearsome Fleet where Harald approaches the door to Valhalla. Source: Vimeo.

I started by taking photos for my high school yearbook in Michigan and then (at 17) I left school to work as a photographer for my local newspaper. Much to my relief, my parents (and the paper’s editor) supported my decision and helped me grasp the responsibility required to quit school and go to work. I earned $5 per photo and $15 for a front page which seemed like a lot of money at the time. But I also kept studying and took the GED before applying to college.

At NYU I wanted to get out on the streets with a camera and make films as fast as I could. But instead I was accepted into their Cinema Studies program, and this was by far the best thing that happened because it allowed me to see so many films that I may not have seen otherwise. It also taught me how to appreciate all aspects of a film, and to take the time to study work from a wide variety of filmmakers.

A grown Harald as he appears in A Fearsome Fleet. Source: Vimeo.

One of the things I’ve noticed recently (from hiring freelancers) is that many people shooting and editing these days haven’t seen much work older than, say, 20 years. I would highly recommend a history of cinema course to anyone who’s aspiring to shoot and direct. Not only are there great films to be rediscovered, but a lot of what we’re doing now with digital video was already tried with film generations ago.

Some of Fernando Baptista's characters from A Fearsome Fleet. Photo courtesy of Hans Weise.

A.H.: What is it about traveling the world and researching historic places, events, and people that made you passionate enough to dedicate your life to the endeavor? How did you – and are you continuing to – craft such a life for yourself?

HW: There is a perspective that comes from traveling that’s hard to get any other way (except perhaps by reading). People are more similar than they are different, and so many of our concerns are universal. But there is so much to see out there, and many stories to tell.

At some point, I got much more interested in documentary work. I was at Discovery at the time and had the opportunity to work with Jane Goodall on a project for Animal Planet. This rekindled my love of natural history and I realized that I wanted to use whatever talent I had to make a positive impact on the world through film.

Whenever I had a chance to travel for a project, I took it because I wanted to see as much of the world as I could. And the more I could learn about a place beforehand, the better my projects would be.

Adult Harald from A Fearsome Fleet. Photo courtesy of Hans Weise.

A.H.: At National Geographic, you had the unique task of establishing the magazine’s first multimedia production team (which included the task of supervising every aspect of its digital video presence and hiring and managing a staff of producers) in the dawn of the Digital Age. What experiences, skill-sets, and personality traits prepared you to manage such an important task? You being a student of history, what has your work at National Geographic – a magazine spotlighting the past, founded on a more classical approach to journalism and field research than much of modern digital journalism – taught you about the importance of history’s relevance in the Digital Age and of the future of journalism in a truly digital age?

HW: As a multimedia manager, the more you know about each of the roles working beneath you, the better. A lot of the jobs out there now are multihyphenates: producer-shooter, producer-shooter-editor, “preditor,” and so on. Having a broad skill set is a big help, particularly since the hardware and software we use is evolving so quickly. Also, having a deep curiosity for your subject matter is essential because often (particularly at a place like NatGeo) you are taking a very complicated subject and trying to distill it down into a three-minute film that may or may not accompany a 4,000-word essay and a set of world-class photographs.

A scene from A Fearsome Fleet demonstrating the construction of a Viking longship. Source: Vimeo.

Developing a good sense of story will help, too.

When I started, the great pleasure of working at the Geographic was in the time you could take to get the story right, and research your subject carefully before going out into the field on assignment.

But schedules are more compressed these days, so the time you have to research, shoot, and edit is far less than what it might have been even a few years ago.

The set for the forest scene in A Fearsome Fleet. Photo courtesy of Hans Weise.

A.H.: Can you tell us, in brief, about your directorial approach to A Fearsome Fleet: The Secrets of the Vikings, from original assignment to final product? Why was stop motion the right medium to tell this story, and how did you translate your research into an stop motion film and narrative?

HW: A Fearsome Fleet grew out of a cover story about Vikings for National Geographic magazine. One of the topics in the story was how the Vikings built their famous longships. These were a marvel of engineering but you wouldn’t necessarily know that just by looking at them so we wanted to show how they were built from start to finish. My colleague (artist and producer, Fernando Baptista) had created a pull-out poster for the magazine and had also created the art for the cover.

A live-action video would likely involve several trips to Scandinavia (and be prohibitively expensive) so we opted to create the film in-house. Animation seemed like a unique way to do it so we pulled together everything we learned from previous work to make this film so it wouldn’t simply be a how-to video. Instead, the film is told through the eyes of a boy who might very well have learned ship building from his father and gone to sea as a Viking raider as he grew older.

Hans Weise with the forest set from A Fearsome Fleet. Photo courtesy of Hans Weise.

We worked with the same researcher (Amanda Hobbs) who had worked on the print story. Producer Monica Serrano worked with us during production and also created beautiful atmospheric details using After Effects during post production. The clouds? The snow? That’s Monica.

A scene from A Fearsome Fleet. Source: Vimeo.

With each shot – particularly where I needed to show a close-up of Viking-era technology – we sent a photo or a film clip to an expert on Viking history to check for accuracy. So even though you see a little paper log being chopped for a keel, it’s an accurate log, and a properly-shaped keel. This is one of the most satisfying things about the film as a director – even if the average viewer doesn’t know we put so much care into it. Each of Fernando’s tools and costumes are also accurate to the period.

The film is a combination of stop-motion, puppetry, papercraft, a little bit of live action, and After Effects to add atmosphere and depth to the scenes.

Puppets and sets from A Fearsome Fleet. Photo courtesy of Hans Weise.

Technical: I used a Canon C100 and a Canon 5D Mark III with a 50mm lens, a 100mm macro, a 35mm, and (if memory serves) a 24-105 zoom for one or two shots.

The sound design was complicated as well, using recordings of birds that would likely be found in northern Europe (at that time).

The ocean was made from the light green produce bags you find at your local grocery store because they’re the perfect weight to mold into waves (and you can blow on them to get a little motion).

The ocean as it appears in A Fearsome Fleet. Source: Vimeo.

The dock set for A Fearsome Fleet before filming. Photo courtesy of Hans Weise.

A.H.: A Fearsome Fleet isn’t your first endeavor in the stop motion medium. In fact, you have directed 4 stop motion films over the course of your career, all of them for National Geographic. How did you see your skills and approach evolve on A Fearsome Fleet and differ from your previous stop motion projects?

HW: The first animated film I made for National Geographic was about the Easter Island stone heads – the “moai” – and how they were moved around the island centuries ago. Many theories had been put forward and we were doing a cover story for the magazine on the most recent theory that the heads were “walked” to their final resting places using ropes.

Hans Weise with an Easter Island moai head sculpted by Fernando Baptista. Photo courtesy of Hans Weise.

There was a beautiful pull-out poster in the magazine illustrating this process (again, by Fernando Baptista) but I wanted to find a way to show it in motion, so I took some Star Wars action figures and a Russian nesting doll (matryoshka) and filmed a sample on my dining room table during a holiday break. It seemed to work so I pitched it to the Creative Director who gave it the green light.

Paper characters from A Fearsome Fleet. Photo courtesy of Hans Weise.

I purchased a couple boxes of wrestling action figures at Toys R Us (because they wore the least amount of clothes and needed to look authentic), and Fernando was able to paint them to look like the figures he created for the magazine.

A stone mason from Trajan's Column. An action figure with a sculpted head and costume by Fernando Baptista. Photo courtesy of Hans Weise.

Robot Chicken was surprisingly helpful here because of their use of action figures. After many tests, 12 frames-per-second became the right frame rate to shoot in because our models weren’t fine enough to shoot 24 frames per second (the industry standard). I found that 12 fps was just right because it maintains a sense of artificiality (and also saves some time!).

After that, we used the same figures to shoot “Trajan’s Column” about an ancient Roman monument. Both of these – to our happy surprise – earned Emmy nominations for the magazine.

A set piece from Trajan's Column. Photo courtesy of Hans Weise.

A.H.: What challenges did you face on A Fearsome Fleet (whether relating to schedule, the technical feat of the medium itself, or budget) that were for you the most fretful? How did you overcome these challenges?

HW: The schedule was the primary concern. We had just over a month to pull it all together because the publication date was fixed. This meant several weekends and late nights of work.

In addition, even though the sets were very sturdy, they were light and flexible and could come apart very easily if bumped, so we had to be very careful not to knock things over.

Director's eye view of a paper character (Boudica) from Under London, one of Weise's stop motion short films for National Geographic. Photo courtesy of Hans Weise.

A.H.: Over the course of your career, your work has taken you to many parts of the world, including many places in Europe, India, Antarctica, South America, as well as the Galápagos Islands, and many other places (not to mention the various places in America that you’ve lived and have done studies in). Out of all the places you’ve traveled in the world, which place most unexpectedly resonated with you and stayed with you long after leaving?

HW: I had a chance to visit the huts of Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott in Antarctica that left a lasting impression. It’s the only continent on which humanity’s first evidence of habitation (the explorers’ huts) are still standing. They were recently restored to their original condition, to the point where Shackleton’s dirty socks are now hanging from a clothesline and Scott’s hut is full of period provisions in bottles, crates, and tin cans.

Hans Weise and Fernando Baptista preparing a set from Under London. Photo courtesy of Hans Weise.

I conducted an interview in Scott’s hut about the restoration. While I was there (and after we’d finished), my subject left while I put away my equipment. I stood up and realized that I was alone in the hut exactly as it would have appeared in 1912 if Scott and his team had returned from the South Pole. Tragically, they died on their return journey. But the sudden sense of isolation and wonder at the sheer remoteness and vastness of the continent swept over me like an ocean swell.

A character from Trajan's Column. An action figure with a sculpted head and costume by Fernando Baptista. Photo courtesy of Hans Weise.

A.H.: What are you working on now? Do you have any dream assignments that you have yet to embark upon?

HW: At the moment I’m working on a new animated film with my NatGeo colleagues – this time about the evolution of wolves. We’re in the early stages so nothing to show yet, but we’re hoping to try some new techniques with this one as well.

As for a dream project? I’d love to direct an animated feature film.

Hans Weise. Photo courtesy of Hans Weise.

You can explore more of Han Weise’s work – ranging from his work in stop motion, documentary filmmaking, photography, and multimedia journalism – and you can keep up to date with his eclectic travel all around the world by visiting his Website, Vimeo, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

You can watch A Fearsome Fleet: The Secrets of the Vikings by going here. You can also watch Han’s Emmy-nominated stop motion short films for National Geographic (Walking With Giant and Trajan’s Column) and his stop motion short film about the history of London from the Stone Age to present day which he also made for National Geographic by visiting the corresponding links for the following the films: Walking With Giants (a film made for the July, 2012 digital edition of National Geographic magazine to explore several of the most plausible theories about how hundreds of giant statues were transported on Easter Island several hundred years ago), Trajan’s Column (a film made for the April, 2015 edition of National Geographic magazine to demonstrate how one of Rome’s most extraordinary monuments was built), 40,000 Years of London’s History – Made Entirely of Paper. You can watch the behind the scenes video for 40,000 Years of London’s History – Made Entirely of Paper by going here, as well as the behind the scenes video for Trajan’s Column by going here.

You can read the March 2017 National Geographic multimedia article tie-in to A Fearsome Fleet: The Secrets of the Vikings about the process of constructing Viking longboats by going here. You can also view A Fearsome Fleet: The Secrets of the Vikings on National Geographic’s website by going here.

You can stay tuned for the upcoming interviews and articles by subscribing to Stop Motion Geek via the “subscribe” button at the top right corner of our homepage, or by following us on Facebook @StopMotionGeek, or by visiting https://www.facebook.com/StopMotionGeek/. You can also stay up-to-date with the blog by following us on Instagram or @stop.motion.geek.blog.

A scene from A Fearsome Fleet in which Harald reaches Valhalla. Source: Vimeo.

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