Brian Pilkington is a modern legend in Iceland. And, in a nation loaded with legends, that’s no small feat.
When he first drew the notorious Yule Lads, those mischievous and mysterious fellows who, just before Christmas (legend says), descend from the hills each winter to taunt the kind people of the city below, Brian put a face on a centuries-old story. He brought to life something Icelanders had only ever imagined but never actually visualized.
The English-born illustrator has become so beloved in Iceland that his books about trolls are ubiquitous, for sale in multiple languages at corner stores, gas stations, book shops and at airports.
Like elves and all 'hidden people' at the core of Icelandic traditions, trolls are omnipresent in Iceland. They're part of the culture. And so any good Icelandic story, like the one that’s coming to life at FlyOver Iceland, needs a good troll. We’re thrilled to have Brian onboard with a custom-designed troll named SúVitra, who will play a key part of the FlyOver experience.
And for Brian Pilkington, it's been a journey unlike any other.
Brian Pilkington first came to Iceland in 1976 as a young Englishman struggling to find his way. The work situation back in Liverpool was dire. There were few opportunities at home. So, Brian saved up enough for a three-week trip to the tiny island nation and had such a great time on the trip that he made the momentous decision to stay in Iceland. He quickly picked up work as an illustrator for a local advertising agency in Reykjavík.
Eventually, Brian settled in a quiet neighbourhood just outside the city core with his wife Kate, who plays in the Icelandic symphony, and their two children. His home studio is bright and colourful, its bookshelves crammed with titles on folklore, tables covered in ink. You can just see the North Atlantic from the top floor window where Brian works.
He admits that his approach is “old fashioned”—everything is done by hand. Tiny brushes on a mid-sized canvas. No screens.
Since 1983, Brian has published 20 books about trolls which have been translated into many languages. Often, he also writes stories to accompany the drawings, describing his characters personalities and adventures.
The thing about illustrating trolls, Brian says, is that the work is entirely imaginative – he’s literally creating images no one has ever seen before. There have been stories about trolls in Iceland for nearly ten centuries. But before Brian Pilkington, it was difficult to imagine what they looked like.
“It’s an open invitation to do what you want, basically,” he says, referring to the task at hand of illustrating trolls. “Because nobody really knows what a troll looks like. And nobody has really tried to illustrate one over 12 centuries of history."
Accuracy is fleeting. Brian says he doesn’t get too bogged down in research. And after all, no one has officially seen a troll in person, so it’s all a guessing game and a matter of interpretation. That’s where the fun is.
“If I had to research, it’d be like work,” he says with a wink.
His distinctive style makes Brian’s work instantly recognizable to Icelanders and immediately intriguing to visitors.
“They say my trolls are Icelandic trolls,” he says. “This is the way they look. They’ve become people’s visions of trolls.”
For FlyOver Iceland, Brian has created a troll named SúVitra. He created her over the course of a few days in 2018. She'll be featured in the pre-shows that happen before visitors board the flight-ride. She's part of the Well of Time, which showcases the factors that lead to the creation of Iceland as a geological entity.
Brian says SúVitra came to him quite quickly, as most of his characters do. His process is steeped in what he calls his “tunnel vision”.
“I keep adding pieces to a character and it completely draws me in,” he says.
SúVitra is a wise troll. Brian describes her as "very tall—like well over three metres". He says she has a “twinkle in her eye.”
"SuVitra is an exceedingly knowledgeable 800-year-old troll who has seen much of Icelandic human history," says FlyOver Iceland's creative director Rick Rothschild, who is a big fan of Brian's. "She is, as her name implies The Wise One… still slightly suspicious of human activity, but mindful of how Icelanders over time have struggled and succeeded to carve out special life amidst the challenges of nature."
Seeing her come to life in 3D animation is a thrill. Besides some key parameters that are required for the project (her height, the way she moves etc), Brian needed to make sure that SúVitra moves and behaves like he thinks a troll would. And that’s new to him - the necessity of adapting her movements to film. Seeing his troll come to life on the screen has been something completely different.
“Taking trolls into the film world has been a new adventure,” he says.
For the team at FlyOver Iceland, it was task well worth pursing. Long fans of Brian's work on Icelandic trolls, they were more than keen to bring him in to the project.
“For well over 35 years, Brian Pilkington has been creating a multitude of illustrated books about Icelandic Trolls,” says Rick Rothschild. “His illustrations and stories about them have over that time caused him to become recognized as the preeminent modern day expert on Trolls. Having Brian participate in our project, bringing his extraordinary expertise and talents to create unique Troll characters who will be featured in our attraction, is quite special.”
See Brian's work in bookstores across Iceland and come meet SúVitra yourself at FlyOver Iceland.