Lensing "Genius": ASC Award Winner Mathias Herndl
Mathias Herndl, AAC
DP discusses approach to Einstein and Picasso in seasons 1 and 2, respectively, of National Geographic series
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From Albert Einstein in season one to Pablo Picasso in season two, the bar has been set high for the National Geographic series Genius. Season one earned 10 Emmy nominations last year, including for Best Limited Series. Among the assorted other honors bestowed upon the show was the first career ASC Award win for Mathias Herndl, AAC on the strength of his lensing the very first Einstein episode which was directed by Ron Howard.

This episode marked the very first collaboration between Herndl and two-time Oscar winner Ron Howard (Best Director and Best Picture for A Beautiful Mind in 2002), who is also an EP of the Genius anthology series. Howard picked up an Emmy nod for Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series on the basis of this “Einstein: Chapter One.”

Genius showrunner Kenneth Biller, who previously worked with Herndl on the series Legends, is credited with bringing the DP together with Howard, having a feeling that the two would hit it off. 

“What was supposed to be a phone interview with Ron turned into a creative conversation,” recalled Herndl. “We really got along.”

So much so that Herndl wound up shooting not only the Howard-helmed episode but also the other Genius installments, including those directed by Biller.

Among the episodes directed by Biller were the finale of the Einstein season, and the kickoff to Picasso. Meanwhile Herndl spread his artistic wings, not only shooting season two but directing a pair of its episodes, including the Picasso finale. Just as with the Einstein season, this Picasso turn is clearly in the Emmy conversation.

Inherently challenging
Herndl observed that season two of Genius was inherently daunting for a DP. “You’re shooting a series about the greatest artist of the 20th century, Picasso, for National Geographic, which is famous for its images.” Helping to meet that challenge was the original approach of Howard to Einstein’s story--an approach that was adapted for Picasso. 

Herndl explained, “We had an aggressive and kinetic camera for Einstein in his youthful years (portrayed by Johnny Flynn), slowing things down with a heavier camera when he was older (played by Geoffrey Rush in an Emmy-nominated performance). We also had a hand-held kinetic energy for Picasso in his youth (played by Alex Rich). But in his later years (with Antonio Banderas as Picasso), the camera was completely static. Keeping the camera absolutely still set up a picture frame effect with characters moving in and out of a static frame. It was almost like the frame was within the framework of a Picasso painting. His life became a painting in our visual interpretation.”

For Genius: Picasso, Herndl deployed a mix of 35mm film (color as well as select black-and-white usage) and digital lensing, the latter with the ARRI Alexa.

“It’s been a privilege to be part of this project, which has been a learning experience these two seasons,” said Herndl who cited as an example his realization of “how little I knew about Einstein as a person, his personality” prior to embarking on Genius. “And to then see this result in an ASC Award, to be recognized by your peers at that level, is a great honor, extremely gratifying.”

Genius: Einstein and Genius: Picasso were produced by Imagine Entertainment in tandem with Fox 21 Television Studios and Nat Geo. Howard and his Imagine compatriot Brian Grazer are both EPs on the series. Season 3’s Genius will be Mary Shelley, the iconic author best known for her Gothic novel, “Frankenstein.”

This is the second installment in a 15-part series that explores the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, cinematography, producing, editing, music, production design and visual effects. The series will then be followed up by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmys ceremonies on September 8 and 9, and the primetime Emmy Awards live telecast on September 17.

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