The Genius Behind-The-Scenes Of National Geographic's Genius - Interview with Director of Photography Mathias Herndl

National Geographic's surprise hit series "Genius", has taken the entertainment industry by storm and we have been lucky enough to talk with the man who brought the Emmy-contending series to life, Director of Photography Mathias Herndl.

Jordan: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us today Mathias. Let's jump right in. First, how did you get into cinematography? What is your background in filming?

Mathias: I was cast in a children's tv series when I was five years old and found my dad's Bolex in the basement. When I was eight, I started to shoot stop motion shorts. That was it for me, I was hooked right away. A friend of my mom secured me a job at Bavaria Film Studios when I was sixteen and I've been working ever since. I've always been a very visual person, so I immediately knew that I wanted to be a cameraman.

Jordan: Who were early filmmakers and cinematographers that you looked up to and who inspired you to get into the business?

Mathias: When I was a little kid, my dad showed me films like Quo Vadis, Ben Hur, 2001, and, of course, Star Wars. That's how I discovered my love for visual story telling. Today, I truly admire Roger Deakins. I think he is phenomenal and I learn something every time I watch his work.

Jordan: What do you believe is the most important factor that affects your filming? Lighting? Location?

Mathias: The most important factor is the story. Every technical decision I make is due to the script and its dramatic beats.

Jordan: What about “Genius” challenged you in your filming? How did it differ from your previous works and your time behind the camera previously?

Mathias: There were two interesting challenges when shooting Genius. One was having to visually convey some quite advanced thought experiments while being clear, yet concise about them. The other was doing justice to the time periods of this piece, while not making the show feel "dusty", but current and exciting.

Jordan: Was it difficult to attempt to depict Einstein as a relatable character despite his unimaginable intelligence?

Mathias: Einstein was incredibly intelligent when it came to nature, physics and science. Though his emotional intelligence was lacking. When it came to interpersonal relationships he trampled through his life like a bull in a china shop. He is a flawed character who had many personal challenges. He was constantly under pressure due to factors like his complicated relationship with his father, or his inability conforming to society, or being a Jewish celebrity in Germany during the rise of the Nazis. With all these challenges I find him very relatable.

Jordan: What is the relationship between cinematographer and director? How do the director’s ideas affect your filming?

Mathias: In TV series, the director/DP relationship is different than in feature films. One part of being the DP on a series is to help establish a look and visual recipe for the show with the Producing Director, in this case Ron. Then the DP must protect that recipe and apply it throughout the season, so the show ends up being one cohesive piece. The collaboration with individual directors therefor requires a dialogue which determines how the directors ideas can be expressed, while using the visual storytelling tools that have been initially established for the show.

Jordan: How did you and Ron Howard work together?

Mathias: It was one of the favorite working relationships of my career. It felt so easy. Ron is an extremely eloquent communicator, infectiously passionate, and an incredibly well versed craftsman. I have never before had the pleasure to work with someone who understands every facet of the business so well. I learned something every day. Ron is very precise, and due to his extensive experience and talent, outstandingly efficient and fast. What made the experience extra special, was that Ron is collaborative and inclusive and doesn't micromanage. Once Ron felt that I understood what he was looking for, he fully empowered me to do my work. He gave me room to be creative and to interpret his vision in the way I thought would be most effective. Ron has a keen sense how to get the best out of people, identifies a persons strengths, and sets you up to succeed. It doesn't get any better. I had a total blast.

Jordan: Can you tell us about a shot or particular piece you worked on that you are especially proud of, and what went into the filming to make it stand out for you?

Mathias: I'm proud of how we shot the scene when Lenard meets Adolf Hitler. It was necessary to have the moment of meeting Hitler in the show, but I love the way Ken Biller decided to do it. Ken (our Show runner, writer and the director for Ep. 8,9 and 10, who I think is an actual genius) did it so tastefully. He decided not to give Hitler a voice, or even a face. Meeting Hitler, we used heavy HMI lighting through the windows, a lot of atmospheric smoke and a very wide lens. We fully silhouetted him, and he didn't get to speak, but the audience knew who he was, because of Lenard's line.

Jordan: How are recent technological advancements changing the way you film?

Mathias: The new technologies available today allow me to use a look, I've always been quite drawn to. I can shoot wide open aperture and can still expect to get the material in focus. Modern technology allows focus pullers to see what they are doing immediately, versus relying on marks which are not sufficient in certain situations. (i.e. Handheld shots with the subject close to minimum focus) I always loved shooting shallow depth of field, but it used to be risky and slow. Now it is possible to do. Technology made the process faster in general, which is a very positive factor in being able to keep up with the demands of the modern TV schedule.

Jordan: You have some experience directing and producing. How did these roles influence and help your time behind the camera?

Mathias: Directing has helped me to become a better DP. The more a cinematographer thinks about the script, the story, the character arcs, the emotional impact and the beats of each scene, as well as their place in the episode or series, the more story driven his or her choices will be. Story driven choices serve best when shooting drama.

Jordan: I see that you have an Austrian background. Since Einstein is German, do you think you connect to him better than another cinematographer from a different background?

Mathias: Not necessarily. Yes, I was always fascinated by Einstein, but I only learned by doing this show how little I knew about him. Though as you mentioned I am an Austrian, with Austrian parents and grandparents, who have been through both world wars. Also I was born and raised in Munich, Germany. Growing up where I did, the horrific events during the first and second World War define ones upbringing and personal identity, even though I was not physically present. Shooting a story that takes place during that time period was emotional for me. I couldn't say that I connected better to Einstein than a cinematographer from a different background would have, but shooting this show and subject matter felt certainly meaningful.

Written by rand01 on Jul 4, 2017


Kaitlin posted 10 months ago

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” ― Albert Einstein

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