Mathias Herndl, cinematographer of Genius, details what it was like to visually document the inner thoughts of one of history’s greatest thinkers.
As the director of photography on National Geographic’s Genius, Mathias Herndl was tasked with visually guiding audiences inside the head of one of history’s greatest thinkers, Albert Einstein. In our interview, Mathias discusses with Awards Daily TV his immense interest in the life of Albert Einstein both as an incredible scientist as well as a complicated and troubled person.
What initially inspired you to sign on as the director of photography for Genius?
For Genius the subject matter was a big one for me because I’ve always been quite fascinated with Einstein. It was a combination of the people that were involved and the subject matter was something I would have jumped at any time. It was a good combination in that sense. Ken Biller in my opinion is a genius. He’s a fantastic writer and a great showrunner. I’ve worked with him before and had nothing but great experiences and once with Ken I knew the scripts were going to be complex and I knew he was going to be nonlinear about his timeline. Ken has a very unique and intriguing way of writing, so I knew the subject matter was going to be done justice. To be able to witness him in a collaboration with Ron [Howard] was very enticing and on top of that you don’t get to do anthologies like that very much so that with the subject matter really drew me in.
As a cinematographer, your resume consists of an eclectic array of genre shows from the sci-fi dystopian Wayward Pines to the detectice crime series Motive? What was it like switching over to a historical biopic and did you approach Genius differently than you would have compared to your other work?
In essence it is finding what cinematic style does the story the most justice and I then look at what is pulling at the emotions of the characters in the story. For example Genius is similar to Wayward Pines because in both shows the characters were under immense pressure from the environments they were in. With Wayward Pines, it had to do with this post-apocalyptic future situation, and in Genius, Einstein was under an enormous amount of pressure starting as a young kid and onward.
Einstein was too smart for his own good, and being an analytical person forced him to put everything into question and not settle for anything and reject any sort of conformity. He had a womanizing problem. He grew up as an entrepreneur that didn’t get anywhere. He wasn’t a great person in a lot of ways as he had a hard time relating to other humans. He loved nature and the universe around him, but he had a hard time relating to people. Quite frankly he was not good company. A great number of people who were connected to Einstein ended up in mental hospitals. He was not treating his wife and girlfriends very well and would not treat people decently.
Einstein was never a nationalist and actually surrendered his German citizenship to be stateless because he thought nationalism was not for him. He was not a practicing Jew and couldn’t care less what religion he was. Towards the prime of his life under the political situation, he was under enormous pressure being seen as a Jewish person instead of as simply a brilliant mind. He was constantly under pressure, so that was something that was very important to Ron and Ken. A lot of the visual approach in the way we shot and lit it was to keep the element of pressure on our main character at all times. Overall in every story, I try to find what the inherent mood is supposed to be and try to support that with every choice in terms of lensing, lighting, and the movement of the camera.
You mentioned that you were drawn to Genius because you knew Einstein’s story would be told through a nonlinear timeline? What were some of the different visual choices made on your end to convey the different periods of Einstein’s life?
A nonlinear timeline always offers the opportunity for a cinematographer to play with different cinematic language for different time periods. We decided to make a clear distinction between our present day storyline following Einstein’s life as an old man and the flash-forwards and flashbacks out of the immediate timeline. We established that in the pilot when we meet Einstein as a young man who is as much of an artist as he is a scientist. He’s bohemian and rebellious. He is a womanizer and even reckless to a certain extent. We supported that with a kinetically moving camera, a lot of handheld use. We shot it on a lens package that I like to call perfectly imperfect, they are very flare-y and soft around the edges with a very shallow depth of field. They have beautiful looking flaws to them.
Compared to later in life with Einstein as a mature man who has become what he has always fought to never become – a conformed mainstream scientist that has become a personality who had to cut it down to a certain degree. He was faced with the rise of Nazi Germany as a Jewish person. For that time period we settled the camera language down a lot. The camera became very still, and our movements became very thought out and motivated. The camera was moving slowly and heavily, and the lenses we shot were extremely perfect with sharp and straight edges. Their flare structure was inherently different with much clearer contrast. The overall lens performance was much more classic as was our composition and shooting style. These sorts of things give you the opportunity to use different cinematic tools to give a very different feel to each of the time periods.
How did you approach visually bringing the inner thoughts of a scientist like Einstein to the screen for audiences? Did you find these moments difficult to convey?
There are some specific technical choices that would bore you to tears. We needed to get into his mind and establish the pressure he was under and the brilliance of him coming up with these ideas. So, one frequent tool we used was to physically get very close with the camera at a very shallow depth of field with medium to wider range lenses. It gives you a very intimate and connected emotional sensation when you watch the series.
On top of that, one thing that was very interesting to us was that we were supposed to convey things like relativity and some of his other theories and his ideas that are complex to understand. While they are simple observations, they are not easy to bring across to an audience especially in a short scene where Einstein is having these complex thoughts. We had to get very creative in how we visually treated these things without being preachy because no one wants to watch entertainment and be forced to feel educated.
We had the task to make them accessible to people without making anyone feel stupid because they don’t understand. A big task was to give the audience insight to some of the basic ideas he had which was very challenging and done with methodically thought out ways of visually presenting these ideas.
You stayed on as the cinematographer throughout the entire first season working with multiple directors including Ron Howard, Minkie Spiro, Kevin Hooks, and James Hawes. What was it like working with so many directors and connecting their different leadership styles to create a cohesive vision?
I actually feel very comfortable in that position. While shooting every episode yourself is an exhausting task, I do admit I like having the whole piece to myself and being able to make it my own. Ron and I prepped for seven weeks together, and he was extremely collaborative which I appreciated because I do have ideas and impulses. I come into my projects with a clear idea of how I want to approach it. Ron was very gracious and allowed me to bring these elements to the story. I was allowed to put my stamp on the show and shoot it how I thought it would work best which made the process very organic. We created a visual recipe that was unique to the show and working with Ron on the pilot and setting up a consistent a look that invited the rest of the directors to use the tools we set up for the rest of the season.
Where can we see your work next?
I’m currently directing some episodes of a television series up here in Vancouver. Beyond that, I’m looking forward to getting a chance to return to Genius, and I’m trying to keep myself available for it. The show ticks all the right boxes. I get to work with the most brilliant people I know in the business. I get to travel. I get to shoot historically relevant subject matter I am interested in. Genius is the first scripted venture for National Geographic, so one thing I appreciate so much is that I was honored to be the first DP for them. They had so much respect for the medium and gave me full creative decisions and resources which is rare. I’ve been lucky to work with supportive and collaborative people, but Genius is beyond that with a good crowd. I love the subject matter. It’s a no-brainer, and I am hoping I can return.
Who do you hope the second season of Genius documents?
Amongst the crew we have had conversations about possibilities, but one thing to keep in mind is that many brilliant people have led extremely boring lives. The thing about Einstein was that he was a household name, and the life that he led was basically a novel written for you with an extremely interesting character that lent to an amazing show. I would need to shoot someone that led a life as interesting as Einstein.
The first season of Genius currently airs on National Geographic every Tuesday at 9PM EST/PST.