After visualizing Einstein’s theory of relativity in the first season of National Geographic’s “Genius,” cinematographer Mathias Herndl needed to come up with a similar device for “Picasso.” Of course, it helped having a tour de force performance by Antonio Banderas. But conveying the Spanish painter’s Cubist genius throughout the 20th century took some clever thinking.
The process began with inspiration from a famous 1956 photo of Pablo Picasso by Arnold Newman, surrounded by his art in his La Californie studio, near Cannes. It was colorful as well as cinematic. “He’s wearing this dark red top and a lot of his paintings in the background have deep blues, so we went for red, gold, and blue. I was very intent to make it Mediterranean,” said the Emmy-nominated Herndl (who earned an ASC award for “Einstein”).
As with “Einstein,” Herndl once again came up with different shooting styles using the Alexa when jumping back and forth in time. “But when we did the kinetic hand-held moving camera [during Picasso youth], we used custom-build Vantage T1 lenses that were uncoated,” he said. “The texture is unparalleled and delivers a creaminess and softness all over the image. And it gives great highlights. That helped reveal what inspired Picasso: the visuals around him in Mediterranean light.”
However, the cinematographer (who directed the final two episodes) let the camera stay completely still whenever Banderas was on screen as the adult and senior Picasso. It never pans or tilts, even in close-ups or when people are slightly out of frame. “It was to highlight him painting,” Herndl said. “Anything outside of that frame you had to capture another time when he’s painting. It added a lot of tension and I think it worked lovely. His art was not meant to be decorative: He was interested in showing his perspective on a subject.
“What we were intent on conveying was whenever Picasso looked at one of his paintings, it was not a still image, the entire thing was moving,” added Herndl. “He saw things in motion; that’s why you see three different perspectives of the same subject.”
National Geographic/Dusan Martincek
But it was by accident that Herndl discovered the best way of visualizing Picasso’s groundbreaking Cubist aesthetic. It occurred during the shooting of Picasso painting the famous “Le Moulin de la Galette.” In the first sequence, he drinks with his friends at an outdoor dance hall in Paris. Then, a few days later, he remembers the event and paints it.
“We created a very cool montage where we were allowed to participate and see inside Picasso’s mind,” Herndl said. “We go from the actual event to the actual painting. We were shooting all our elements; the sets and costumes were recreated immaculately for the painting, with three women sitting around the table in the foreground, and, in the background, people dancing and three men smoking and the band in a gazebo. So the last shot of the day was matching the painting to the camera and recreate his painting, but it wasn’t lining up correctly.
National Geographic/Dusan Martincek
“Then, on the way outside, I realized that the reason it wasn’t working was because Picasso used two different perspectives in the same painting: The vanishing line of the background falls straight back but the vanishing line of the three women is way off the painting. So by using two completely different perspectives in the same painting, Picasso was experimenting with pre-Cubism, which was the vanishing of the vanishing line. I never would’ve noticed it if we didn’t have to recreate the painting.”
So what was the solution? The cinematographer turned the table very high forward, glued down the glasses, and placed the actors on apple boxes. That provided a steep perspective in the front to go with the straight perspective in the back. “The show…is about a person’s relationship with their own psyche and the struggle with the world around them, which is undefinable,” said Herndl. “Our show explores these people that are bigger than life and the nature of genius for them as a gift and a curse.”