When “Genius: Picasso” director of photography Mathias Herndl got tapped to direct the last two episodes of the season, Ryan Purcell, one of his longtime second unit members, got a promotion too. “When this opportunity came up for the second part [of the season], they gave him a block to direct, so they said, ‘Ryan, you’re up to bat, finish off the show,’” Purcell said during Gold Derby’s Meet the Experts: Cinematography panel, moderated by this author (watch above).
Since he was following in the auspicious footsteps of Herndl, who won an ASC Award for “Genius: Einstein,” Purcell said his goal was never to add his own flair to the four episodes he DPed, but to maintain the look that Herndl had already established “like any good alternating DP should.” “You’re essentially going to screw up the series if you’re gonna start changing it halfway through, so keep it going, keep it running. Why deviate when it’s working great?” he said. “It looked awesome.”
Herndl had crafted visual cues for the two Picasso timelines in the show: handheld shots with lots of dynamism and movement for young Picasso (Alex Rich) and still, static shots for older Picasso (Antonio Banderas), framed like paintings. The latter was particularly “tricky,” Purcell shared.
“It’s just trying to find the right lens. Sometimes you almost wanna work backwards developing the shot, basically shooting from far to close,” he said. “It’s tricky and it can sometimes be limiting to the actors. We tried not to make it limiting.”
By the ninth episode, the young timeline is catching up to the older one, and Banderas plays the iconic artist in both. Purcell, who has also worked on “Once Upon a Time” and “Stargate: Atlantis,” turned mainly back to handheld, dollys and Steadicams, which offered more flexibility for everyone. “If someone does a lean, like a natural move or whatever, you just go with it,” he said, versus the still shots, where the camera would not follow the actors out of frame.
Being able to trail actors is only possible if a set is well lit — one of the most important lessons Purcell said he’s learned from Herndl. “The thing I like about him the most is [he tries] to light from the outside so that the actors and camera operators just have freedom,” he said. “If they want to start walking over to that corner, well, then you can take them over to that corner and you’re not gonna get slapped because it looks great in the corner.”
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