Kevin McKnight (‘Genius: Aretha’ cinematographer): ‘We pushed the envelope all the time’ [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]

“There was some poetry in there that really excited me about how to do that, visually” explains cinematographer Kevin McKnight while describing his first script reading of National Geographic’s “Genius: Aretha.” “Anthony Hemingway (the director) sent me the script and said, ‘let’s talk,’ and we were excited right from that point.” Watch the exclusive video interview above.

The limited series stars Emmy winner Cynthia Erivo as Aretha Franklin and chronicles the Queen of Soul’s rise to fame from singing in her father’s church to becoming one of the world’s most revered entertainers. McKnight credits his longstanding relationship with Hemingway for making this series such a joy to film. “The past five years I’ve done four series with him,” he expounds. “At this point we are so in sync. I could only wish everybody has that kind of collaboration.”

Throughout the series, flashbacks to Franklin’s childhood are shown in black and white. McKnight explains his reasoning for depicting her past in such a way and the challenge he faced to not alienate viewers. “Her solo performance in 1953 was ‘the birth of Aretha,'” he says to illustrate which year they begin filming in color. “Those were the terms we used. It was Dorothy opening the door to Oz. In choosing black and white a lot of flags pop up. People start questioning it. Is this always going to be in black and white? Always in those questions are, can we get back to color? Black and white has a very subjective point of view for anyone viewing. For my kids who are 27 and 25, it’s kind of a turn off. Photographically, I had to protect color too.”

“We pushed the envelope all the time,” McKnight describes while discussing how he chose so many close-up shots of the actors, particularly Erivo. “We didn’t want the audience to be third-person perspective and back away from everybody. We wanted the audience to feel a part of the whirlwind of the 60s, the 70s. A part of Aretha’s world. That comes from having a close proximity of camera to talent. Cynthia’s eyes are very expressive, but that camera would be up to two-and-a-half feet away from her. She tuned it out. That gave us some of those moments where it’s just her eyes. We played with speeds on those too. Maybe the eyes lift up just a little bit slower than normal. Cynthia is able to forget that the camera is right there and because of that we kept on pushing it.”

McKnight goes on to describe his cinematography techniques including various nostalgia looks, playing with different highlights and tones, sun contamination, shooting a cast with such diverse skin tones and portraying the “very bold” 1970s. His previous works include HBO’s “The Outsider,” Showtime’s “Shameless” and Fox’s “24.”

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