American Genius

An 8 hour event mini-series for Nat Geo on the competition between great innovators in American history.

I directed the following four stories.

The Wright brothers v.  Glenn Curtis in the race for powered flight. Hearst v. Pulitzer in the struggle to command the gilded age newspaper industry. David Sarnoff v. Philo Farnsworth in the battle to put TVs in American homes. And Robert Oppenheimer v. Werner Heisenberg and the race to create the atomic bomb.

Iconic figures fighting to control defining technologies and industries.

The creative challenge on the show was also a production challenge. We had to produce enough dramatic content to populate 8 hours of television on an incredibly tight schedule.  AND to produce content of the highest quality.  The thing that made it so difficult was that each of the four stories was a different era, meaning unique costumes, production design and hair/make up.

Unlike American Playboy or Roman Empire in which every episode shared art and wardrobe, we had to carefully budget and prioritize creative needs to make sure we didn’t run out of money. It was on this show that I realized that the relationship between budget and creative can be positive thing.

It is simplistic to think that more money makes a better show or film.  There are countless blockbusters that have had tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars at their disposal. And so many are forgettable.

In some instances, less money can force a director to more inventive.  The financial constraints on American Genius forced me to rethink my approaches to coverage, lighting and performance.  My background as a DP allowed to design camera coverage closely linked to lighting, ensuring that I did not have to relight during a scene while still maintaining a beautiful look. I also gained an appreciation of how a camera crane can improve and speed coverage and production quality.

I learned a similar lesson with performance.  On a show with a budget like American Genius, there is little or no time for rehearsal with the actors.  I needed a way to communicate quickly and concisely with actors. Out of necessity I went back to study with an instructor of mine at Colombia, Lenore Dekoven, a veteran director of TV soaps.  I used her concise and visceral director’s language to help focus performance on a tight schedule.

In the end, I was very pleased with the show, particularly with our financial and time constraints.  And it equipped me with valuable lessons on how to create a high production value feel on a limited budget.

FULL EPISODE – OPPENHEIMER V. HEISENBER

FULL EPISODE – FARNSWORTH V. SARNOFF