National Geographic has put a lot of marketing ammo behind its first scripted anthology series, "Genius," about the life of Albert Einstein. There was a Super Bowl ad, an interactive chalkboard and a chatbot. And now, a short film festival.
Along with Pereira & O'Dell, Nat Geo has debuted 10 Days of Genius, ten short films -- what the agency dubs a "supplemental content series" -- inspired by "Genius" and running on the broadcaster's YouTube channel.
For the first two films, the agency tapped Sam Spiegel to both direct and create the music. Spiegel, who's repped out of Hey Wonderful for directing, is best known as the founder/musician of Squeak E. Clean, a top industry music company known for creating tunes for brands including Facebook, Nike, Kenzo and Gatorade. The Nat Geo films are his first brand directing gig.
The project dovetailed with Spiegel's sensibility, "as I'm a huge space geek as well as Einstein fan," he said. "I had written a short film about Albert Einstein a few months ago, plus, the combination of music, space, science and Einstein … all things I love!"
The kick-off film, "The Instrument," tells the story of a curious man who by day, runs a music repair and sales shop but by night, dives into making his own creations. A quote from Einstein hangs on his wall: "I live my daydreams in music."
After the man closes up shop, he throws himself into his latest project, Frankensteining together the body of a violin, a few piano keys and various other knobs, buttons and doo-dads. With one strum, the instrument he makes levitates and after more plucks, pushes and turns, it commands the various things around it, including the creator himself, into flight. All throughout, a quirky, kooky, metaphysical track plays.
"The way we created the instrument was really an interesting thought exercise," said Spiegel. "We actually created the music first, and then built the instrument to look how the music sounded. I've never done anything like that before. Each section of the instrument itself was based off of modular synthesis sections, and we tried to keep the logic of the instrument as true to life as possible, even if it was based on a technology that doesn't exist."
For the music itself, Spiegel collaborated with Rob Barbato, Squeak E. Clean's creative director and composer. They created the music "as a blueprint for designing the instrument," he said. The beginning of the film actually features a repurposed cue that he had written with a friend, Andres Velasquez for "Her," the Spike Jonze film. "The cue didn't end up in the final film, so I used it in my film." (Jonze and Spiegel, by the way, happen to be brothers.)
Spiegel also tapped production designer Elliott Hostetter to create the sets and the instrument, which he pulled off "with limited time and resources," he said. "I have a great photo of Elliott, after working all night with very little sleep for several days, asleep in the van, cradling the instrument that he had built like a newborn child, on the way to set."
As for the spot's hero, an actor named Fernando, "the instant he walked into the casting, I knew he was our guy," Spiegel said. "He just oozed magic.The majority of people I know who create or repair instruments tend to be pretty unique individuals. Fernando embodies that kind of interesting weirdo personality, but I could also see in him the passion of an artist, and that was needed for our instrument-maker."
Spiegel's second film explores Einstein's inquiry, "What if you could ride a beam of light across the universe" in a supernatural tale about a woma who receives an enchanted mirror.
For the remaining shorts, Nat Geo and Pereira & O'Dell partnered with Tongal to find new filmmakers to direct. Those will roll out on YouTube over the next eight days.
"Genius" is currently airing on the Nat Geo channel every Tuesday at 9 PM EST.