Watching any given series, it can be easy to gloss over details that were scrutinized in the production process or misjudge those that presented the greatest challenges for the production designer.
With National Geographic’s Genius—a bear of a project, spanning a century, multiple Einsteins and several countries—one of the greater challenges ended up pertaining to Einstein’s blackboards, recreated by production designer Jonathan Lee, which were accurate, down to their period, location and scientific detail.
And not only that—a calligrapher was brought in to study records of Einstein’s handwriting, helping Lee to translate that to the screen.
Speaking with Deadline, the production designer discusses scouting locations for the series—which was shot entirely in Prague—and the level of detail that went into representing Einstein’s work, inside and outside of the classroom.
What were the elements that drew you to Genius?
The first thing was, Einstein was this amazing character. Like most people, I knew all the obvious landmark things about him, but very quickly, I found out there was so much more to him. The whole story of his personal life was quite extraordinary, so that was amazing to discover. I didn’t know much about his politics, which was another complicated side of his life.
But also, I was just fascinated about how on Earth he came up with the ideas that he came up with. Where did that all come from? All in all, it was a massively attractive story. Then obviously, that Ron Howard was going to direct the pilot was quite wonderful. The first scripts, when I got them, were absolutely wonderful—they were very well written and well researched, but they had a contemporary appeal. So all in all, it was a pretty cool show.
What were the design opportunities and challenges you saw for yourself, going into the project?
The biggest challenge was that we were going to cover a very big period of time. We were going to go from the 1840s through to the mid-20th century, and I knew that they wanted to shoot all of it in Prague.
This set out a pretty big challenge—not only was it a big period of time, but Einstein traveled a lot. He lived in many places, between different parts of Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and ultimately America. All these different places had to be achieved in Prague, either using locations or studio sets.
How did you go about finding real locations that would work for the series, given the constraints you mentioned?
It was an ongoing process, for many months. In the first couple of months, we had the first two or three scripts so we could get cracking on them. To begin with, I started scouting with Bill Connor, Ron’s 1st AD. I started actually with the location manager, going through library photographs and also new location photographs that he’d find, and then we’d fine-tune that list down to places that we went to visit.
Then, I made up a short list and took Ron to those places. As we went around them, some of them worked, some of them didn’t. Ron was very specific about what he wanted, so it was a very good creative process to narrow down the choices for the locations.
Can you expand on the photographic research you put in prior to scouting?
We were constantly researching. It never stopped all the way through the show. There’s quite a lot of information on Einstein, so we were able to find all the places that he lived, and where he worked. We had a good foundation of what we wanted.
We weren’t making a documentary, so we weren’t being slavish to that. Very often, if we’d find somewhere that was a really fantastic location, we would just use that. Ron was particularly keen for a big cinematic look to the show.
We always started with historical accuracy, and very often, things that we did, did have a historical accuracy to them, but that wasn’t the point of the exercise, at the end of the day.
To my understanding, a major part of the endeavor for you was recreating Einstein’s blackboards. Can you talk a bit about that?
I spoke with Ron early on about the scientific detail in the show, and he said, “This is a National Geographic show, so this stuff has to be right.” The scripts had already been well researched, so were off to a good start, but I realized that blackboards featured heavily throughout the show, in all the lecture theaters, classrooms, laboratories.
I created a little system where we researched very thoroughly the exact period of each scene. We found out what was being taught in that particular university at that time, what Einstein was teaching, and we were even able to find the lecture notes. This has all been recorded, amazingly. Then, we were actually able to even find photographs of Einstein with his blackboards, so we were able to see his handwriting style.
We had a very organized system, scene by scene. We would go to Ron and all the directors and say, “We think that the blackboards should be showing this formula or that formula,” and we would give them a sample of it.
Then, we would ask them, were there any areas where they wanted Einstein actually to write on the blackboard? In which case, we prepared a specific area of the blackboard with a dark line, which the actor could follow with chalk, and the visual effects guys rubbed out the black line.
I had a team of about three people: Two researchers and a calligrapher, who was an expert on all the different handwritings. Even with the subsidiary characters, such as Lenard, we found out what he would’ve been teaching when we saw him in his lecture theater.
Even if it wasn’t scripted, we were able to identify the general time, and what it was he was researching, and what he would’ve been teaching the students, and we’d put something relevant to that on the blackboard.
There was a big research and physical production side of it. Then on set, we had to make sure that we didn’t hold anything up, so we sometimes had blackboards that changed out. They didn’t necessarily reset the blackboard, they just brought in another one that was all set to go.
So, yes, it was a mini department on its own.
What was your approach in designing personal spaces for your Einsteins, from their offices to their homes?
It was a very crucial part of the show—his personal life was very complex. When he was young in Germany, his home life was not inspirational by any means. His father was somewhat tyrannical, and it wasn’t a particularly creative home. I deliberately dialed down the color and texture of those sets.
When he goes to Switzerland and goes to live with a family called the Wintelers, who are these very bohemian, intelligent, humanists, this was like a great dawn of Einstein’s personal life where, for the first time, he was in a home that was an inspiration to him. I wanted to make sure that those sets felt much warmer and there was much more texture, much more light.
We made all the Swiss scenes quite colorful, and then contrast that with the scenes in Germany, where he was involved in his early family life, or in the institutions.
How did you recreate visual demonstrations of Einstein’s science?
That was also another mini department on its own. We knew what the various experiments were, so we began to research what equipment they needed. The universities in Prague were incredibly helpful, with various professors and people who came and spoke to us and showed us photographs and drawings of what the various experiments would be.
We had a wonderful prop department who recreated these experiments very, very accurately. That was, again, something that had to be absolutely correct, so we spent a lot of time making or adapting things, and always going back to the advisors from the University for their approval.
Given the time period, Genius involves a lot of practical lighting. What was your collaboration like with DP Mathias Herndl and the other departments?
There were two key areas where I was working very closely with him, from a design perspective. One was the practical lighting inside the homes. In the 19th century scenes, prior to electricity, the lighting was all either gas lighting or oil lamps. They give out very little physical light on the set, but they were very crucial to the look of the show.
The DP was very particular about using them. They were all adapted for electricity, so actually, each of those lamps was rigged with electric [controls], which could be dimmed; color temperature could be adjusted. As we went along, we got better and better at doing that work.
The other big thing is that the lighting style for the show generally was natural light. Therefore, the choice of locations was really important, that we could light through every window. That gave the key light into the set.
Also, the windows would be fitted with lace curtains, particularly for the earlier sets. As we went forward in time, lace curtains were replaced with finer curtains, and ultimately with artificial materials like polyester, so we tracked the period nature of all of that, and that affected how the set was lit.
Also, we knew that the series was going to be graded in a particular way that would give it a more desaturated look, and therefore, all my color choices on the set had to be made bearing that in mind. If I used a very subtle color, it might almost disappear. That was a constant process of talking about color, and it became an instinct, but particularly in the early days, it was all about looking at the rushes and seeing what worked.
Was it challenging to acquire period vehicles?
That was a constant challenge. It got easier as the story came up to date, but in the very early scenes, the number of vehicles available was very small, because they’re so rare. With a character in Ron’s episode, we needed a particular period, high-end Mercedes—there was only one of them in the whole country, and it was incredibly expensive. It was worth over a million dollars, and the owner was very particular about how we used it.
One of the cars, the very early Mercedes that appears in Episode 3, there’s only one of them in the whole world, and we found that and brought it to the set. That was a completely period-accurate vehicle—it hadn’t been adapted in any way.
We were quite lucky in that we had a vehicle guy who knew virtually all the period vehicles in the whole country. He was very experienced. But they were expensive, and sometimes they didn’t work properly, and we couldn’t adapt them in any way—we couldn’t paint them.
Also, we had a lot of horse-drawn vehicles in the earlier parts of the story, and relatively few cars—in fact, none to begin with. As time went on, we saw fewer and fewer of the horse-drawn vehicles and started to see more and more cars. That, again, was another area where we tracked time and were careful about what we showed, episode to episode.
Was curating period accurate art a similar hurdle?
That was another big area. The set decorators were always worried about art on the walls—we never, ever felt like we had enough of it, but we brought a lot from London, in the beginning.
The art is important, but the frame is equally important—and in fact, sometimes, the frames are more expensive than the art. We ended up with a stock room of artwork, and we earmarked certain pictures for certain sets. As we went on, we were able to sometimes reuse them.
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