The Genius creative team talks about recreating Einstein’s iconic look and helping audiences understand one of history’s most innovative thinkers.
National Geographic’s anthology series Genius follows the life of the world’s most iconic scientist Albert Einstein. Highlighting nearly every personal, political, and academic facet of his life, the story of Einstein is portrayed by two actors, Geoffrey Rush and Johnny Flynn, as they navigate his complicated story.
The layered story wouldn’t be possible without the extraordinary work done by the creative team on the show as they all navigate through a life spanning over 70 years and two continents. The structure of the story is brilliantly set-up in the pilot directed by Ron Howard. The entire creative team was grateful to have collaborated with him. As costume designer Sonu Mishra quickly mentioned, “It was wonderful as a collaboration to be working with someone who appreciated and understood the work of every department and how it would translate to audiences.”
Emmy® voters fully embraced the first season of Genius, nominating the series in ten categories. We spoke with four members of the creative team all of whom are nominated for the first time: Costume designer Sonu Mishra, visual effects supervisor Eric Durst, hairstylist department head Tash Lees, and makeup department head Davina Lamont.
Recreating Einstein’s Iconic Look
Heading into production, the creative team in charge of Albert Einstein’s iconic look knew they were in for a challenge. Spanning from the late 1800s all the way to the 1950s as well as traveling through countries and across continents, the designers were tasked with being as historically accurate as possible.
Records throughout Einstein’s life proved instrumental in recreating these looks for the entire creative team but especially Emmy-nominated costume designer Sonu Mishra. “The approach was to make it look as realistic as possible. To make it look real. There were so many archived photos and videos especially those made available to us by National Geographic.”
Charting out his look and style throughout the years was almost like putting together a puzzle for Mishra. “What I did was map out the different locations and periods Einstein lived. I did all of my research on Einstein and I quickly figured out how fascinating of a character he was in the life he led and how it was incredibly vast… I created a timeline with real photographs from every location and period in the script and mapped it out scene by scene.”
Not only did all of this help the costume department visually compartmentalize Einstein throughout different periods but it also helped them understand his development as a character.
“He started off as a student and then he gets a little looser in style. Because he goes to America we see for the first time more relaxed clothing with his leather jacket. And then the end of his life is primarily chinos and sweatshirts. We see a man change so much over the years and we reach a point where his clothes represent a simpler look. It was really quite beautiful to be able to see where he was psychologically by just looking at his clothing.”
Many of the iconic images, however ,were of Einstein later in life, especially after he came to America. When it came to transforming Johnny Flynn (who played the scientist in his younger years) Tash Lees, the hairstylist department head, had to take some creative liberties in designing the beginning stages of his progress.
“Especially in the early years there weren’t as many photos as you would think so with Johnny we had some creative leeway. We morphed his iconic look with what was popular in the period.” By combining her knowledge of the time period and de-aging the design aesthetic of Geoffrey Rush’s older more distinguished Einstein Johnny Flynn’s version was born.
With two actors, Geoffrey Rush and Johnny Flynn, portraying Einstein throughout the 10-episode season, it was extremely important for the creative team to execute it in a believable way.
The makeup and hairstyling team were challenged to age Einstein over half a century in a believable way with only two actors. As makeup department head Davina Lamont put it, “My major priority was to make sure both Johnny Flynn and Geoffrey Rush could morph into one another with the aging pieces and the hair and makeup.”
Adding to the challenge of a natural progression both the hair and makeup team wanted to ensure the audience found the transformation from Johnny to Geoffrey believable. As Davina put it, “Everyone has a preconceived idea of what Einstein looked like so it was important to get those points right and not make either actor look cartoonish.”
Watching Geoffrey and Johnny transform into the iconic look was a great moment for the entire team. For Lamont, her favorite moment throughout the entire experience was “watching both Johnny and Geoffrey morph into the character.” For the actors it all came together and they truly felt like Einstein when they first wore the iconic mustache.
Visualizing His Incredible Thoughts
One of the main goals of Genius is to help audiences get inside the head of some of history’s greatest thinkers. Specifically with Albert Einstein, the challenge for VFX Supervisor Eric Durst was helping audiences understand him in a new way.
“Our first idea was to portray Einstein differently than how he has been portrayed in the past. He’s obviously a scientist but we also wanted to portray him as an artist. He said many times if he weren’t a physicist he would be a musician. He really resonated with that approach to the universe. So we wanted to portray him as a visual artist.”
Tapping into Einstein’s imagination was important to Durst, and he looked at the work his VFX team was doing as not only supporting the external visual landscape but also an integral element in showcasing the internal landscape. Throughout the process, he continuously looked to a specific quote of Einstein for inspiration: “Logic will get you from a to b but imagination will get you everywhere.” That quote was foundational in Einstein’s thinking and inspired Durst to utilize the visual effects to showcase the scientist’s personality through his visualizations.
Just like the other visual aspects of the anthology series, the visual effects highlighted how the scientist evolved throughout his life. With the opening sequence the audience is “riding along the lightening and Einstein is the conductor. It’s rich and full of color and fully realized.” Comparing that to a scene in his early years involving a soccer ball shows just how his thought experiment techniques evolved over time and allowed him to be the great thinker he is now known to be.
“Our goal was to show a more primitive thinking and how when he thought about the ball he thought literally and not about a planet.” In those early techniques Durst and the rest of the VFX team used line drawings to highlight his eventual progression.
Overall, Eric hopes that Genius helped viewers understand Einstein in a new way that isn’t looked at as a teaching moment. “We wanted some of that but rather something that alluded at the content and took viewers for a ride.”
For Your Consideration
The innovative creative team of Genius received nominations in the following categories:
Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special
Outstanding Hairstyling for a Limited Series or Movie
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie
Outstanding Limited Series
Outstanding Main Title Theme Music
Outstanding Makeup for a Limited Series or Movie (Non-Prosthetic)
Outstanding Period/Fantasy Costumes for a Series, Limited Series, or Movie
Outstanding Sound Editing for a Limited Series, Movie or Special
Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Limited Series or Movie
Outstanding Special Visual Effects in a Supporting Role