The first season of Genius on the National Geographic Channel chronicles the life of Albert Einstein (played by Oscar-winning actor Geoffrey Rush). The pilot episode “Chapter One,” directed by Oscar-winning director Ron Howard, is a sweeping introduction to Einstein. The episode’s timeline swings from young Einstein’s school days in Germany and Switzerland to his teaching days in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power. There’s violence and romance. There are moments of tranquility contrasting the political tension of a society in unrest. On the whole, it’s a captivating glimpse of the season to come.
Emmy-award winning re-recording mixer Bob Bronow (sound effects/Foley/backgrounds) and re-recording mixer Mark Hensley (dialogue/music) mixed the show together on an AVID S6 console on Stage 10 at Smart Post Sound in Burbank, CA. The pilot episode they mixed at Smart Post’s mix stage in Santa Monica, which was closer to Ron Howard’s home base. The mixers share an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Limited Series for their work on Genius “Chapter One.”
S&P: Ron Howard was the director on “Chapter One.” Was this the only episode that he directed?
Mark Hensley (MH): He directed the episode and he came to the final mix. It was pretty awesome.
S&P: It’s not often that the director on a TV series will get involved with the mix, but I can see Ron Howard doing that.
MH: Even with pilot episodes it doesn’t happen that often. It tends to happen if it’s a big budget show and the director is someone, like Ron Howard, who is super involved with what is going on. Then, they’ll want to be there for the pilot episode. This is only one of two times so far that I have actually had the director at the mix for the pilot.
Bob Bronow (BB): I think another part of that is that this is Ron Howard’s first foray into television. He wanted to make sure that everything was good before he signed off on it.
S&P: How did you get involved with Genius?
MH: I believe it was because Smart Post had a relationship with one of the producers at the network who was working on the show. They were looking around to take the show somewhere and that was how that happened. I had mixed for Craig Yahata, who was co-producer on the show. I had mixed Sons of Anarchy for him and so he was pretty insistent that I be on this show, mixing on the dialogue side. I mixed the first show with Bob and he was happy to have Bob on the show as well.
Craig has done a lot of shows at Smart Post. He’s been working with us a long time. So that was a big connection.
S&P: Who is your point person for the mix? Who guides the mix process initially?
MH: We’ll work closely with Craig [Yahata] first. He has a really good sensibility. By the time we get to the dub stage with the show, he has a good idea of what the show runners want to hear, people like Ken Biller and Noah Pink. So he guides the mix in a certain direction so that when Ken shows up for his playback, it’s pretty much dialed in. Then we’re really getting down to personal choices, specific things that Ken wants to hear. Craig put a lot of time and effort into making sure that when they show up the mix is 90% there.
S&P: What were some creative opportunities you had while mixing “Chapter One?” Are there specific scenes that stand out for you?
BB: There were a couple of big scenes. In the opening of the show when Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau [Henry Goodman] was murdered, it was a great scene to work on sound-wise. It was a fun challenge because it had to sound violent and quick, but we didn’t want to make it like your average Hollywood murder scene. It couldn’t be sensationalized but it had to have impact. We really worked with the different perspectives and angles of it to make it seem like you were right in there with him.
Another great scene was when we flashback to young Einstein [Johnny Flynn] getting yelled at by his professor for not paying attention because he was fascinated with a beam of light. The sound design that Daniel Pagan did there was wonderful. He had worked with Ron Howard on A Beautiful Mind, which also had a lot of those mind experiments. So I figured Daniel knew what to do on those. He gave me so many great elements to work with which allowed us to get into it very slowly. At first, when young Einstein is looking at the light beam, there’s only an inkling of what is going on in his mind. Then, boom, it takes you into this place where the real world goes away and you are all in his mind. Then we get to zip back out of that when the headmaster slams the ruler on Einstein’s desk. So those were challenging but a lot of fun to do.
MH: On the dialogue and music side, the score was fantastic. The score pretty much mixed itself. It wasn’t something that I had to put a lot of effort into to make it sound great. It was scored around the dialogue and around the events that were happening.
What was really fun for me on the dialogue side was that I was allowed to mix this show more with a feature-type approach. In a lot of TV series, everyone wants the dialogue in-your-face no matter where the actor is standing in the room. Whereas with Genius, I was allowed to play more with perspective. It’s the little details like that. There’s one scene when young Einstein is far off in the distance talking to his father Hermann [Robert Lindsay]. Normally on a TV show, they would want to have that dialogue straight up in your face whereas on this show we were allowed to play that perspective. Even though it was principle dialogue we were allowed to have some distance there to make it feel proper in the scene. That was fun to work with perspective. In the scenes where Einstein [Geoffrey Rush] is giving his lectures, I was allowed to play with perspective there. We really don’t get the chance to do that in television too often because the typical approach is to have the dialogue up front in your face.
Another thing I want to add is that the production dialogue was really well-recorded. Instead of spending time fixing dialogue, I was able to put all of that attention into mixing it.
BB: Mark, you had that great scene where the Nazis are beating up the shop owner. You did some great work there to help tell that story…
MH: Here’s where Ron Howard was very specific. One of the few notes that he had was that he wanted to spend time on that scene when he came to the dub stage. He had certain things that he very specifically wanted to hear. He had little, specific lines that he really wanted to have play to make that scene have the impact that it needed to have. We spent a little bit of time on that but not a whole ton of time. Once he heard what he wanted to hear, he thought it was great.
That was a tricky scene to mix because there was a lot going on. You had the Germans who were beating up the shopkeepers. It was important to hear specific phrases that really needed to be heard to have the impact of what was going on. So that was an important scene to mix.
S&P: Was there a particular scene that Ron Howard really focused on during the mix? Was there a scene he spent a lot of time on?
MH: Not really. We did his playback and he had very few notes. Overall he was very happy with the mix and the notes he had were on very minor things. At one point he wanted to possibly hear some alternate lines of ADR but he asked to have the scene played back one more time. We played it back and he said, “It’s fine. It’s good.” He heard it again and he was good with it.
What was really fun about working with Ron Howard was he knew exactly what he wanted and he didn’t want to change things just to change them. There were a few small sound design things that he made minor changes to but it was pretty straightforward.
BB: The notes that he did give were very precise and they were absolutely in service of telling the story. When he was giving his notes we were thinking, “These are definitely Ron Howard’s notes.” Everything he asked to change only made things better.
S&P: “Chapter One” jumps between Einstein’s past of growing up alone in Germany and Switzerland after his family moved to Italy, and then forward in time to just before Hitler takes control of Germany. How was sound able to help the contrast between his past and his present?
Bronow: We paid a lot of attention to the backgrounds, both for the exteriors and the interiors. When Einstein was a young man in Germany, the mode of transportation for the day was the horse and buggy. There were always buggies going around, and you can faintly hear them even while you’re inside. There were a lot of horse sound effects, horse vocalizations, and carriages.
When we came to the more current era, you have gasoline engines as cars became more popular so you hear those. That was one indication of the difference in time.
The backgrounds were also indicative of location. When Einstein was in Italy, there were many more animals that can be heard in the background because of where he was staying. There weren’t a lot of animals in Germany where he was staying but for the scenes in Italy, there were chickens and goats and those fun sounds.
S&P: What about the group recordings for the crowds on the street? Was there much difference between Einstein’s past and the more current era?
MH: One thing they really paid attention to was what was said in group. They had to make sure that what they were saying made sense for the time. We did have to replace some group because upon closer listening we found that what they were saying wasn’t really appropriate for that time. There was even a difference between the group for the past era and for the group as you get closer to World War II. They were very picky about that stuff.
We had to hire group people who could speak German as well. A lot of times there were two different languages. We would have an English track of group and also a German track of group. Often in those cases, I would favor the German group because it was odd to have people yelling out things in English with a German accent. But having that was a backup in case someone asked for it. So there were a lot of foreign language group recordings, depending on where they were in the scene.
S&P: Composer Lorne Balfe created the score for “Chapter One.” How were you able to shape his score to fit the mix and the 5.1 environment?
MH: I use Halo, which is an upmix plug-in. I get all of the separate stems as stereo stems and I will put those into 5.1 using the Halo plug-in. I’ve tried a few different upmix plug-ins and to me that one sounds the best. So it unfolds it for me and I can spread the center out a bit if I want to make room for the dialogue.
But again, the score was so well-composed that it didn’t require a lot of effort on my part. I’d like to say that I did an amazing job mixing it but it didn’t need much help fitting into the mix. When you have music that is properly composed for the scene then you really shouldn’t have to do a lot, other than ride the levels a little bit to work it around the dialogue and give it that extra little push to accent things. And I certainly did that because when I mix in the music I don’t let it just sit there. I’m constantly riding the score around the dialogue because the dialogue always has to be heard. But I don’t like to have the music down so far that it’s a question whether there is still music there or not. I do like to have the music heard and that requires a lot of fader riding on my part. That way I can give a more dramatic feeling to certain sections of the scene that just want that little bit of lift. It was not a battle to make this score work. I would anticipate when a melody line should come in and sure enough, there it was. Giving that a bit of a volume helps to move the scene forward.
BB: Another testament to the composer was that you could feel the score. There were a number of times during the mix when Mark and I would look at each other and agree that the score was going to take that moment. I would bring the effects down because it was definitely a score moment. You can tell that it was clearly composed to be just that. And so in that respect, the score did inform our mix in places.
S&P: Of all the episodes in Season 1 of Genius, why did you choose the mix on “Chapter One” for Emmy consideration?
MH: While we didn’t pick that episode ourselves, there were a couple of pluses to choosing that one. First, since it was over an hour long it would go in the miniseries category. This means we wouldn’t have to go up against Game of Thrones, although this year they didn’t have an episode in the running.
Also, “Chapter One” looks amazing. It’s really like a mini feature. It’s like watching a 62-minute film. The way that it is shot and edited, and how the storyline unfolds, there were so many things in it that made it the logical choice.
BB: Sound effects-wise, it had everything. We had gun fights. We had explosions. We had the thought experiments which were a great opportunity to place elements in the surround field to really put you inside of Einstein’s head. We had both young Einstein and older Einstein. There was great conflict. It was kind of like a little microcosm of the whole season. We had so much good stuff in there.
MH: Exactly. It was one thing after another. I can’t think of another episode in the season that had so much happening sound-wise. Between the Germans on the street and the marching and the explosion, the gun fights, and the attacks, this episode was completely the logical choice.
The pilot episode isn’t always the best one to put up but in this case, the pilot was definitely the one to do for sound.
Images courtesy of National Geographic