A strange thing happened to “The Blacklist”: the pandemic cut Season 7 short — from 22 to 19 episodes — including work on the momentous finale, “The Kazanjian Brothers,” after only four days of shooting. The episode will premiere at 8 p.m. PST/EST tonight on NBC after the drastic decision to complete the finale as a unique hybrid with 20 minutes of graphic novel-style animation. What’s more, the work was performed, not by an animation studio, but by a previs company, Proof (“Spider-Man: Far From Home,” “Wonder Woman”).
But it was a good stylistic choice, given the fact that the pulpy American crime thriller (starring James Spader as master criminal-turned FBI collaborator Red Reddington) had already spawned a series of Titan comic books a few years ago. “The comics really were the springboard thinking about this and it felt very organic to our show because ‘The Blacklist’ is in many ways sort of a graphic novel,” said co-showrunner John Eisendrath. “A larger than life anti-hero, a rogues gallery of bad guys, very dark and heightened, a bit of an alternate universe, Spader and the hat, the gun, and the silhouette.”
Thus, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise since the visual language of the series translates to animation. “Doing Dutch angles, doing high shots of the bare light bulb looking down on Red interrogating people, doing shots of Red reflected off the glasses of somebody he’s talking to, it all conveyed the emotional content in ways that were organic to animation,” added co-showrunner Jon Bokenkamp.
However, time was a critical factor and the showrunners knew nothing about animation. As fate would have it, Eisendrath had a brother-in-law he could turn to: Ron Frankel, the owner of Proof. It turned out to be the best possible fit because not only did Proof have available animators in Atlanta and London, their previs provided the perfect aesthetic: a toon-shaded look courtesy of proprietary shaders.
The biggest challenges were logistics, workflow, and scheduling, with everything done remotely. “In terms of volume, they might work for months on four minutes, and we had five weeks to do 20 minutes,” said Eisendrath. “It was a real education for us in how that process works.”
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And it was quite a process involving round the clock animation by 35 artists working out of their homes. “For the first three weeks, animators would provide us with mannequin-like avatars and we asked them to pick the shots, pick the angles, and choreograph the scenes,” added Eisendrath. Meanwhile, Spader and the rest of the cast (Megan Boone, Diego Klattenhoff, Amir Arison, Hisham Tawfiq, Harry Lennix) recorded dialogue on their phones at home.
“After a few weeks, we’d start to see the animated versions of the characters, which would be sent to the editors and cut into the live action,” added Bokenkamp. “And we’d get up in the morning and have [Zoom] discussions with the London animators and another conversation in the afternoon with the animators in Atlanta.”
But the animation proved liberating. It opened up new visual possibilities for the show not available in live-action, emphasizing the graphic novel roots in vivid detail. And, when necessary, the showrunners added thought bubbles and text boxes to help bridge the gap between the live action and animation.
“It allowed us to try compositions and perspectives that are a little bit more extreme,” said Adam Coglan, a sequence supervisor for Proof in London. “We could turn around shots and try new ideas quicker than if they designed them to be shot from a drone or a helicopter going over a location in [live-action].
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“We animated a scene in the Washington National Mall going over the Capitol building and that’s a location that’s not easily accessible normally,” added Matt Perrin, another Proof sequence supervisor based in London. “We’ve gone for quite a stark lighting in a kind of film noir feeling for some of these scenes. And there’s a scene where a character is hiding out in a hotel bathroom with quite a strong contrasting color palette.”
Without the restraints of physical production, action sequences could be animated more easily and dynamically. A conversation in the back of a car would normally be shot against green screen on a stage. But Proof leaned in on its previs chops, so it wasn’t much of a leap for them to animate cars racing through traffic or a helicopter buzzing across New York City. “We were able to move the camera around and find angles and motion that otherwise would’ve been very limiting for us,” said Bokenkamp. “Luckily, some of the bigger action sequences built out the scope of the show.”
For Proof, though, it provided an opportunity to fine tune their proprietary shaders for the fully-rendered shots. This allowed added detail in some of the characters’ faces. The textures were also passed through a Photoshop filter and some of the lead characters had further additions done by hand. “Previs has advanced a lot and we’ve found a look that looks almost good enough to put on TV, and this is the first chance to put our money where our mouth is,” said Coglan.