‘The Blacklist’ Draws Up a Novel End to Its Season

 ‘The Blacklist’ Draws Up a Novel End to Its Season

In mid-March, when the coronavirus pandemic shut New York City down, television production came to a sudden halt, sabotaging whole seasons for some shows and postponing season finales for others. But NBC’s “The Blacklist,” which follows James Spader’s Raymond “Red” Reddington as he helps the F.B.I. bring down the world’s most nefarious criminals, soldiered on.

The showrunners John Eisendrath and Jon Bokenkamp decided that if they couldn’t make it to the season-ending Episode 22, the narrative in Episode 19, which they had already begun shooting, would work as the Season 7 finale. But they had only shot half of its scenes, and out of order — how to salvage the material?

They considered various ways to finish the episode — audio-only scenes, static comic-book-style images — before landing on a solution.

“The show is sort of a graphic novel to begin with,” Eisendrath said. “It has a larger-than-life antihero and Gotham-style side villains. Why not try to animate it?”

Eisendrath’s brother-in-law, Ron Frankel, is the president of a previsualization (previz) animation house called Proof, which has worked on “Wonder Woman,” among other blockbusters. The producers charged Proof with creating about 20 minutes worth of action in five weeks — a “ridiculous” request, Eisendrath said — and at the end of that time, “The Blacklist” had a completely revamped hybrid finale.

In a phone interview, Eisendrath and Bokenkamp discussed the episode, which premieres Friday night, and the new possibilities animation opened up for them. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Is animation a way forward for other shows to try in a pinch?

JOHN EISENDRATH: Yes. I do think it’s a viable alternative to fill out the parts you were unable to fill out, and because it’s cool and people will enjoy it.

JON BOKENKAMP: Not to be a downer, but it has been far more work than most of our episodes. I’m surprised at how intricate it is. Not that it’s not a reason to do it in the future, but it has been a totally different process, in terms of time and the way we use resources. It’s just a totally different language.

EISENDRATH: In the beginning, we thought, “Everybody’s going to do this. Animation companies might not even be available.” We had no idea how much time and effort this was going to take. Zero. So maybe people didn’t do it as much as I thought they would because they knew how difficult it would be!

BOKENKAMP: It really was 24-7. We had people in all kinds of time zones working around the clock, just to get a full assembly of the piece. Our postproduction team sent microphones to the actors in Massachusetts, California and New York, and they recorded in closets, bathrooms, God knows where, trying to get quality audio. The London animators would work while we were asleep. The editors were working on their editing bays at home. We just got some final shots [on Wednesday]. We still haven’t seen the final mix, and it airs Friday. It’s as close to doing live television that I feel comfortable participating in.

Once you knew that you could use animation, what story elements did you revise?

BOKENKAMP: It’s not dramatically different, structure-wise. We did accelerate certain elements to build a better forward throw into Season 8, to create a little more of a cliffhanger. I think we realized that we had more of an opportunity to rework some scenes.

EISENDRATH: I would say that there are two distinct ways in which it’s different. One, we address head on that we were doing this because of being shut down. We didn’t have a narrative reason to make it half-animated, and so we decided not to pretend that we did. And two, we took liberties that we would not have been able to do in live action. It turned out, fortuitously, that the large action sequences had yet to be filmed, and we were able to make those considerably larger. In the script, the villain throws some papers up under the rotor blades of a helicopter, and we were told we would have to rewrite that, for safety reasons. Well, since no one was actually driving the helicopter in animation, we were able to throw the papers up, and it looks amazing.

While you were in the middle of tweaking this episode, one of your actors, Brian Dennehy, died. How did that affect your planning?

BOKENKAMP: Brian was a big part of the show. It’s terribly sad to lose him.

EISENDRATH: Originally, the episode was going to end with the grandfather waking up out of his coma. That was the last scene, and we changed it once we heard the terrible news. So that did change. And obviously it will affect the story going forward.

BOKENKAMP: The footage that we used of Brian was salvaged from a previous episode. We had other elements like that, which we had to take apart and reconstruct, like one side of a phone conversation where we hadn’t shot the other side. So there were a few magic tricks to finish up those elements.

How did you figure out a new visual language to account for what this style of animation could and couldn’t do well in an accelerated time frame?

BOKENKAMP: There was a bit of a learning curve: How can it look and feel like “The Blacklist”? As John and I were talking with the animators, we started thinking, do we do super close-ups, and then all of a sudden big wide shots? Dirty frames? Linger on Red’s hat, or behind him? And in the beginning, we didn’t think that the mouths of these characters were going to move — we didn’t have enough time — so we were partly trying to hide the mouths.

EISENDRATH: We were a little nervous. In the beginning, all the scenes had these featureless avatars that didn’t look like anybody. The purpose of that, we learned, was to block the scenes. Then with only a couple weeks left, we started getting images of one character at a time, and we could say, “The eyebrows are too thick. The forehead is too narrow. The chin is too big.”

BOKENKAMP: It’s not only, “What does James Spader look like?” but, “Let’s get him into the fedora. Let’s get him into the trench coat. Maybe pop the collar.”

EISENDRATH: Animation can’t approximate the small, intimate, emotional moments, like when you see Spader’s face. But what it does do a great job [with] is conveying a larger feel. One of my favorite scenes is when Red is talking to these Kazanjian brothers, and you drift up behind his almost jet-black silhouetted frame and look in one of the bad guy’s glasses, which are reflecting Red.

BOKENKAMP: We can be looking down the cord of the light bulb that’s hanging over this dimly lit room.

EISENDRATH: That to me conveyed a stark, intense, dangerous feeling better almost than we could have done in live action.

BOKENKAMP: As we started embracing that, it sort of flipped a switch: “Wow. We can do whatever we want here.” There is a scene in a car — in the live-action version, we’d be on the soundstage with green screen. But as we were considering animating that, we didn’t know what these characters were going to look like, let alone how they could emote, so we turned to Proof and said, “Get us out of that car.” So in that scene, you’ll notice that we’re covering for what we can’t do by leaning into what the animation does really well, which is cars whizzing past, running red lights, close-ups of the tires, shots of people’s eyes in rearview mirrors. We’re really opening up the visual scope of the show to compensate for what we can’t say with the actor’s faces.

Did you want to channel the comic-book aesthetic specifically?

EISENDRATH: In the middle of the shootout, Liz is standing fairly close to the Kazanjian brothers and she says, “Katarina Rostova, know her? Maddie Tolliver?” In live action, you would have been able to read more of the emotional wheel turning in her head. We didn’t necessarily think that animation would be able to access her inner thinking, so we added a chyron.

BOKENKAMP: We realized, “Oh, wait! That’s within the rule book.” Comics can do thought bubbles. That was sort of a light bulb moment for us. We realized that as we went along that we should take advantage of every comic book trope that we could think of, to help the viewer.

EISENDRATH: Maybe we should keep the thought bubbles when we go back to live action! [Laughs]

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