“The Blacklist” cast and crew were four days into shooting Episode 19 of Season 7 when coronavirus brought their New York set to a grinding halt.
Executive producers Jon Bokenkamp and John Eisendrath’s first thoughts were, “That’s that, season over,” says Bokenkamp. But soon enough, KA-POW, they settled on turning the episode into a hybrid of live-action and comic book-style animation. Entitled “The Kazanjian Brothers,” this episode now acts as the seventh season finale for the show because production could not resume to allow them to finish the original 22-episode order.
It wasn’t their first idea, and Eisendrath admits neither of them “knew the first thing about animation.” But after kicking around ideas including having James Spader, Megan Boone and Co. read their lines while an old fashioned radio appeared on the TV screen, or just putting voiceover to still comic book frames, they decided to go all-in on this genre mash-up.
But still, some complications remained.
“It turns out that it takes a lot of work to animate even half an episode of TV. We had zero years of experience in animation between us. It was all a bit of a high wire act,” says Eisendrath.
Once studio Sony Pictures TV and network NBC signed off on the idea (“I think they thought it was crazy at the time,” says Eisendrath), the producers embarked on a five-week production circus involving multiple timezones, animation studios and sleepless nights.
Here’s how it went down: Animators at Proof, Inc. in both London and Atlanta began working on the 20 minutes of the episode that needed to be animated. After the London team had finished each day of work, Bokenkamp (who is currently in Nebraska) and Eisendrath (in Los Angeles) would get up in the morning, go over what had been completed and give notes to their editors, who would then cut the animated frames into what live-action shots had been salvaged. Then in the afternoon, Bokenkamp and Eisendrath would move onto the work coming out of the Atlanta studio. This process would repeat itself “around the clock” until the episode was finally locked.
“It was a wild, new experience for us to watch the evolution from the first time we saw what were basically faceless mannequins as the temp animation, into life-like animation,” says Eisendrath. “We hope the audience can understand and appreciate the effort that went into completing this episode in the difficult circumstances that everybody is facing. Our editors, for instance, had to move the equipment to their houses so they could edit remotely. But we thought, whatever the outcome was, it was worth rolling the dice.”
Luckily, “The Blacklist” already has a pulpy, comic-like feeling to it, especially given its revolving carousel of “bad guys of the week,” as Bokenkamp puts it.
The inspiration for the episode’s animation style came from both from the “Blacklist” comic series, which was published near the beginning of the show, and old Batman comics.
“We looked at comic books with those little graphic boxes that come up, either for speech or to show what the characters are thinking, with a little wink from the narrator,” Bokenkamp explains. “The style isn’t necessarily specific to any certain comic book, but we were trying to embrace that feel of slug lines, graphic text boxes and other traditional, old-school tropes you would find in older comics.”
The end result is a look reminiscent of comic book-style video games like “The Last of Us,” “The Walking Dead” or even “Red Dead Redemption”, according to Eisendrath’s kids.
Although bringing animation to the finale presented plenty of challenges, it did also provide an opportunity to test out different locations and complex shots that might have been too expensive or dangerous to shoot live-action.
For example, Bokenkamp and Eisendrath had planned a swirling helicopter sequence for Episode 19, which had to be scrapped for various reasons. Animation allowed them to bring that sequence back and make it even bigger ad bolder than originally planned. And this proved to be the overall vibe for the episode.
“We were able to find moments within the episode to open things up,” says Bokenkamp. “For instance, we have an important scene with Red and Liz where he is giving her this case, which was originally in his secret apartment. We thought, ‘Well, if we’re animating it, let’s go to D.C. and have them walking on the National Mall.’ We took it as an opportunity to expand upon and build out sequences with the scope that the animation allowed us to to embrace.”
The producers describe the whole experience as “educational,” but by the sounds of it, they wouldn’t necessarily rush to make more similar episodes going forward.
“I think the final product is very exciting, but it’s hard to tell whether it’s super exciting because it’s the only time we’ll ever do it, or it’s super exciting because it offers an insight into how to do other episodes like it in the future,” Eisendrath says.
And speaking of the show’s future, an eighth season is most definitely on the way. While there is as yet no sign of a writers’ room, virtual or otherwise, for the new season, Bokenkamp and Eisendrath know they have the lost plots from Season 7’s un-filmed Episodes 20 through 22 on which to lean.
“Normally we start the season in the writers’ room, thinking, ‘Oh my God, we put all the great stuff at the end of the previous year.’ At least this year, moving forward, it’ll be the opposite,” jokes Eisendrath. “We have all this great stuff that we haven’t filmed, and hopefully it will allow us to start next season with a bang.”
“The Blacklist” Season 7 finale airs May 15 at 8 p.m on NBC.