Raymond “Red” Reddington, a man who relishes a challenge, likely would admire how TV’s The Blacklist took a creative gamble amid the industry’s coronavirus-forced production shutdown to end the season with a bang, not a whimper.
The makers of the NBC drama, which stars James Spader as dashing antihero Red, decided to add animation to a partially taped episode, prompting a far-flung collaboration that stretched from Los Angeles to London and included the Spader family house as a challenging recording studio.
The idea for the May 15 episode (8 p.m. EDT) emerged from a brainstorming session with executive producers Jon Bokenkamp and John Eisendrath in mid-March, after their New York-based series halted filming along with other movie and TV projects as part of widespread efforts to contain the virus.
“It started sort of as a joke, talking about how we should do it (the episode) as an old-school radio broadcast where we put the image of a crackling fire or a radio up on TV and the actors could voice it,” Bokenkamp said. That segued into a discussion of the comic books and a graphic novel already spun off The Blacklist and then — bingo! — Eisendrath broached the hybrid episode.
“It’s possible that if we knew how much work it took to do an animated half of this episode, we might well have not come up with the idea,” he said, ruefully.
Spader, who’s also an executive producer on The Blacklist, had planned a quick trip with his family from New York to their Massachusetts home when taping looked to be on pause. It was at a full stop when Bokenkamp and Eisendrath called about salvaging the 19th episode — shy of the seventh season’s 22-episode order, Spader said, but a potentially more satisfying ad hoc finale than the completed No. 18.
“I was intrigued,” the actor said. “I thought that it seemed like the right thing to do, to try and finish the episode in any way that we could, and not only the episode, but to end the season.”
The process began with a handful of script revisions to make the episode “feel a little more like it had a forward throw, driving us into next season,” Bokenkamp said. Animation helped with the plot tinkering, and provided something else on the side.
“A scene that had taken place with Red and Liz (series star Megan Boone) sitting in a room, because that’s what we could afford in live action, suddenly becomes a scene between Red and Liz walking on the Washington Mall with the Capitol in the background,” Eisendrath said. “You can make it somewhat more cinematic … make it feel more like a graphic novel.”
As series creator Bokenkamp describes it, illustrated novels and comics share DNA with The Blacklist and add to the case for an excursion into animation for the Sony Pictures Television and Universal Television production.
The series is “sort of a big, wild slightly heightened show that feels like a comic book. … A bad guy in a fedora is our hero. It’s rather violent, at times it’s incredibly emotional,” he said. Add a veritable “rogue’s gallery” of villains, and there are stretches that feel “like we’re telling an old-school Batman story, with a good, juicy bad guy of the week.”
Making The Blacklist routinely comes with geographically complications. After it’s shot in New York, editing and other post-production takes place in Los Angeles, with oversight by LA-based Eisendrath and Bokenkamp in his native Nebraska. Adding animation required equipment to be shipped to housebound actors to record voice-over dialogue.
For Spader, that meant doing his best in a noise-prone 1850s farmhouse that also challenged what he called “the poor sound guy” ultimately tasked with making the audio pass muster.
“I hadn’t yet played Raymond Reddington with my son tiptoeing into the kitchen to get snacks,” he said. “But you do what you do. You turn the heat off so it wouldn’t cycle, you try to remember not to run the dishwasher.”
He drolly recounted “rudimentary” efforts at insulation, including place mats tucked under the microphone and closing window shades “so the lashing rain outside wasn’t quite so loud.”
With the animation by Proof Inc. created primarily in Atlanta and London in long-distance coordination with the show’s producers, a nonstop effort was required —- and it was still in motion in early May, as the episode’s air date approached.
“It’s sort of a 24-hour process,” Bokenkamp said last week. “While we’re sleeping, London is working, and we’ll watch what they sent at night. Then we give them our notes and they quickly start turning them around, so there’s people in many different time zones working around the clock to get it done on time.”
While an ideal hybrid episode would have been done from scratch and animated scenes determined before taping, the producers hope the audience is understanding.
“We felt that it was important to do our best in a difficult situation to try and get the episode completed,” Eisendrath said.