For NBC's 'The Blacklist,' animation fills in the episodic gaps after COVID-19 shutdown

Bill Keveney
In this exclusive image from Friday's Season 7 finale of 'The Blacklist,' a graphic-novel version of Raymond "Red" Reddington shares time with the live-action character played by James Spader. The NBC drama turned to animation to finish an episode only partly filmed when the coronavirus shut down Hollywood production in March.

As Elizabeth Keen sits next to her comatose grandfather's bed, she thinks of all she's lost in terms of loved ones and her own psyche in Friday's season finale of NBC's "The Blacklist" (8 EDT/PDT).

"If I lose one more good part of me," she says in a voiceover, "I'll be –  transformed." And suddenly, she is, as Megan Boone, who plays Liz, morphs into an animated version of her FBI profiler character in a Season 7 closer that jumps between live-action and graphic-novel-style video.

It's an experiment designed to salvage a partially filmed episode and fashion a satisfying season finale for a crime thriller that, like other TV shows and films, halted production at its New York studio in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Other shows also are trying creative approaches to produce new episodes in the stay-at-home, social-distancing era. CBS legal drama "All Rise" filmed its first-season finale remotely, with actors doing their own makeup, set design and lighting from home, while NBC's "Parks and Recreation" returned for a fundraising reunion special that featured its characters coping with the pandemic via Zoom.

This exclusive image from NBC"s 'The Blacklist' depicts FBI profiler Elizabeth Keen in animated form.

With a little retooling, "The Kazanjian Brothers," the 19th of the season's 22 planned episodes, works as a finale, executive producer John Eisendrath says. After nixing the idea of having Boone, James Spader and castmates voice unfilmed portions in the style of radio theater, producers realized the show, which has been renewed for Season 8, was a natural for animation. 

Early in its run, "a series of comic books were made about 'The Blacklist' because it has a graphic-novel feel," Eisendrath says. "Once we reminded ourselves of that, we (considered making) new comic-book stills to fill out the unfinished scenes. Then I thought, 'Why don't we just try to animate the whole thing?' "

The graphic-novel tone is exemplified by a night sequence featuring Liz, one of two images – the other a closeup of criminal mastermind Raymond "Red" Reddington, played by Spader –  made available exclusively to USA TODAY.

Elizabeth Keene (Megan Boone), left, and Raymond "Red" Reddington (James Spader) morph into animated characters in graphic-novel scenes in the Season 7 finale of NBC's 'The Blacklist.'

"We wanted something that was an iconic moment for Liz, her first superhero moment," executive producer Jon Bokenkamp says. 

The show shipped microphones to cast members, who recorded their scenes on iPhones from "pantries and linen closets, with pillows under the doors, trying to get the best-quality audio at home," Bokenkamp says. 

Producers turned to Proof, which specializes in visual storytelling used in the production of feature films, for the company's first venture into on-air TV series animation. With a time-intensive assignment and services needed immediately, Eisendrath had a connection: Proof president Ron Frankel is his brother-in-law.

The episode is split almost evenly between live-action and animation, Eisendrath says.

Producers decided to acknowledge the unusual solution directly through another innovation: As Liz sits next to her grandfather (Brian Dennehy, who died in April), the episode cuts to Harry Lennix, Diego Klattenhoff and other cast members as themselves, not their characters. They explain how coronavirus halted production mid-episode, but that cast and crew found a novel way to complete it.

With Proof animators in London and Atlanta and "Blacklist" editors scattered across the country, the demanding work approximated a round-the-clock schedule. 

But the work yielded rewards, as animation offered visual elements the show couldn't have managed otherwise. Producers moved a scene between Red and Liz to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., with the U.S. Capitol in the background.

And another scene featuring a whirring helicopter, nixed for live-action due to safety issues, was resurrected in animation.

Bokenkamp and Eisendrath will eventually determine how to use  plotlines from the three episodes that weren't filmed. For now, they're pleased to have pulled off the improvised episode. 

"I'm thrilled," Bokenkamp says. " ... I feel we're at our best when we surprise ourselves. This was not something any of us envisioned, so in that sense it's really exciting and fun to see it come together. I think it was fantastic."