When the coronavirus pandemic forced The Blacklist to shut down production in the middle of episode 19, the NBC crime thriller was presented with a decision to make: end season 7 abruptly or step outside their comfort zone. Producers opted to go with the latter, creating an ambitious hybrid episode featuring live-action footage and graphic novel-style animation.
"We only shot three or four days of our episode, so we were about halfway through filming the episode [when things shut down]. [Executive producer] John [Eisendrath] and I were kicking around ridiculous things like, 'Why don't we play an old-time radio show?'" executive producer Jon Bokenkamp tells ET's Nischelle Turner of other ideas they bandied about to finish out their episode.
Because The Blacklist already has a line of comic books published by comiXology and the DNA of the series is often larger than life, it only made sense to go that route.
"We thought, maybe we can use some of those images from the comics that are the likenesses of the characters and cut to them while they're still talking. Eventually, that evolved into finding a company that could actually pull it off," Bokenkamp says, admitting the process has been a steep learning curve for the team. They hired Proof, an Atlanta- and London-based animation firm to take on the tall task. "We've been finding it as we go. We've never done this before. We're all sort of finding our way, but that's what's really exciting about it -- seeing it come to life."
Watch the official trailer for Friday's hybrid animated episode below.
In the May 15 episode, titled "The Kazanjian Brothers," the Task Force investigates an accountant who works for lucrative criminals in order to find the violent and thuggish brothers hired for his protection, while Liz (Megan Boone) is forced to make a momentous decision. Producers are hoping that viewers who tune in to the makeshift finale will take "a leap of faith," Eisendrath tells ET, understanding that "there was no rhyme or reason narratively" why certain parts of the episode are live-action and others are animated due to the "circumstances that dictated our decision to do this."
The decision to go the animated route also allowed the writers to work in elements from their original finale plans into the episode to create have a feeling of finality and look ahead to the upcoming season. "It gave us an opportunity to go through and quickly make some adjustments to that script to speed a few story points that might give us a good throw forward into season 8," Bokenkamp teases.
As Eisendrath previews, there is a silver lining. It gave them license to pull off high-concept action sequences that would have been a headache to put together on a normal day. "We had a big helicopter sequence that we could never have done," he says. "Someone was supposed to open up a suitcase filled with paper and it was supposed to fly through the rotors of the helicopter but there were a million legitimate safety rules, which in the real world, would've prevented that from happening. Well, there are no rules in animation so that briefcase opens and everything goes up in a way that it never otherwise would have."
When the cast first learned that The Blacklist would be finishing its final episode of the season with this unique approach, they were all equally enthusiastic about the prospect of doing something new. "I thought it was genius," star Diego Klattenhoff tells ET, "and why didn't anybody think of that sooner or try that? ... It does go hand in hand, I thought, with the look and the feel of the show in general since Day 1. I think the fans are going to love it."
Klattenhoff and his co-stars were all sent microphones, where they recorded their lines wherever they were quarantining before sending it back to production for use in the episode. Klattenhoff, for instance, recorded all of his dialogue in a closet on his iPhone. "I was lucky that the place we're staying has this great walk-in linen closet," he shares. "I was hanging up towels everywhere and finding anything that absorbed the sound and then hooked up the mic. It's a whole process! But it's not that bad."
The actor, who plays Donald Ressler on the series, confesses he's only seen bits and pieces of the episode and says he won't be forming an opinion on the animated version of himself until he sees the final product. "I will admit, he's not quite as handsome as the real Diego," Bokenkamp quips.
"In the end, everybody does bear a striking resemblance," Eisendrath adds. "It was never going to be a Pixar movie. That's not what we're doing. Given the time and situation, I hope people will think that the animation part is remarkably vivid given the time and limitations that the animators had to make it. And I do think that, for the most part, it captures the spirit and likeness of the cast."
Even so, producers hope they won't have to resort to another last-minute episode like this one when season 8 rolls around, whenever that ends up being. And the idea of working in the coronavirus pandemic into a future storyline doesn't sound all that intriguing to Bokenkamp and Eisendrath.
"We've done an episode where it was the Adam and Eve characters and they were going to release a pandemic that would result in just the two of them and restart the world again. And they were powerful episodes," Eisendrath notes. "I feel like going forward, people will be as interested, I imagine, in escapism entertainment instead of reminders of what we're going through now."
That's not to say a full animated episode isn't out of the question -- if it makes sense creatively, of course. "It could be fun to do," Eisendrath acknowledges. "There's a graphic novel quality to the series to begin with."
The Blacklist season 7 finale airs Friday, May 15 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.
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