By Daniel Restuccio
When the COVID-19 crisis shut down production in New York City, necessity became the mother of invention for The Blacklist showrunners. They took the 21 minutes of live-action footage they had shot for Episode 19, “The Kazanjian Brothers,” and combined it with 21 minutes of graphic-novel-style animation to give viewers the season finale they deserved.
Thanks to previs/visual effects company Proof, the producers were able to transition from scenes that were shot traditionally to a world where FBI agent Elizabeth Keane and wanted fugitive Raymond Reddington lived as animated characters.
The Blacklist team reached out to Proof the week everyone at the studio was asked to start working from home. In London, artists were given workstations as needed; in the US, they had all the computers set up in the office while the team remoted into those workstations based on the different proprietary and confidentiality rules, and to keep everything on the same servers.
Over six weeks, 29 people in London, including support staff and asset people, worked on the show. While in the US, the numbers varied between 10 to 15 people. As you can imagine, it’s a big undertaking.
We reached out to Adam Coglan and Matt Perrin, Proof animation supervisors based in London, and Patrice Avery global head of production for Proof, about the production and post workflow.
How did you connect with the producers on the show?
Patrice Avery: Producer Jon Bokenkamp and John Eisendrath knew Proof’s owner and president, Ron Frankel. After The Blacklist shut down, they brainstormed ideas, and animation was one they thought might make sense.
Adam Coglan: The Proof US offices tend to work using toon shaders on models, and the producers had seen our previs work on the Hunger Games, Guardians of the Galaxy and Wrinkle in Time.
Can you walk us through the workflow?
Coglan: Everybody was working in parallel. There was no time to wait for the models to get built, then start texturing, then start rigging, then start animating. Animation had to start from the beginning, so we started out using proxy geometry for the characters.
Character build and animation was going on at the same time. We were building the sequences, blocking them out, staging them. We had a client call every day, so we’d be getting notes every day. The clients wouldn’t be looking at anything that resembled their main actors until a good three or four weeks into the actual project.
Avery: It meant they had to run blind a bit with their animation. They got scratch dialog, and then they got final. They didn’t get the real dialogue until almost the end because they still were trying to figure out how to get the best quality dialogue recorded from their actors.
Obviously, the script had been written, so you essentially animated the existing script?
Coglan: Yes. We were given the script early on and it did evolve a little bit, but not wildly. We managed to stick to the sequences that we’d actually blocked out from the start. There were no storyboards; we basically just interpreted what their script gave us.
Can you talk a bit about some of the scenes you enhanced?
Coglan: There’s a helicopter sequence at the end of the show that they hadn’t planned to shoot with live action, because of safety issues with the helicopter. They brought it back when they realized they could do all of those shots in animation. So there are big aerials over the helicopter landing pad. The helicopter is going while the main villain approaches the helicopter.
Matt Perrin: There are shots peppered throughout the whole thing that would have been tricky to fit into the timescales that they normally shoot the show in. Throughout the show, there are angles and camera work that were easier in animation. In the pilot episode, they visited Washington Mall and the Capitol building, so we got to return to that.
You used Autodesk Maya as your main tool? What else was used?
Coglan: Yes, predominantly Maya. Character heads were built in Z-Brush and then brought into Maya and textured using Substance and Photoshop. The toon shader is a set of proprietary shaders that Proof developed in Maya with filters on the textures to give them the toon shaded look.
Your networks are obviously connected?
Coglan: Absolutely. We’ve been using Teradici, which has really saved our skin on this show. It’s been a godsend and offers really good remote access.
Aside from the truncated production schedule, what were some of the other challenges that you had?
Coglan: Working completely remotely with a team of over 20 odd people was a big challenge.
Perrin: Yes. Everything slows down. Coordinating the work from home with all the artists, the communication that you have face-to-face with the team being in the same room as you is, obviously, stretched. We would communicate over Zoom chats daily, multiple times a day with them, and with the producers.
On the flip side, it felt like we had more access to the producers of the show than we might under normal circumstances, because we had a scheduled meeting with them every day as well. It was great to tap directly into their taste and get their feedback so immediately.
Can you describe how the animation was done? Keyframe, rotoscoping, motion capture, or some combination of those?
Perrin: We started with very simple blockouts of action and cameras for each scene. This allowed us to get the layout and timing approved fast, saving as much time as possible for the keyframe animation stage. There are a couple of transitions between live action and animation that required some rotoanimation. We also did a little mocap (mostly for background character motions.) On the whole though, it was a lot of keyframe animation.
How were the editors involved?
Perrin: Chris Brookshire and Elyse Holloway “got it” from the beginning. They gave us the cut of the live-action show with placeholders slugged in for the scenes we would be animating. Between watching that and the script, which was already pretty tight, it gave us an idea of what the scope of our role was going to be.
We decided to go straight into a very basic blocking pass rendered in gray scale 3D so they could see the space and start testing angles with faster iterations. It allowed them to start cutting earlier and give us those edits back. They never got an excess of footage from us.
When they shoot the show, they’ve got reels of footage to go through, whereas with us they get the shots we created and not many spare. But the editors and showrunners got the idea that they could actually start calling out for shots too. They’d ask us to change the layout in some instances because they want to shuffle the shots around from what we’d initially intended.
From that point it allowed our asset makers and R&D teams to be looking into what the character should look like in the environments and building that parallel with us. Then we were ready to go into animation.
How did you set the style for the final look of the piece?
Perrin: The client had a strong idea. They already had done a spinoff comic book series. We’d seen what they’ve done with that, and they talked about the kind of styling of The Blacklist being quite noir.
Coglan: They gave the current episode and past episodes. So they could always reference scenes that were similar to other episodes. As soon as one of the show runners started talking about leaning into the graphic novel styling of things a little light went off and we thought, okay, we know exactly what they’re after for this now. It gave us a really good creative direction.
That was the biggest development on the project — to get the fidelity of the toon shaders to stand up to broadcast quality, better than we’ve been used to in the past. Because normally these don’t go past producers and directors when we work in previs.
When you say better quality what is that actually?
Coglan: There are some extreme close-ups in this where we were right on the main characters’ faces. They had detail actually hand-painted in Photoshop and then Substance. A lot of the lines to define features were actually painted by hand.
Avery: When using the toon shading in previs, we didn’t really do much to the backgrounds, it was all character line toon shaded, and in this one we created a process for the background sets to also make them look toon shaded.
Did you recreate any of the existing sets?
Coglan: They gave us blueprints for a lot of their set builds, so, yes, some of the sets were straight from the show.
Perrin: One set, a medical facility, we’d built already from their blueprints, so that when we transition out of the live-action into the animation it’s kind of seamless.
What other things did you accomplish that you’re proud of that you haven’t mentioned yet?
Coglan: I think for me really, the amount of work that we did in the compressed amount of time really was the big takeaway for me. Dealing with people totally remotely I just didn’t know whether that could work and we made it work.
Perrin: The whole way through was very exciting, because of the current situation everybody’s in, and the time constraints. It was very liberating for us. We didn’t have the multi-tiered approval stages or the normal infrastructure. It was immediate feedback and fast results.
Avery: What was cool for me was watching the creative discussions. There was a point a few weeks in when the client was giving more notes about the comic book-style and leaning into that. Our teams are so used to the constraints of live-action and the rules that they need to follow. There was this switch when they finally were like, “Oh, we can do really cool comic book angles. Oh, we could do this and that.” To just see the team really embracing, untethered a bit, to just go for it. It was really cool to see.
What would you do if you got a call, “Hey, we’ve got an entire series that wants to go this route?”
Perrin: I think I’d jump at it really. Although I don’t think I could do it in the same timescale for everything. I think there needs to be slightly more planning involved, but it’s been pretty enjoyable.
Dan Restuccio is a writer/director with Realwork Entertainment and part of the Visual Arts faculty at California Lutheran University. He is a former Disney Imagineer. You can reach him at email@example.com.