Due to the cessation of coronavirus production in NYC, the NBC show The Blacklist was discontinued in the middle of the finale episode of season seven. But instead of just holding the footage with a longer pause, the show's creators decided to turn to a previous house, Proof, for high-quality animations to end the episode in record time.
Proof created a custom graphic novel style related to the blacklist comics. Artists at studios in London and Atlanta were quickly working on completing the show for the May 15 broadcast. It was the first time that Proof provided the final animation for a television series, but for almost two decades they have been offering high-end previs for TV, film, and digital media.
The project was supervised by Adam Coglan and Matt Perrin, two experienced senior proof previsers. The project originated from a telephone call with proof founder Ron Frankel. Proof was founded in 2002 by Ron Frankel and is dedicated to providing high quality visualization services for the feature film and entertainment industries. As part of this order, it had developed its own toon shader solution. When the lock came in, the blacklist producers asked Frankel if Proof could use this toon tool, which was used only for Previs, for the final production of VFX recordings.
The blacklist had already produced an actual spin-off comic. Since the producers only had half of the last episode and the producers had seen examples of the proof toon shader, they proposed to complete the rest of the last episode as animation, partly on the look of graphic novels and partly on blocking and framing based on normal live action episodes. Frankel seized the opportunity and then called Coglan and Perrin to discuss the sequence that monitors the rest of the episode.
The blacklist episode required continuous coordination with the remote artists and prompted Proof to reinvent their workflow. In contrast to previs, which is only seen by a handful of production employees, The Blacklist presented Proof's work directly to the public on a large scale.
The team received temporary animated voice audio that was recorded by the publisher and one of the show's producers. This temporary audio allowed the team to begin animation, and as the episode progressed, the team received more and more final audio. The last production audio was only made available the week before the show was broadcast. From Proof's point of view, The Blacklist was a dream customer. Given the uncertainty and variability, a less confident and trustworthy customer could have derailed the entire project with revisions due to a lack of clear vision, but both Coglan and Perrin agreed that the customer was excellent. Since the show has already aired over 150 episodes, the editorial and production team obtained reference clips and examples of the show's cinematography to guide the animators. For example, the show rarely has a still camera, it is almost always filmed as a dolly or tracking shot. Proof endeavored to respect all of the show's stylistic conventions while at the same time mixing shots that owe a legacy to the dramatic shots of a graphic novel. So the final look of the show is very much that of The Blacklist, but as an animated graphic novel.
The last episode is split 50:50, with half of the show or about 35 scenes animated. All characters in the show were modeled in Zbrush and then imported into Autodesk Maya. The proprietary toon shader was applied. Photoshop was also available to define and refine the textures and add small details. Some of the main characters actually had hand-drawn details on their faces, including things like pencil strokes. The rendering was just done in Maya.
Lipsync was an issue right from the start, the team wanted to avoid lip sync because they knew the team would only get final audio at the end of production, and the models were never designed to be fully manipulated face puppets. That being said, some of the animators couldn't resist adding lip sync. "And some of it crept out and the showrunner got a taste of it and said," Look, is there anything we can do to get in? "Perrin comments. So Coglan's team, in particular, went to work to find out what Proof could do within the constraints of their models and schedule." They were fairly simple predecessors. They were very limited, almost puppet-style, " Perrin explains, but the animators were so engaged that some impressive animations were made, and Coglan remembers, "I had to tell everyone just to turn my lips off and say that we can't show any of it because the production isn't really Lipsync "We didn't think we had time and we were worried that they would want it as soon as everyone saw it. But as it turned out, in many scenes the animators had bothered to do lip sync anyway, and so on In the end, both Coglan and Perrin decided to push to record it, "since we knew that many of the recordings were all about turning the lips back on." says Coglan. "And we thought it looked great, so we ended up pushing Lipsync and it became a reality."
Fortunately, one of the proofing teams had done some research on an automated approach to lip sync and basic face detection with a depth detection camera. “We only use this to add to the volume of lipsync that we had to do, and it worked out pretty well,” recalls Perrin. Because it was so early in automated depth camera testing, it was only used as a good basis for timing. The automated solution enabled the animators to have instructions for their detailed keyframe animation. "It was definitely a short cut – a form of semi-automatic lipsync for the rest of the shots," said Coglan.
The whole exercise was quite a departure for the editors. It is usually known that the production on the show is shot with six cameras, which gives the editors plenty of footage to create scenes in. With the animated graphic material of the graphic novel, there was no additional film material or a live-action recording ratio with many angles from which editing was possible. The opposite was the case. Proof only delivered the main action and then waited for editors to ask for additional reporting, cutaways or material. This resulted in 1,300 versions of 742 actual recordings produced by a team of 29 animators and staff in the UK with another 14 crew members in Atlanta. Fortunately, the proofing team had already moved into the lockout, and everyone had moved to their home offices about a week before The Blacklist project. The project was both a technical and a creative success.