NBC’s The Blacklist has maintained a high-rating on the Nielson charts since its debut in 2013. The show, which has been as warmly received by critics as viewers with several Emmy Award and Golden Globe nominations, stars James Spader and Megan Boone as an unlikely international crime-solving duo. Spader plays former-government agent Raymond “Red” Reddington, now one of the FBI’s Most Wanted fugitives, who negotiates deals with the agency to help capture a long “blacklist” of villains from around the world, with the one caveat that he partners with newly-hired agent, Elizabeth Keen (Boone).
With its location formally placed in Washington, DC, The Blacklist is actually shot on-set at Chelsea Piers and on-location throughout New York City on Sony F55 4K cameras, with both production and post relying on a 4K workflow.
“We’re a Sony production, so it makes sense that we would use the Sony F55 cameras and 4K workflow,” says show producer Jonathan Filley. “With the newer firmware [on the F55], we can run high-speed, and the 4K is a big help as far as our dynamic range and exposure,” adds DP Mike Caracciolo, who shares his duties with DP Eric Moynier. “We get around 14 stops of exposure now, which really helps us for the way we shoot, because we have a lot of windows and we don’t have to worry as much about blowing them out. The big difference with the 4K is the color. It has so many more variances of color, sometimes we don’t even have to gel windows.”
According to Caracciolo, the “unconventional” dark and “contrasty” look of the show starts in production during the shoot. “Our lighting is a little harder,” he explains. “We don’t do conventional beauty lighting. We do a lot of interesting framing, interesting shots, rather than conventional stuff, to tell the story. And we don’t cover people in the conventional manner either. We don’t do straight on [shots], but more like three-quarter behind them or profile. It seems to work. It’s a little bit of our style for the show and we’re sticking with it.”
Filley agrees, “We try to get a look for the show without saying we’re going for a look. We did what we like; we did stuff that was different. If it’s visually interesting, we’re going to shoot that. For the viewer, I think it’s great because it keeps them interested in the shots without taking them away from the story. We try not to do anything that’s too disturbing or removes the viewer from the story itself. We found our own niche, as far as style and look. That’s one thing we talk to directors in pre-production about: the look and how we do it.”
Explaining that with a tight turnaround time on each episode — which can range between eight to 10 days and around 22 episodes for the entire season — Filley says the HDXAVC files are recorded to SxS cards and then shipped to the West Coast to 24P and Colorworks for post.
“Throughout the years, [the 4K workflow] has become a much better process,” says editor Christopher Brookshire. “There’s a lot of refinement every year. I worked on other productions — I was an editor on Law & Order — and the process has grown leaps and bounds since then.”
According to Brookshire, who edits the show on an Avid Media Composer, there’s a very distinctive look and pace to The Blacklist that he adheres to in the editing process. “My aesthetic as an editor is obviously to keep things interesting, within each and every scene,” he says. “We have a lot of very talented directors who work on The Blacklist. Michael Watkins, our supervising producer who sometimes directs up to six or seven episodes a year, was a DP for many years, and has a really good eye. His sensibility and my sensibility seem to click from the standpoint that he likes to shoot a lot of what I like to call ‘ultra wide masters’ where you see whatever location or room that he’s shooting in, you have a really nice, wide angle to use. He does a lot of interesting contrasting angles against those wide angles, which would be more your ultra close-up, where you’re only seeing a portion of somebody’s face or a profile of somebody’s face. It’s very close. It’s interesting. The aesthetic on the show from the producer’s standpoint here in Los Angeles is one where we often shy away from your standard two shot or medium shot.”
Brookshire also explains that the show’s airtime is 42 minutes and 34 seconds, but sometimes the first cut can come in at anywhere from 10 to 14 minutes over. He says that it’s often the case that they “pace” the show up to “sometimes an ultra extreme where it’s just moving at a breakneck speed, which is sometimes difficult for the viewer, but it’s kind of our mandate to work in as much material as we can, given that time frame. It’s a challenge, as you can imagine, but it seems to work. The show is definitely paced very quickly. And I think that can either be a hindrance or something that people really enjoy. I think we’re in an age where people that watch these kinds of shows, are pretty adept at watching something at a higher rate of speed than we used to watch. Shows like Bonanza or the old Columbo type of shows moved very slowly, but this is the new format, the new frontier we kind of entered into.
“As editors, we have to kind of refine and tailor our abilities to the particular show that we’re working on. On The Blacklist, we’re asked to work at a quick pace as far as telling the story. But it’s really an incredible balance of telling the story in a very interesting way, while also trying to allow the viewer to process all of the information at such a high rate of speed. Often, it’s about getting through and working at this kind of really nice, quick pace and then picking out those moments where you feel things really need to land and the viewer really needs to process this particular moment in order for them to go forward and follow the story. It seems to work and it seems to resonate with viewers.”
As for any specific mandates handed down to the editing team, Brookshire explains that when you have James Spader on the screen, you let him take his time. “You let him deliver his lines, in what I call, that ‘Spader-ish’ way, where you just are reveling in that moment where he often has a showdown with another Blacklister and you just really want to soak all that in. He’s very charismatic; the camera loves him — his tone and rhythm and flow of his speech. It’s one that mandates us as well not to try and rush him through those great moments but allow him to use those moments to really elevate the show in a way where he’s moving at his own rhythm and flow, and it adds to the overall view of the show. Those are things that, as an editor with experience and wisdom, you begin to allow yourself to say, ‘This is a moment where we need to slow down and we need to soak all of this in.’”