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Crime, Punishment and Cinematography: Going Behind the Scenes of ‘The Blacklist’

The Blacklist is setting records for NBC this season. Two months into its run, NBC Universal execs said the series was the most-watched new NBC drama in nearly 20 years. The fact that it has also been setting records for DVR playback (as many as 6.5 million viewers per episode) is icing on the cake for the freshman FBI crime drama from Davis Entertainment and Sony Pictures Television. Also significant, the series is shot entirely in 4K.

Megan Boone as Elizabeth “Liz” Keen, Diego Klattenhoff as Donald Ressler. Photo by Will Hart/NBC.

Director Joe Carnahan and cinematographer Yasu Tanida worked hard to craft last fall’s pilot, which set in motion the scenario of agent-turned-global-terrorist “Red” Reddington (James Spader) changing his M.O., suddenly volunteering to help the government catch its most wanted criminals. Also suspicious, he will only work face-to-face with one person: an attractive, inexperienced agent named Elizabeth “Liz” Keen (Megan Boone).

Tanida, who is credited as DP for several Blacklist episodes this season, says his earliest priority was trying to understand what his director had in mind for the tone and feel of the show. “Along the way through development, preproduction and production, there are a lot of thoughts, ideas and suggestions from designers, producers and executive producers. My second priority was to talk through all these ideas thoroughly so when we’re in day one of production, everyone from the EP to the prop master to the makeup artist is on the same page,” Tanida says.

“If there was pressure for the pilot, it was knowing all your work might not make it [to air] if the series doesn’t get picked up. So there’s an added intensity to get it right the first time when the studio heads watch, to create good television so they need to see episode two,” he says.

A production still from the pilot episode. Photo by David Giesbrecht/NBC.

For the pilot (shot in New York City and Washington, D.C.), the production crew deployed three Sony PMW-F55 cameras outfitted with a range of Panavision Primo lenses: 11:1 zoom, 4:1 zoom, Angenieux 15-40mm short zoom and a 28-76mm short zoom.

Since we’re a Sony Pictures series, we got to take a look at a beta version of the F55 on the Sony lot,” says Tanida. “The first thing Joe [Carnahan] liked about it was its form factor, with its lightweight and compact size. It wasn’t quite ready to put through a shoot, and Sony encouraged us toward the F65. So it was either the Alexa, the F65 or a beta F55. Panavision allowed me to test the [F55] the day after it arrived at their Woodland Hills [L.A.] office.”

Tanida and company wound up testing all three cameras through the Colorworks lab on the Sony lot. “Joe loved the look of the F55. It had a nice, unique look to it, different from the Alexa—with sharper blacks and good skin tones. Where Alexa tends to want to go more green, the F55 tended to want to be more yellow in skin tones. Being the first and one of the few shows on network using the F55, I think it separates itself in that way,” he says.

James Spader as Raymond “Red” Reddington. Photo by Will Hart/NBC.

“The wide shots we tried to keep 14mm or 17.5mm, with a small dolly move if it fit the scene. But there are exceptions to every scene. For a chaotic sequence in which Megan Boone is searching for a missing girl, we pushed a J.L. Fisher 11 dolly down a brick road using an 11:1 zoom lens. The operator had a rough ride, but it fit the tone of that particular scene. I tend to light very aggressively, which usually consists of having a really bright spot and a very dark spot in the frame. Having a lot of contrast in a frame feels more ominous and sets the tone for the show,” says Tanida.

In the pilot, when Spader and Boone were in a scene together, Tanida used a warmer color temperature on both actors, while keeping their deep background a colder blue. “It creates a sense that they are almost family and on the same team, even though they had just met.”

Tanida continues, “James’ experience in previous television shows affected the set in a positive way. During blocking for every scene, James and Joe worked out not only how Red moves about a space but why he moves. That dictates where we place a key light or what window to light from, or what practical [light] would be placed where, and where the camera needs to move from point A to B.”

The Monday night series co-stars Ryan Eggold, Diego Klattenhoff, Harry Lennix and Parminder Nagra.