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Making TV: Yasu Tanida – Starting The Blacklist

How Cinematographer Yasu Tanida shot the pilot for one of television’s most popular dramas.

By Michael Fickes


Cinematographer Yasu Tanida and Director Joe Carnahan plan a scene on location for the pilot for The Blacklist.
Photo: David Giesbrecht/NBC/Sony Pictures Television

It took 19 days to shoot the one-hour pilot for The Blacklist. Typically, pilots require more time to shoot than the remaining episodes from a show’s first season. But 19 days? “We took more time to shoot than any other one-hour pilot on NBC,” says Yasu Tanida, the pilot’s cinematographer. “We needed time for extensive action scenes. One four-minute sequence showing an attack on a convoy on a bridge took four days.

“We spent two days on the wide shots for that sequence,” Tanida continues. “On the third day, we shot on green-screen for a scene showing an SUV getting hit by a truck and knocked over. Special effects built a rig where the SUV could safely tumble onto its side. We took another day for inserts and details.”

Additionally, pilots need more preproduction and planning, says Tanida. The crew doesn’t know each other or the director yet. The cast members have just met and are figuring out how their characters will interact. They must plan a look and color scheme, and develop a lighting concept.

Because of all the details that must get worked out when making a pilot, many eventually great television dramas don’t hit their stride for several episodes. The Blacklist hit the ground running. Within several episodes it already was being listed as one of the most popular shows of the season — the only new show of the season on those lists.

Start With The Camera

Tanida and Director Joe Carnahan chose the Sony F55 camera — it had just come out. “We tested it for a month before going into production, and The Blacklist was the first television series to shoot with it,” Tanida says. “We used Panavision Primo lenses and a set of Optimo short zooms for Steadicam and hand-held shooting. We shot 4K raw, and the DIT (digital imaging technician) color corrected on the set so we got the look we wanted.”

Then Shoot The Star

The Blacklist had a major advantage from the beginning: James Spader in the lead roll of Raymond “Red” Reddington.

Reddington is a former government agent who preferred crime to law enforcement and has eluded capture for many years. In the pilot, he turns himself in to the FBI and makes a deal to help the agency track down Reddington’s blacklist of the world’s worst criminals. We don’t yet know his real reasons for that.

Reddington is a powerful presence. He dominates his FBI handlers. Most of his power comes from Spader. A lot also comes from the way Carnahan and Tanida set up and shot his scenes.

In one scene, Spader as Reddington sits behind a boardroom table facing the camera, his back to the wall. Above his head on the wall is the FBI decal. The two FBI agents are questioning him. He is a prisoner, but the lighting, camera work, set design—and Spader’s presence—make it look like he has taken over the FBI.

“He takes over with his dialog,” Tanida says. “We helped by lighting the agents with hard light coming through the big windows in the room. Blinds cast shadows, and the background behind the agents is chaotic. The agents are supposed to be in control, but they aren’t.”

All of the scenes in The Blacklist pilot are set with the same attention to detail to create the characters and set relationships in motion.

The show’s relationships are mysterious. Reddington lays down a condition: He will only talk to agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone). Why? Only Reddington knows. Something is off about Keen’s husband. He has a stash of fake IDs in their apartment. She finds them and develops suspicions, which Reddington fans.

The directing, acting and cinematography create all of these characters and their mysteries in The Blacklist pilot.

As the first season ended, The Blacklist ranked eighth on Entertainment Weekly’s list of the Top 50 broadcast network shows and had collected four nominations from three awards organizations, including best actor and best television series.

It takes a good pilot to accomplish all of that.

July 22, 2014