The new issue of Entertainment Weekly boasts a six-page article on the hit FX spy spoof Archer, an interview with star H. Jon Benjamin, and creator Adam Reed’s favorite episodes. (Elsewhere on EW.com you’ll find an exclusive photograph of the entire Archer “cast” and a guide to the show’s running gags.) But how exactly does the Archer behind-the-scenes team create the show’s remarkable animation? Using a recent sex scene between Sterling and supposed Colombian drug cartel godmother La Madrina as an example, art director Neal Holman details the crafting of the Sterling sausage. (Phrasing!!!)
Neal Holman: We get the script and several things start happening. First, we give the script to our storyboarders. They work out how we get from point A to point F. Point A and point F are in the script — but everything in between is kind of left up to us. [This shot] comes from a storyboard idea. We really wanted Archer and Madrina to be framed against that big open space of the balcony, it creates a nice silhouette.
Myself and my associate art director Chad Hurd will start working on environment designs. By the time we’re wrapped up we’re also giving notes to storyboarders of what works and what doesn’t work with the scenes that they’ve laid out. It’s a lot of “spin this plate, and then walk over here and then spin this plate.” You’re trying to get all the departments working at the same time.
Holman: That is Courtney Hicks, one of our illustrators. They will go downstairs and get in costume and take photo references based on these storyboards. We’ll take several hundred photos per episode. The more complex and the more real world your designs are, the harder it is to fly off-the cuff without shooting reference.
Holman: One of the more fun things about our job on Archer is designing the backgrounds. The way Adam [Reed, Archer creator] writes, it’s different every episode. One episode we’re designing a palace and the next episode we’re designing a space station and then next episode we’re designing a shack in Colombia.
We use the skeletons when we are setting the camera angles inside the 3-D software. Each environment in Archer is actually built into a 3-D model and once that 3-D model is built we can put our camera anywhere in it. We just use the skeletons as placeholders to make sure our frame is looking like our storyboard. It helps us see how close the character would be to camera and also gives you a sense of scale for the room
Holman: Now, we add in our photo reference and make sure everything is going to work with the scene. This is a ways of spot-checking that our eventual illustration and background go together. The eventual illustrations of our characters are more like a puppet or an action figure, where you can rotate the arm, you can rotate the hand, the head. They really animate it more like a puppet than traditional cel animation like Simpsons or Family Guy.
Holman: We have a team of seven people just painting backgrounds. They apply a paint treatment so the render becomes a real world environment. There was a lot of new stuff this season. Last season, we averaged about 110 new backgrounds per episodes and this season it’s been upwards of 160. It’s been a mountain to climb. It adds up. It’s like, Oh, that’s why we worked all those weekends.