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Animating ‘Archer’

Art director Neal Holman and animation director Bryan Fordney explain how Floyd County Productions brings us FX’s animated gem.

Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler), Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) and Cheryl Tunt (Judy Greer) share a tense moment in the fifth season finale of Archer Vice. Copyright FX Networks.

Adam Reed’s spy series Archer underwent a bit of a change this season, with the animated heroes forced by the FBI to jettison their spy business in exchange for lives of crime and cocaine-selling. And country western music production. As you can imagine, they’ve approached the crime business with the same bravado and dysfunction that they used to approach the spy business. Luckily, there’re still the same people keeping things running smoothly behind-the-scenes.  Floyd County Productions has been there from the beginning, in fact, and with five seasons under their belt – and two more still to come – art director Neal Holman and animation director Bryan Fordney practically have the process down to a science.  Overseeing a staff of sixty at their Atlanta-based studio, the duo open up about their economical approach to keeping Archer and his crew looking so darn good, using 3D software to create the 2D world of Adam Reed’s hilariously tight scripts.

Watch the fifth season finale, “Archer Vice: Arrivals/Departures,” tonight, April 21st at 10pm on FX.

Archer and the rest of the ISIS gang are the guests of Gustavo Calderon (Fred Armisen) and his wife Juliana (Lauren Cohan). Calderon is a big fan of Charlene but Juliana is a bigger fan of Archer.

Dan Sarto: Tell me a little bit about how this wonderful series comes together.  What are your roles and what’s your production pipeline like?

Neal Holman: Archer is not your average cartoon.  We work very, very quickly and the department heads and production heads have all worked together for so long that our process is really streamlined.  A script is written and then things start to sort of branch outward.  I will start working with the storyboard team and while they’re busy storyboarding a scene, my associate art director Chad Hurd and I will be designing backgrounds and then working with our character designers.  At the same time, we’re working with our 3D department helping to build the background designs into 3D environments. On the other side of the track, the producers are casting and doing the voice recording with our actors.  By the time they are done with an audio edit, we will have storyboards to put to their audio and then pass that off to our illustration and background directors.  That’s when they start building Archer in a jungle suit or Archer in a tuxedo.  The background department will be painting over renders from our 3D environments.  Bryan takes all of these elements and the animatic with audio and he’ll line up all of the elements to go with it and begin animating and compositing.

Bryan Fordney: Another unique thing about the Archer pipeline is that the animation process is actually done separate from the drawing.  The drawings are done based on the storyboards and the illustration director also sort of directs drawing sequences.  We use Adobe After Effects for the character acting, which is almost more similar to 3D animation than it is to traditional animation because we are essentially creating rigs, like 3D character puppets, but we are doing it in 2D.  That allows us to work very quickly and it allows us to add various subtleties that we wouldn’t be able to do with traditional animation.

Pam Poovey (Amber Nash) makes a deal that puts everyone in danger.

DS: So the backgrounds are done using 3D software tools?

NH: Yes.  The way we get a design going is Chad Hurd and I will work on something that we think best suits the needs of the scripts and the aesthetic that Adam is going for in his scene.  We’ll get his thoughts on it and once a design is locked, we give it to our 3D team and they build that environment.  Once it’s built, we can put our camera anywhere inside it and kick out a render and then pass it on to our background team, our painters, who pain over that render.  So, it’s not just an out-of-the-box render that goes straight to television.  It goes through our painters first so it looks more like a painting than it does a stale 3D render.

DS: Now, am I mistaken or is some of the 3D animation done somewhere else in the Midwest?

BF:  Trinity Animation does a lot of 3D work with us, like the 3D environment builds I’m talking about.  We rely on them pretty heavily.  They’re at Lee’s Summit, Missouri.

Ray Gillette (Adam Reed) and Krieger (Lucky Yates) move some dangerous cargo.

DS: What program do you use for the 2D characters?

NH:  Adobe Illustrator is where we’re building all of the elements for the character rigs.  We’ll draw Archer standing in a tuxedo, but that one illustration of Archer in his tuxedo is split up into several different layers, so that his hand is on a layer, his forearm is on a layer, his bicep is on a layer, etc.  In After Effects, we’ll link those three layers together, so that when I move the bicep, the forearm and the hand move with it.  It becomes like a puppet rig.

BF: The heads themselves are like a whole other beast, though.  When we draw on a body, we put a dummy head on it because the actual head is a really complicated rig that takes a long time to develop and we stick on everybody that we draw.

NH:  It’s all about economy and getting the most of what you are doing.  There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors.  We try to make it look like a lot of animation, but we’re very economical.  If we are going to build a head then that head rig is going to be really good.  We’ll build it once and use it throughout the year.  We are trying to use every bit of everything and nothing really goes away.  Any body that Archer is drawn in, like a suit or polo shirt or whatever, you will see repurposed on drones in the background throughout the season.  Nothing goes to waste here with our illustrations and our rigs!

Cocaine processing has very few perks for Cyril Figgis (Chris Parnell) and Ray.

DS: But on the flip side, when you look at the finished episodes, it doesn’t look like a minimalist visual presentation.  It looks very stylized.

NH: That’s the goal.

BF: There has to be a balance, but we really do feel like the important thing about Archer is just how it looks.

DS: Right, right.  He is all about his looks!  Turning the subject to Adam Reed for a second, does he send you a finished script and then you work with him on the creation of the storyboards?

BF: We usually get a script that isn’t quite locked, but not far from it.  When he’s ready to get FX’s response, that’s the draft we get and start building from.  Adam is just such a strong writer that we can go ahead and start moving forward with the major builds.  And after that, once we have done a pass of Act One, we will send him a PDF of the storyboards along with some notes to guide him through it and he’ll send back whatever feedback he has.  After all these seasons, I have a pretty decent idea of what Adam is going for when he writes a script or a scene, so the notes have been pretty minimal.

There is another storyboard revision after we add in the audio.  In most shows, storyboard goes straight to audio and that is a luxury that we don’t have because of our schedule.  We generally finish storyboards for a full episode in two weeks and two days, and that’s moving really quickly for four people.  Sometimes when the audio comes in, an actor’s read will be much different than how we were reading it when we were doing the boards, so we have to make revisions.  One of the best things about our production is that we can turn on a dime and still keep things move pretty fluidly.

NH: Also, we don’t just start one episode, work it until it is done and then start another – they are all overlapping in various stages.  So, while one episode is being written, the previous episode is being storyboarded and the episode before that is being built and the episode before that is being animated.  We generally have four or sometimes five episodes going in production at one time.

Cheryl is more than a match for a group of bikers.

DS: What’s the total timeframe for the production of an episode?

NH: I think it’s ten weeks, is that right Bryan?

BF: Yes, that sounds about right.

DS: Do you do the post yourselves at Floyd County Productions?

NH: A strange thing about this show is that the post work is done in After Effects, the same program that we use to do the character animation.

BF: The editing is done in Final Cut by an editor, but we often have to make adjustments in After Effects for timing and everything.

NH: The only thing that’s really not done in-house is the recording and audio mixing.

The unflinching voice of reason - Malory Archer (Jessica Walter).

DS: Adam Reed told me recently that the team at Floyd County regularly manages to make the gags in the script so much funnier than he ever imagined…

NH: Well, one example that comes to mind is episode 402, I think…the one with Lucas Troy, who was Timothy Olyphant last season….

DS: Oh, yes, his close buddy…

NH: …Archer’s best friend.  That episode ends with a just a silent shot of Archer, Lana and the car.  The comedy in it comes from Archer’s facial expression – that tells the whole story.  We just stay on their faces as they think about the horrors they’ve just gone through.  It was kind of funny in the script, but just seeing the way Bryan’s team really sold that makes it stand out in my mind as one of the best examples of our character acting.

BF: Yeah, the cool thing about that was it was the last step in the production.  One of our animators just decided, “Oh I’m going to make these really hilarious frowny faces on these characters at the very end.”  It really wasn’t planned out that way.

NH: Because we have such talented improv actors on our cast, I think a lot of people believe the show is primarily improv and I’d say…95% of it is written.  What seem like improvised jokes are actually written on the page and that speaks to Adam’s natural talent as a writer.  He is really incredible.  We’re a little spoiled in that we get Adam Reed scripts every two to three weeks.  When we have to shift and work on other projects, I always hold [the other writers] to that same standard and there is always a disconnect at first, because they are not Adam.

BF: There is a real confidence in the scripts.  Like, if we are confused partway through the production because, “This joke just isn’t working,” and then we look back at the script we’re like, “Oh. That’s because we didn’t do it by the script!”

Archer takes a break from love making and narco-trafficking...but only for a short while.

DS: The stuff is brilliant on a lot of different levels.  I think the visual design of this show so beautifully compliments the tone and the comedy that I cannot think of another visual style that would make it any better.

NH: Yeah.  When we were doing the pilot we wanted something with really bold line work, thick heavy lines.  We just didn’t want to look like another Family Guy or Simpsons.  A lot of the cartoons that we were seeing had this razor thin line work and that’s not to knock those cartoons – it was just something we didn’t really want to follow suit with.  We wanted something that would be different and give a more graphic appeal to the characters.  We wanted the backgrounds to have these lush painted textures.  At first it was looking more like a ‘60s comic book but it has sort of morphed from there.

DS: Last question – what are the biggest challenges you face day-to-day and week-to-week in bringing Archer together?

NH: Some of it is dealing with how best to do really cinematic sequences with limited animation and limited time.  That is something I actually really enjoy because it gives you constraints to work against.  We definitely don’t have an unlimited budget and we definitely don’t have unlimited time…but we swing for the fences in our storyboards and really try to make the biggest, baddest car chase we can and then boil that down into logistical elements that we can actually do.  It’s one thing to board a giant fight scene and it’s quite another to plan it out to where you can do it without killing all of your animators.

BF: Yeah, and on these big action episodes, you’re really trying to find a balance between the action-packed sequences and the natural comedy of the voiceover work, which is the core of the show.  With normal episodes, that just comes along naturally, but when we get to these crazy episodes with tons of adventure, it’s vital to find a balance.

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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.

James Gartler is a Canadian writer with a serious passion for animation in all its forms. His work has appeared in the pages of Sci Fi Magazine, and at the websites EW.com and Newsarama.com.