Art Director Justin Wagner walks through some of the production highlights – including an almost templated approach to storyboarding nude scenes – on the acclaimed, Emmy Award-winning series that just concluded its 14th and final season with a special episode, ‘Archer: Into the Cold,’ now streaming on Hulu.
I must admit up front that I am unashamedly a huge fan of FX’s Archer, which I consider to be one of the funniest and well-written animated series I’ve ever seen. Adam Reed, alongside co-conspirator Matt Thompson, created one of the smartest, most risqué shows on TV. Who knew that chaotic office politics and HR directives could provide as much intrigue, and laughs, as the cloak and dagger of international espionage and misuse of large-caliber weapons? With drinking! And “LANA!!!” And Krieger’s Van… And “Terms of Rampagement!” And… “Phrasing!”
Sadly, the show just broadcast its Season 14 and series finale last Sunday on FX and FXX, streaming since Monday on Hulu. The special episode, Archer: Into the Cold, serves as a fitting conclusion to a show that, as Reed often said, “would make a longshoreman blush.”
In the special, with the UN voting to outlaw independent spy agencies, Archer and the gang have to work outside the law to save the world from an unlikely duo.
Archer boasts one of animation’s greatest casts, featuring the voices of H. Jon Benjamin as the world’s greatest spy, “Sterling Archer;” Aisha Tyler as the spy with marital troubles, “Lana Kane;” Judy Greer as the crazy office assistant in search of a special skill, “Cheryl/Carol Tunt;” Chris Parnell as the reliable company-man, “Cyril Figgis;” Amber Nash as the enthusiastic offender, “Pam Poovey;” Reed as the opportunist, “Ray Gillette;” and Lucky Yates as the experimenter-in-chief, “Algernop Krieger.” Jessica Walter, who unfortunately passed away in 2021, voiced the key role of Malory Archer, Sterling’s mother, an acerbic, biting, and wonderfully strident spymaster who owned and ran the agency. Season 14 also features Natalie Dew as the gang’s new super-agent, “Zara Khan.” You can read their series finale reflections here.
And in one final interview, series Art Director Justin Wagner, as he’s done each season for the last five years, took some time to talk to AWN, sharing both personal and production highlights as well as shedding light on how, if ever, he worked on material he thought might never get past Standards and Practices.
Dan Sarto: You’ve been on the show since almost the beginning. Quite the journey.
Justin Wagner: I've been seeing the “Archer” logo since Season 3, when I was hired. They were looking for [story] boarders at the time, and they were at a point where [production studio] Floyd County was expanding. I went in for an interview, and the next week I was a storyboard revisionist on Archer. So, it was pretty incredible. That happened in what, 2010? Now it's 13 years later.
By the end of my first year, I was storyboarding scenes all on my own, and then the following couple of years, I was a storyboard artist for... God, if you do the math, it's probably close to 50 episodes. Became essentially a boards director, boards lead for a season or two, and then just started getting groomed by the art director, at the time, to move into the art direction office. I became the associate art director on Seasons 9 and 10, the last two coma seasons, and then, at that point, the art director moved on, we were signed on for more seasons, and I've been the art director and one of the producers for the last four seasons.
It's been pretty incredible, quite the ride, and it is definitely something I look back on as a... I'm proud of going from that little storyboard revisionist, all the way to art director in a show. But it also shows the power of storyboards, and how they really are the architecture for the entire show. And if you can get that down pat, then there is an avenue to art direction for you.
DS: This show is known for its incredibly funny, tight scripts, written for years by Adam before other writers joined the show. There was very little, if any, adlibbing by the cast. What was the dynamic boarding scripts where you had to stay so close to what was written?
JW: I've been asked the question, “What was it like working on Adam's scripts versus other writers?” Over time, the way the show was made, some things shifted. But Adam had a rhythm to how he wrote. Yes, there's a lot of variety in the episodes. But a lot of times as a boarder, as you’re reading a script, you're like, “Oh, I've done this joke before,” like where it's one person insults this person, this person insults the other person, and then you have a group, everyone reacts, and you're like, “I know this rhythm. I need to do an over the shoulder shot, a single shot, and then hit a group shot.” That's how it works in the office, or whatever particular mission they might be on.
One of the interesting things on Archer that I think a lot of people don't know is that we board without audio. I'm not boarding to audio. I'm boarding to the script, and for a long time, it was the Adam Reed script. A lot of the newer writers for the last few seasons, I think, really do hit that same rhythm a lot of times that Adam would hit, because the show is so steeped in that Adam-created energy, that you see a lot of the same patterning in how to make a laugh come through.
And because we don't board to audio, I think it opens you up to being a little bit more creative at times. I'm talking about redoing the same jokes. Sometimes, you can be creative when they build the animatic and put the voices in… “I think that this type of reaction or this setup would actually work better.” And then you can note from there, too. Once the animatic comes out, we still have the opportunity to get back in and give it a board or two, or flip some shots, or move some things around to get that optimal laugh, or shock, or intense feeling of action.
DS: What has set the show apart visually from other adult animated shows? It was never the biggest budgeted show, and a lot of the look is based upon some very smart decision-making on the design and production side.
JW: What sets Archer apart, though I know a lot of shows do this, is it's based in reality. It's meant to look like a reverse engineered live-action television show. These people are spies. They have human proportions. It isn't super cartoony. It isn't super wacky, like Looney Tunes. So, whenever you read a script, and they go to an Antarctic research station, or something like that, that's where our design team goes first. Where are there actual Antarctic stations that I could reference for this? And you just start pulling from reality. Maybe pushing it in some areas and melding some things together to get the coolest set you could come up with. Or the coolest character design. We'll look at clothing in big spy movies because that's what Archer is supposed to be. It is supposed to be the cartoon version of Mission Impossible… of James Bond.
DS: The show is famous for its incredibly funny, sometimes nasty - or “smilthy” as Adam and Aisha Tyler would call them – lines. Were there times when, with the first time you looked at a script, or the first time you actually boarded one, that you thought, “Oh my God, I can't believe this is in here.”
JW: You bringing that up made me think of... God, what was the name of the episode? “Pocket Listing,” an episode in Season 6. That's when Lana and Archer hooked back up for the first time, and it called for a sex sequence that I was like, “Man, this feels graphic for Archer.” And if you look back at that episode, it was graphic, and I storyboarded that, and it went through. Everyone was like, “Yeah, it works.” I mean, you don't see... but you are like, “Damn, they really showed it all. They almost showed it all in this episode.” So that one definitely comes to mind.
But yeah, there's definitely other times too, especially with jokes, or nudity a lot of times, where we automatically know how to cut around it, where you're like, “Oh, someone dropped their pants. You probably need to shoot by that butt and show the gang's reaction on the other side.” So that just comes from years of working on the show. Honestly, working on the show has made me not shocked anymore. Anything in a script, I feel, could be handled.
DS: What can you share about the finale?
JW: I think it encapsulates all of Archer within the final episode. There's a lot of action. It ramps up to a rather large set piece toward the end: it’s the gang on a mission, and they're arguing, and hopefully it gives people what they want out of an ending for a show that ran this long. There are a few last Pam moments, a few last Cheryl acting wild and crazy moments, everyone at their best. So that's what I hope it delivers.
DS: What do you think made the show so successful?
JW: Comedy-wise, it's of a generation of shows with that kind of insult adult comedy style, and there isn't a ton of that in adult animation anymore. And I feel like mainstay of Archer has been this tight-knit family. They all love each other, but they give each other shit, and they all have problems. I feel like when it was originally pitched, it was almost like an Arrested Development by way of animation, with spy stuff. That ensemble, the cast of this show, and the characters that Adam created, you feel something for them.
Archer hit its mark immediately. I mean, think about Archer's relationship with his mother. That is an immediate tune in for you when you're watching it. For me, you're like, “Oh, this is interesting, now.” Their entire relationship is so… there's an Oedipal complex to it.
It’s so unique in that way. But, the look of the show, as we talked about, I just don't think that anything else looks like Archer. Most adult animated comedies, it's like buggy eyes, or it's meant to look quickly done, in a way, or more cartoony. I hope that there's a window in the future for more shows that look like Archer.
DS: What have you learned on this show that you'll take to your next projects?
JW: I learned how to be a professional artist on this show. I know that sounds pretty broad, but up until working on Archer, I was a freelance comic book artist. But this show taught me attention to detail. And that goes to a lot of what we've talked about just in this interview: if you don't have a basis for what you're working on, then you need one. You need to be looking at reference. You need to investigate all the things that are working in television, or in movies, that you enjoy. Like, start breaking things down as to why a scene works in a movie that you might love. Archer taught me to look at stuff like that with an inner eye.
And all the people I've worked under were just... on this show, the amount of hard work that goes into this show, and the amount of time that we have to pump out an episode, is unreal. I've worked with some of the hardest working people in the industry, bleeding to get this show to look as good as it does. So, in general, it gave me pride in my work, wanting to rise to the level of all these other artists you get the opportunity to work with.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.