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Crafting the Dark Film Noir of 1947 Los Angeles in ‘Archer: Dreamland’

Executive producer Matt Thompson and art director Chad Hurd share artwork and behind the scenes production insights into the highly-stylized Season 8 visual redesign.

With a bold, film noir throwback story arc and completely new visual design, Season 8 of the FXX hit Archer has never played, or looked better. This season, aptly titled Archer: Dreamland, picked right up from last year’s season ending cliffhanger – Sterling Archer, shot point blank and left for dead, face down, floating in a bloody swimming pool – with our hero, in a coma, fighting for his life, adrift in his dreams of life, love and combat flashbacks in 1947 Los Angeles.

According to executive producer Matt Thompson, casting Sterling Archer as a post-WWII gumshoe and setting the new season in 1947 Los Angeles made perfect sense to him and series creator, writer and executive producer Adam Reed. “Archer fits as a film noir detective. It fits his character. The gumshoe who is getting beaten down, who's barely hanging on against all odds -- he's gonna win the day, but when he wins the day, it doesn't necessarily make his life any better. These are core tenants of film noir that you realize exist inside of Archer. And that's why, when you're moving into this 1947 world it feels right. Archer fit the model of the gumshoe who keeps getting punched in the face.”

Shady villains as well as characters with questionable motives, played by the rest of Archer’s ensemble cast, only made the new season’s setting fit that much better. Thompson adds, “When you also look at the tenants of film noir and what the bad guys are like, all their shades of gray and morality tales and whatnot, you can see how all of our characters fit in. Film noir, as a genre, lends itself to our workplace comedy. Each one of our characters slotted into a role. It just kind of clicked.”  

Over the course of eight seasons, the sophisticated production pipeline behind the show’s seemingly minimalist animation style, has continued to grow. Producer and art director Chad Hurd, who along with fellow producer and art director Neal Holman are responsible for managing the design of every hat, pistol and fist you see onscreen, once again have started a new season completely from scratch, redesigning every single element of the show except the characters’ faces to fit with the 1947 film noir visual style. “Our illustration team needed to throw everything away and start with everything new. That was pretty much across the board in every department,” notes Hurd.

One thing, however, hasn’t changed – all visual design begins with the words on one of Reed’s scripts. Says Hurd, “Neal and I share a lot of responsibility in making the plan for how this show is going to look. It all starts with a script we get from Adam Reed. Usually there is some description of what a character is wearing, where it's set, maybe the time of day. From there, it's up to us to break down what those shots are going to look like and talk with our storyboard team to plot everything out. From there, we can start doing the research on looking at 1940s film noir, looking at buildings and old photos of Los Angeles. There are so many great photos of downtown Hollywood in the 1940s. It is really a treat to do the exploration.”

The show’s hallmark visual style has always integrated seemingly modern elements, though when you dig deeper, you realize the show reflected a mishmash of time periods, from the 1960s on up to the present day. To capture the proper visual style needed for Season 8, Holman and Hurd’s teams did a tremendous amount of research, looking at old noir and neo-noir films like Chinatown, dissecting them, seeing what the characters were wearing and how the scenes were lit. As Hurd describes, “We got really, really good at doing 1960's Archer. Everybody in the office knows how a suit is supposed to fall on a 1960's suit. So, we had to start over and learn the 1940's suit styles, dress styles and hair styles. It took a lot of trial and error. We ended up hiring a costumer who had worked on some other noir shows. She was a big help in picking out costumes that screamed 1940's as well as teaching us how suits should fall.”

Their research even included what phones and chairs existed – they made sure nothing snuck into the series that wasn't era appropriate. “We really wanted everything to be 1947,” says Hurd. “I don't think any cars or furniture, any details that go past 1947 are actually in the show. It's a very specific date that we went by as opposed to the ambiguous 1960's or 1980's references that Archer used to have.  This is the first time that we've ever pinned down a date.”

Like on past seasons, production of the 2D show starts with the building of each episode’s environments in 3D. According to Hurd, “We start by building our environments in 3D, basically, so we have this model we can live inside of, where we can point our camera in a direction, map a photo and use that as a base to paint from. That way, we're not laying down a perspective grid and doing each shot individually. It allows us to move our camera around and get some more interesting shots.” The art director goes on to mention how the 3D pass often provides less than stellar results. “Some of those 3D renders look like bad year-one Pixar stuff, but our background team does an excellent job in making them look like fully rendered paintings.”

At the same time, similar to past years, artists are creating characters and costumes, building 2D digital puppets that will be animated in After Effects. “While the 3D work is happening, our illustration team is working,” notes Hurd. “We used a lot of costumes this season, a lot of Nazi stuff, a lot of cyborg stuff. They will put an actor in a costume to get reference, snap some photos, and start drawing all that stuff in Adobe Illustrator. They also make sure that all character pieces are articulated so the After Effects team can move those characters around, just like we’ve done for all prior seasons.”

In a season filled with action sequences, Toon Boom Harmony was used more extensively than in previous years. Hurd explains, “We used Harmony a lot more. I think as you watch the season you'll see a lot of crazy action stuff, you'll see some dog fights, some fist fights and all of that was done on Harmony. We had a lot of talented animators that were eager to get their feet wet doing this noir style. Harmony is another tool that we use for some of these more fluid action themes that the script calls for.”

One of the areas Hurd is most proud of is the extensive work done this season with stylized lighting to capture the more nuanced film noir style. Says Hurd, “Our comp team has done an amazing job this year. Over the course of the past seasons, we've been doing more and more comp and lighting, but this season really calls for some dark, dark shadows and bright lights. Our comp team really busted it out and did an incredible job. A lot of thought went into many of our shots that had a lot of composition, you know, characters being back lit or long shadows.”

Hurd continues, “The difference between this season and seasons prior is that we've gone a little bit further with the lighting cues. In seasons past, we lit the office more ambiguously so it could be used for night or day. This year we really took into account the sun's setting, which meant we were going to have long shadows pouring through the windows. So even though the shot might be the same, it's a totally different painting, where our lighting actually contributes and gives a mood to the scene rather than just being done for practicality. We really depended on our comp team to make those shots work. I'm very, very happy with how this season is coming along.”

Hurd also notes how more stylized background paintings, coupled with the more extensive use of lighting, provided the look they were after. “This year, if you look at our backgrounds, you’ll see a lot more visible paint strokes and a lot more visible textures, compared to last year, which was more of a modern 1970's look. Last year had a lot more crisp, clean lines. It was very bright and shiny and clean and well lit. This year’s 1940's noir really allowed us to get a bit messier with things. That messiness in the background makes things feel more organic, maybe a little bit more alive. We've also painted all of our comp team lighting cues directly into the backgrounds, where in seasons past we kind of kept them more ambiguous. We've had a lot of office settings in past seasons with fluorescent lights from the ceiling. We didn't have that this year. It kind of allowed us to think outside of the box, which was a lot of fun.”

Depending upon the time of day, or scene tone, lighting was added to enhance the scene’s visual impact. Says Hurd, “Depending on the time of day and how the scene was written, if it was supposed to be gruff and sneaky or fun and lighthearted, we chose lighting cues to embellish what was happening in the script. All of our characters were composed with lighting in mind. From there we would talk to our background director, Tedwood Strong, about lighting ideas and he would come back with some gorgeous paintings. It was very collaborative. We really looked into the scripts for cues on what was happening so tonally so we could get the lighting right.”

Produced in its entirety at Floyd County Productions in Atlanta, Georgia means Archer benefits from having everyone on the crew within arm’s reach of the show’s creative leads. As Hurd explains, “Everything we do is in-house, so that if something starts to go a little awry and needs some adjustment, I can just walk over to other desks and we can have a conversation.” For Thompson, who founded the studio along with Reed, the benefits are even greater. “Adam and I have always owned our own means of production and we really do believe in the term show business,” he explains. “A lot of people that make their own cartoons don't necessarily own the animation studio. But we always have. We do try to run an efficient operation. We absolutely love talking to our animators every day. We love that there are one hundred people sitting right outside my office in Atlanta all helping us make this thing, that we’re not shipping this out to some place in Asia. We've always invested in our own studio so we have complete control of our productions.”

Hurd concurs, noting that most animation studios producing episodic television work with partner studios or service providers. “A lot of animation studios seem to ship overseas or to Canada. To be able to go from script to final product, all under one roof, is pretty great. If Adam wants something, or if Matt or Casey [Willis, the show’s co-executive producer] have an idea, I can just walk over to that animator or that background painter, and we can make those adjustments. That makes it easier to have that personal touch, to talk to the person who's animating the scene, whether it's 3D or 2D, and make those adjustments on the fly. For the most part, it works out really, really well.”

While keeping the production under one roof provides for easier oversight and instant access to all aspects of the production, once again shifting a new season of the series to a completely different setting wasn’t exactly the most “sterling” business decision. According to Thompson, “Yeah, it's a terrible business model that Adam and I have, which is we keep throwing away all of our drawings. That's not how cartoons are supposed to work, you know? You're used to seeing Fred Flintstone in his Fred Flintstone shirt. There's a reason for that. The reason is to keep illustrators from drawing a thousand new things. So once again we've gone to a place where we've said, ‘You know what? Take everything that we've done and throw it in the trash and go do some new stuff.’ Now, I'm extremely excited with the new season. Who's not as excited is my accountant, who's like, ‘Wait a second. Couldn't you reuse all this stuff?’”

But despite his ongoing and often thankless quest to plow over years of work for the sake of creative freedom, Thompson credits FX with the foresight and patience to allow him and Reed to do just that on a regular basis. Says the executive producer, “FX, to their credit, has given us the budgets to make that possible. They have allowed us to make the decision, ‘Hey, you know what, guys? It'd be interesting if we go back to 1947. By the way, that means I'm gonna have to do all new drawings, all new backgrounds, all new costumes, all new cars, all new everything.’ And FX said, ‘Aight.’ There are very few networks that will say, ‘Yeah! That's a big swing, take it!’”

When asked to describe the show’s ongoing success, Thompson quickly points to the show’s unique take on a group of funny, interesting and well-developed characters we can all relate to. He notes, “This type of show hadn't been done before. It’s a cartoon that treats its characters, for the most part, as real human beings. It deals with intelligent subjects, with heavy emotion, and tells fart jokes. It's almost like the action buddy comedy with romanticism and heart and humor. I'm not saying other cartoons don't make well-formed characters, I'm saying that they focus more on jokes per minutes and get away with all sorts of nonsensical things. Our jokes are character jokes, where it's only funny because Archer said it or because Cheryl did it. It's not necessarily an actual joke someone would tell.”

Thompson concludes, “For the most part, cartoons, even adult cartoons, have been, ‘Here are a ton of jokes we're gonna give you.’ I think the rule for most adult cartoons over the last twenty years has been five jokes a page. Where are your five jokes? We’ve never approached Archer that way. We approached it with, ‘Let's make some really fascinating characters that we want to spend time with and we're gonna make it a cartoon so we can go to all these exotic locales and have these really expensive car chases where if this was a live action show, it's budget would be six or seven billion dollars an episode.’”

Dan Sarto's picture

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