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The Minimalist Animation of ‘Archer’

Producer Neil Holman and art director Chad Hurd detail the limited but highly stylized animation techniques they wield to devastatingly hilarious effect on their hit FX animated series.

With a move to Los Angeles and seemingly ill-fated shift from bumbling spymasters to bumbling private detectives, the dysfunctional crew of FX’s hit animated series Archer has stumbled into their new season needing completely new headquarters, sets, costumes, vehicles, gear and most importantly, a fresh cast of shady and otherwise obnoxious characters. And a baby.

Leaders on the show’s Floyd County Productions animation team are producer Neil Holman and art director Chad Hurd, together responsible for turning series creator and executive producer Adam Reed’s scripts into the finished gems we watch in giddy admiration in what is now the show’s seventh season.

I had a chance to talk with the pair right before this season’s March 31st premiere. They spoke at length about many key production details and overall pipeline challenges, sharing their insights about how they keep the show looking fresh, doing justice to Reed’s creative vision, while making sure they stay on time and on budget.

Dan Sarto: Every year for the past five years, I’ve interviewed Adam [Reed, the series creator, executive producer and writer] before the start of the new season. With Season 7 set in Los Angeles, I figured new sets, new characters, great opportunity to dig into the show’s design and animation a bit. Tell me first, what are your main duties on the show?

Chad Hurd: Right now I'm serving as the art director for the show, which means I wear a lot of hats. I'm designing the backgrounds, helping design the characters and leading the storyboard team breaking down all the shots on the pre-production side of things. It's my role to envision what the show's going to look like as soon as Adam finishes writing the script.

Neil Holman: I’m supposed to take on more of a producer role this year, but previously, I've been art director on the show since the pilot. With the art duties, once the script is written, it goes to the art director and that's really where the blueprints of the episode start to come to fruition. That's where we really lay the groundwork for the production and figure out how we're going to get from point A to point B.

DS: Your production style is unique for a mainstream animated series. You use a limited animation production process that includes Photoshop, Illustrator and After Effects for animation and compositing. Can you talk a bit about how you design and animate the show?

NH: Let's say we have an office within the script. What Chad and I will do is research what kind of office this should be, as far as its architecture, figuring out what needs to happen in the script, where the door needs to be for characters walking, or tables, desks, etc. Then we'll build a background design that’s kind of like a dollhouse cut-away. It's really so we can figure out what kind of furniture we're going to put in - what's the aesthetic of the room. Then, we'll give that to our 3D department. 3D will take this design and build a 3D model of the environment. There's a lot of push and pull, fixing things as you go - sometimes what you laid out in your design doesn't look so good once it gets to 3D. So it's a very fluid process.

Once that 3D environment model is built we can put our camera really anywhere we want. So, we can start shooting wide shots, we can do extreme close-ups, we can use different lenses on a camera just like you can do in real life. Once we take a picture inside that 3D model, our background painters work over that picture, that render, if that makes sense.

All the angles that we figure out with our storyboard artists, we take those camera angles, plot those inside this 3D environment and kick out still images. Our background painters take those 3D-rendered images and then paint over them, working in all sorts of textures and details. They really do quite a lot to bring it to what you see as the final picture.

CH: Another thing that's kind of interesting about our workflow is that we use a lot of photo reference for our character illustrations. Because it's such a realistic style, we'll actually dress up models in suits, or scuba gear, or whatever we need, and take reference photos to work from. We do all of our drawings here, in-house, in Adobe Illustrator. Those drawings are turned into puppets, so if Archer's going to move his arm around we'll put those rotation points at his forearm and wrist so that we can economize how many drawings we need. Those drawings then will go into Adobe After Effects where we actually do the animation.

DS: So you do your final compositing and animation with After Effects?

NH: After Effects is where all these separate pieces, the character illustrations, the background paintings, sometimes a 3D animated car, all come together. That's where we really start composing the show. They take color and lighting passes over the whole composite of the show, where they'll really add a lot of finishing details, like an atmosphere or moving clouds. It’s impressive what they can turn all these pieces into.

It’s much more puppetry than it is traditional animation. Archer at its core is a limited animation show. We don't use the traditional animation setup that The Simpsons and a lot of the primetime cartoons do and because of that, we work a lot faster. Our pipeline is really built for speed. The average timeline on an episode is somewhere around 11 weeks. It can balloon up to 13 weeks, but that's about our entire production on an episode. Some primetime cartoons that are on Fox, those big name cartoons, they take about nine months per episode.

Because all of our staff is in-house, we can pivot really quickly. It doesn't take much for us to turn the ship around if we need to address something, or something's not working out once we see it in edit. It’s not that hard to make changes. It's not fun, but it doesn't take a month to correct an issue.

CH: Because we're all in the same house, if a problem arises, I can just walk out my office door, two rows of desks down, and ask for that change. We really pivot hard on a dime if we have to.

DS: The fact you’re all in the same studio certainly must increase your communication efficiency.

CH: A lot of efficiency and a lot of control, too. We can talk to our department leads and combine our resources to figure out how something's going to work. It's pretty collaborative and gives us a lot of control over the final look of the show.

DS: Considering that Adam does almost all the writing, how early does he share, "Well it looks like we're gonna have these new characters, these environments," things like that?

NH: We don’t normally see things until he finishes a script, when he turns it in to FX. Sometimes it's a big surprise, other times he gives us a little bit of a heads-up. I can remember way back in Season 3 when we went to space in the finale and he gave us a little heads-up that we needed to design an interior of a space station without giving us any specifics [laughs]. You can only design so much blind. Most of the time we just wait until he finishes a script and then start working it.

DS: Speaking of finished scripts, Archer and crew move to Los Angeles this season. That means a huge number of new characters, sets, costumes and other assets. But the main characters don’t really change from season to season. How much refinement do you do each year? Are you still able to use some of the same visual material you've used in previous years?

CH: Every year at the end of the season we take a look at our library of all the different assets we’ve built and decide if it's good enough or not to go on to the next season. Lately, the last few years, we've been doing quite a bit more redraws and this season is no exception. With a new Los Angeles background and new outfits that they're going to be wearing it was kind of a total redraw. The style's still the same. We know how to draw that Archer style, but the cut of their clothes are different, they've got a lot of different hairstyles, the aesthetic of the backgrounds has changed somewhat. We're always trying to up our game from the previous year. Sometimes, like in Season 5, they're just wearing totally different outfits and that's a different beast you have to tackle.

DS: So how do you handle the design process? You've got a script, new stuff needed for each episode, other stuff that won’t change all season long. Los Angeles affords you a whole new opportunity for just about everything.

NH: Adam was a costume minor in college and because of that he really has a specific vision of what he sees for the characters. We do a lot of research and we throw a lot of designs at Adam and he gives us feedback. Sometimes it's a thumbs up that we nailed it right out of the gate. Sometimes it takes a little more going back and forth, trying to figure out not only what's cool, but what's animatable because we're a limited animation show. We have to pay really close attention to how much detail we're putting into these costumes. If it's too much detail it can actually hurt the animatability of the character. If you see a character wearing plaid, we've taken great pains to make sure that's animatable and hide the seams of the joints in the design.

It's always a process trying to figure out the best rig we can do for each character and what's the best design for each character. As far as the evolution of the show goes, at the end of each season, what Chad was saying, we do a postmortem looking at our character rigs. Sometimes the After Effects guys have specific requests due to technology that they are just now worrying about, or they've written some code to make the animation easier. That will change how we build the actual characters. This season you're going to see a lot more facial expressions than we've done before. That's because they've developed some new coding within After Effects to make these transitions to bigger expressions a little easier. In the past we would have to constantly redraw all these expressions and that became time consuming. Now it's just a little more fluid.

DS: What are you guys using for your 3D work? And in my talk with Adam, he mentioned some new 2D tech you’re using this year. Can you tell us about the new pipeline technology you’re using?

CH: Yeah, well one big new thing that we’re using now is Toon Boom Harmony, which is kind of like a super fancy Flash that's made for animating. It's a lot more traditional and we've been using this a lot more with our rigs. Anything that you see that has a lot of movement, usually our action scenes, like when we do a big spin kick, that's done in Harmony. We've been using that a good bit more this season. You're going to see a lot of fun action scenes.

DS: That's a much more traditional 2D tool.

CH: It is. Our artists rough all the action out, then we get our timing down. We'll bring in our Archer puppets that were made in Illustrator, but actually draw all those inbetweens rather than use them as rotation points.

NH: Using Harmony this year is kind of a blend of what we do and what some of the more traditional shows do. It's really delivered some cool results. I think it's a noticeable change without being jarring, which is what we're going for. It still feels like the show, but it’s the show plus a little.

DS: And for the 3D environment work…

NH: We do our 3D animation in Cinema 4D. We actually build the 3D environments in 3ds Max.

DS: Tight schedule and tight budget. Small studio crew. Certainly a challenging production environment. What are the issues that keep you up at night, that make you pull your hair out and scream, “Lana!”

CH: For me, it's always a race against the clock. As soon as that script shows up in my email we have to start moving. If it's a big episode with a lot of different designs, I'm going to be hustling to get those designs done and sent over to our 3D department to start building as soon as possible. If there are a lot of new characters and designs that I'm trying to figure out, whether it's going to the ocean or just the 1970s dresses, there's a lot of research that goes into everything you see on the screen. I guess the thing that keeps me up at night is just knowing that a script has dropped and that it's up to me to get everything done on time because if I don't, it's going to make the studio suffer.

NH: For me the thing that keeps me up is that Adam's scripts are so cinematic. The general public doesn't get to read what we read, but he writes so well and so cinematically I always feel the pressure to do those scripts justice. That's not me blowing smoke, that's just the reality. Archer is a limited animation show, so it's a constant struggle between what's the coolest way we can do this scene and what's the cheapest way, then finding that middle ground. We only have so much time, we only have so much budget, so we have to make the coolest thing that we can in the time we have with the staff we have.

We don't have the freedom of some of the bigger budget shows that can do these big swooping camera moves, but sometimes we can. It's all smoke and mirrors, look at this because this is really cool, just don't look over to the left because that's a pile of bullshit [laughs]. That's the game and it's always challenging and it's always fun. You're not bored working on this show.

CH: You're going to see some pretty big camera moves in the upcoming season that Adam actually wrote into the script - I'm really impressed with how they turned out. Our team did extremely well and I'm excited for you to see it.

NH: Above all, Archer is an ambitious show. We constantly try to push ourselves, we constantly try to just do what we've done before plus a little. We try to avoid becoming complacent.

DS: Well, I’ve written many times before, I’m a huge fan of the show. I tell Adam during our annual interview that I’ll try not to sound like a total geek fan because, from Day 1, this has been my favorite show on TV. It's just a brilliant, brilliant series. The work you guys do, the stylized animation, it all comes together so well. The show’s writing is so witty and the dialogue is hilarious. You put it all together into something truly outstanding.

The last thing I want to ask is what does it feel like to work on such a smart, sometimes snarky, often nasty but always fantastic show? It's uniquely funny, neatly styled with a great cast. Do you get a different sense of satisfaction working on this show than you have on other projects?

CH: Thank you for the compliment by the way, that really means a lot.

NH: Absolutely.

CH: We work in such a bubble here that until a new season premieres, we don't often get out and see how big Archer is and how many people actually like the show. Right when a season starts is when it really gets fun for us. We get to see the fans’ reactions. Up until then we're just trying to make the best show that we possibly can.

NH: It's an amazing show to be a part of. What Chad was saying, working in a vacuum, it’s easy to forget about the overall show when you're focused on the problems of the day. When you see it premiere and you’re watching it with staff, it's always really satisfying because it looks so good and it's so funny. It's a show that I would watch if I wasn't working on it.

It makes coming to work pretty easy. Working on shows that you're not excited about, you always find a way to love them. But you don't have to really try on Archer. It's a great show.

Dan Sarto's picture

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