Chad Hurd and Justin Wagner share artwork and creative insights from the Season 9 pre-WWII South Pacific island redesign.
Taking its cue from last season’s 1947 film noir narrative and timeline reset, Season 9 of FXX’s fan favorite animated ode to workplace dysfunction, Archer, once again shifts gears, locales and decades with the 8-episode Archer: Danger Island. Set on a French-speaking South Pacific island circa 1939, Sterling Archer, now a one-eyed cargo pilot, leads the returning cast on a quest for treasure, sex and alcohol. And adventure. New locales once again mean new sets, props, character and environment designs, along with a new visual style and tone.
According to art director Chad Hurd, last season’s radical series shift provided valuable experience with a whole new set of techniques and processes that came in handy for this season’s radical series shift. “Last year was our first real big change going to an entirely different timeline,” he explains. “We learned a lot from it. One of the things we learned the most about, with all the 1940's ‘stuff,’ was how to search for period-specific types of cars, clothing and related things. But, we also took a cue from the artwork of the time, the kinda noir setting, and applied a lot of those lighting and visual techniques to this season to make it feel more vintage.”
Associate art director Justin Wagner notes, “It’s another new time period, so everything had to be based on stuff from before 1939. Clothing, guns, planes, vehicles, even hairstyles. Everything is different from last year. And the environment has to be as much a character in the show as it was last season, just a sunnier version. It needs to feel alive. It needs to feel lived in.” Hurd concurs, adding, “With film noir, there are plenty of references. You can pick any period movie and find heavy shadows, old cars and fedoras. But this year was very different. We needed to create an inviting tropical locale, sunny, with beautiful skies, sunrises and sunsets. So, we had to step up our game from last year and apply those lessons learned.”
For Season 9, as with last season, new ideas and techniques for scene lighting changed the entire visual complexion of the show. Gone were the distinctive noir lighting sources used for effect last year. “We couldn't rely on typical noir shots like headlights, long shadows and neon,” Hurd describes. “We had to find other ways to make interesting lighting choices. So, with sunrises and sunsets, we used things like slats in the windows, where we got cool rays of sun coming through and casting interesting shadows over characters.”
“Looking at years past in Archer, we used office settings a lot, which had very even lighting,” he continues. “Once you took that away, and had light coming either from lamps or through windows, you had a lot more directional lighting. We were able to play with shadows, create a visual tension and tonally match the scene. Last year we painted all of our lighting cues into the background and that really helped set the tone. So, while we picked up on some of those cues this year, we had to do things in more interesting ways. When you paint the lighting into the background, you really need to take a step back to design shots from the ground up so shadows will lead your eye into the characters and create really some nice, interesting compositions. I'm really proud of what we were able to accomplish.”
Season 9 also finds our Archer ensemble surrounded not just by dense jungles but by idyllic tropical beaches and the vast Pacific Ocean. For Hurd, the production needed a brand-new way to handle water. He assesses the challenge rather bluntly. “Yeah, water was kind of a pain in the ass. That took a lot of figuring out. Going back to Season One, Episode 6, “Skorpio,” when we’re out on the water, we used a lot of painted backgrounds that we just put distortion on. We've come a long way, even from the “Sealab” episode [Season 4, “Sea Tunt: Part I” and “II”]. We used a lot of Flash that season. For those episodes, there’s gushing water that filled things up and then, before you knew it, they're just underwater, where characters could float around. This year our style needed to feel calmer. But when you painted the water, it had textures that almost felt grimy. So, we did our water with a lot of After Effects plugins as well as some 3D work with a program called Phoenix [used for creating fire, smoke and liquid animations]. Our compositing team, led by Dominic Maschler, really made water a character in the show and didn’t shy away from it.”
Hurd, focusing on this season’s Episode 4, “A Warrior in Costume,” explains, “There's a lot of water, for example, when the plane lands in the ocean. But just with Archer and Pam walking on the platform out to the plane, there are plenty of shots of the water just kind of licking the beach, hanging out in the background with some nice little visual elements that normally would be hidden because that's extra animation you don't need. Look at the very last pan in the episode, when we move from the water, across the road, to the plane, then to Pam and Archer to see the destruction [of the plane crash]. You start on that nice, beautiful, calm sunrise. You see the water coming up to the beach and it feels so natural that you almost don't notice it there. Through a lot of trial and error and hard work, we’ve been able to make the water feel calm, real subtle, like a part of the background, when it's actually a piece of animation.”
Known for increasingly complex action sequences, Archer doesn’t disappoint this season, with a series of dogfights, plane crashes and dustups with various deadly jungle denizens. Episode 2, “Disheartening Situation,” included several such sequences. Normally, bigger action sequences would take place later in the season, when more assets had been built over the preceding months of production. “The second episode was challenging, because usually those big action set pieces happen later in the season after we've already built up the town,” Hurd describes. “In the first episode, we basically just had the exterior of the Lotus [Mother’s hotel where much of the series takes place] and that was it. So, with the script for Episode 2, where a plane crashes through town, we had to develop a town on the spot, just to destroy it. It was a big challenge. We needed to look at a lot of French architecture to develop the look of the town, make enough room and find some interesting things for the plane to crash into.”
“It was an interesting problem to have because you're designing around the destruction but you're also trying to make it feel like a real place,” Wagner adds. “The problem is it has to be specific enough that people won’t call out something repeating. Though it’s a generic town, you also want it to feel homey, like a town you know that’s been there for a hundred years.”
Episode 2 also bring us the latest iteration of a running series pratfall gag, this time involving Cyril Figgis / Siegbert Fuchs’ character, who falls from a tall tree, bouncing from branch to branch, while being strangled by the crushing embrace of a giant constrictor. A Komodo dragon fight scene ensues. According to Hurd, “Adam loves those [pratfall] jokes and it's so difficult to reinvent them and keep feeling fresh. He did something similar in the “Drastic Voyage” episodes [Season 6 Episode 12 and 13] when Ray ping pongs through the ship and re-breaks his back, and then we did it again in Season 7 [Episode 1, “Eat a Dick, Gravity!”] with Archer falling down the side of a hill. We’re doing it once more with Cyril this season. It's a great gag [the Figgis / Fuchs fall] that required a lot of Harmony animation. That episode was the perfect storm for all of our Harmony animators. It was heavy on After Effects, it was heavy on 3D, it was heavy on comp.”
While series creator and writer Adam Reed provided specific visual references for the scene, Hurd’s team was left to design and animate all the elements. Hurd explains, “Our Komodo dragon fight scene was also huge -- a lot of After Effects, a lot of Harmony elements too, kind of just working seamlessly together. Adam had mentioned taking cues from Aliens (1986) with them [Fuchs, Pam and Lana / Princess Lanaluakalani] just backing out [of the jungle], firing at these Komodo dragons while being surrounded, seemingly without hope. We really tried to incorporate that with these creatures coming out of the darkness. When you write something like that, it requires a lot of work to do it justice. It was a long process to make that work but I think it really paid off.”
“That was our Harmony team showing their skillset,” Wagner notes. “That took a lot of planning in boards and a lot of finessing in edit to get it to the right length of time to be funny. For our core 3D team, that tree bothered them for quite a while. It kept needing to be taller and taller and taller -- that tree may have ended up being as tall as the Empire State building to get the timing of the gag right.”
Season 9 also required a new way for the production to handle clouds. “We learned a lot about clouds this year, the different types and how difficult they are to marry into our style,” Wagner says. “We've always had clouds painted into the background in a painterly way. So, getting that same painterly texture in our 3D clouds was something we've never really had to consider before. That took a long time to figure out, including how to add dimension and depth and then color on top of that.”
Hurd adds, “[For Episode 4] Each memory Archer had of being shot down by Ziegler was a different point in time. We wanted to make sure they didn't feel like they were all happening in the same day. So, some of them were at sunrise, some at sunset, some of them were on gray rainy days, some on days with no clouds at all. We not only had to figure out how to do clouds in 3D and make them fit our style, but how to make different types of clouds. Making wet clouds was probably the most daunting task I can think of right now.”
For a series that started with a modest, minimalist animation style, in each subsequent year, the Archer production team has found ways to increase and expand its capabilities, sophistication and visual design sensibilities through the growth of artistic skill as well as the increasing use of various animation techniques and technologies. But the core creative pipeline process has remained consistent for some time. Says Hurd, “An episode takes a couple of months. It's three weeks to storyboard and design it, three weeks to draw and paint it, three weeks to animate it, and then like maybe another two or three weeks of sweetening. We storyboard from the script -- as soon as the script drops, our storyboard team starts dividing it by acts, breaking it down and pitching us boards. While we're doing that, we’re doing voice recordings from the script. Once those come together, we build an animatic. By the time that animatic is locked, if we’ve done our jobs correctly, the backgrounds will have all been designed and painted, the characters all drawn, and animation will have already begun. We're a well-oiled machine at this point.”
No discussion of Season 9 is complete without mentioning the newest incarnation of two series favorites, Pam, now a 6 foot 6 bruiser of a co-pilot / soldier of fortune, and Krieger, now a bird. Hurd concludes, “Along with Pam being a huge, hulking, brute of a woman, that we didn't really have much reference for at all, you also have Krieger as the parrot Crackers, which was something else. You can't go into the supply closet and take pictures of a Macaw. We don't have them just hanging around. So, Crackers required our talented illustration staff to draw from a lot of photo reference. Adam always keeps us working. He's never short on making us stretch our artistic wings and trying new things. But, I think we've risen to the occasion this year.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.