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A Welcome Return to Dysfunctional Spy Craft in ‘Archer’ Season 11

Justin Wagner and Chi Duong Sato share artwork and creative insights as FXX’s hit animated comedy awakens from a 3-season coma and returns to the good old fashion, sexually charged, bickering filled, often drunkenly performed business of espionage.

With Season 11’s two episode opening salvo now quietly housed within my cooking show-soaked DVR, it’s safe to say that FXX’s hit animated spy comedy, Archer, a perennial personal favorite, has deftly navigated that huge, potentially jarring bump in the narrative road we haven’t seen since… well… since Bobby Ewing’s famous 1986 Dallas smiling shower scene. Different century, different Pam. A coma, rather than contract dispute-fueled mortality. But the effect is the same. A hard, fast, kind-of questionable, but mostly reasonable storytelling about face.

If you recall, Season 10’s Archer: 1999 took place aboard an interstellar salvage ship. The season ended on a cliffhanger of sorts… and in the new season, our hard-drinking Sterling Archer awoke from last season’s coma… bemoaning the loss of trusted whipping boy/octogenarian Woodhouse as well as his status as the spy agency’s lead dog. Nursing his physical frailty, tactile-cane in hand, Archer, along with the entire dysfunctional office ensemble we’ve come to love so well, have, in essence, reset the series, once again entertaining audiences with the incessant bickering / constant grousing / questionable morals they embody so skillfully as they go about their espionage business.

With only six more new episodes in the short eight-episode season, the return to form is bittersweet; we love the show, we wait patiently, we always want more, and we take what we can get. But, we’re glad to be back on firmer, familiar narrative ground. After all, isn’t there a little bit of perv banished to the office breakroom in all of us?

We had a chance to speak to Justin Wagner, the show’s art director, and Chi Duong Sato, the associate art director, about what the new season has in store for us, both narratively, and visually.

In addition to an extensive gallery of Season 11 storyboards and artwork (click here) they handpicked for AWN, the two also shared their thoughts on the new season.

Dan Sarto: So, what can we expect for the new season? What nuggets can you share?

Justin Wagner: It's kind of a reset from the coma seasons we've had the past couple of years. We're back at the office. We're going to be doing mission of the week type stuff that Archer is known for. I'd say the closest in tone would be Season 6. A lot more globetrotting. It feels a lot like the type of missions we've done before. But, since we have three seasons of working in all these sort of coma worlds, we're bringing that sort of energy and things we've learned from those seasons into play. It's going to feel like the Archer of old, but with that crisp new look we've been shooting for the past few years.

Chi Duong Sato: What I really like is that Archer has woken up out of this coma and he doesn't know what's happened over the past few years, and we're in the same boat as him. We're kind of discovering things alongside him. You really get that true fish out of water experience; you’re seeing everything with him as it's happening. That's our underlying story that permeates across all the scripts. Even though they're still very episodic, there's that one storyline that's kind of underneath the surface… how Archer deals with these changes. It takes you into that emotional side of Archer more than we've seen before.

JW: I’d agree. One thing that excited me about... I've worked on the coma seasons, I've worked on before the coma seasons. Having him waking up, it's just a great idea. It’s a smart move because it's not a reboot. It's just, we wake Archer up, we bring him back, and we see how the characters have changed with him being missing and now dumped back into the fold. Like Chi said, Archer must deal with not changing himself while everything else around him has changed.

DS: Returning to the world of spy craft and the familiar office confines, how much new visual development was done for the season? How much of the old material could you use again?

JW: For the longest time, Archer was considered more of a limited animation show, especially those first couple seasons. It was a lot of referenced pictures of people in poses with some limited After Effects animation. And now I feel like we've gotten to the point where we have a huge backlog of assets and stuff like that. This season, we had to dig up Mallory's office. What does that 3D model look like still? A lot of that stuff is already built. So, we focused a lot on what can we do to make this look a little bit better. How can we make it easier for background artists to paint? It's a lot of grabbing old assets and sprucing them up to look new. Archer set a new bar for production value over the past few years. A lot of this season was crisping things up and making them look like a slicker version of what they used to be. But, for some things, we didn’t need to change them at all. They’re exactly the way they were.

CDS: You can look at Mallory's office and see it has a new paint job. Even though it's essentially the same, it just looks updated. We had new directors come in this season and they have an eye for things, like how they wanted to update the look. And our animators are really great at what they do. We call it limited animation, but they're still animators, and they push to make it look good. If something looks too stiff or robotic, I mean… you go back to Season 1, they're worlds apart.

JW: Yeah. It's less of a limited animated TV show now. It's just an animated TV show now.

CDS: I mean, it's essentially the same process, they've just gotten better at it.

DS: How much Harmony are you using this year? How much of the animation is done through your traditional After Effects compositing pipeline?

JW: In the previous couple seasons we'd have specific instances where we used Harmony animation. We have less of that this year. We planned for our animation and drawings to work with our After Effects artists, so all our animation is under one umbrella now.

And as you said with the comp stuff, we've actually built in a little bit more time on our schedule for those After Effects artists to get in there and lay on that nice comp. The more recent seasons have had a little bit of extra time for some of the animators to hit it with all that nice, pretty lighting that everyone likes to see, as well as effects like fog, all sorts of stuff. So that additional time has really changed the prettiness of Archer, I would say.

DS: Another area, for example, that we discussed in previous years, was the more noir-ish look. You did some interesting things with lighting on Dreamland and Danger Island, with the sun coming through blinds, shadows from office lights... anything like that you can point to this season?

JW: Those types of things go by trial and error. If you've already lit an office through some blinds, like the LA sunset in the noir season, you've probably learned a lot from that you can use on anything that needs lighting. In this new season, you'll see Archer go to art museums and to Karate Island. On the islands, we’re in daytime, so we use a lot of the same effects we learned about on Danger Island episodes. Our animation department is stellar and handles all the lighting. Chi and I just sort of approve it. Mostly we just look at stuff and go, “Ooh”, or we’ll see a pass and go, “Oh, wow, that looks very, very nice.”

CDS: One thing I’ll add, which was something Justin and I kind of did, maybe even subconsciously at first, but more deliberately around Episode 4, was design each episode with its own color tone. We thought it was a pretty cool thing that separates these episodes from one another. They go to a different location, and tonally, it's a different color.

JW: Yeah. We would usually determine those types of things when Chi and I were making concept art or environment art based on the scripts. If you're designing the inside of a submarine, you might be like, “It'd be really cool if this all had a blue tint to it.” So, an episode like that would become our blue episode. It was fun to play with the colors.

DS: Any big action highlights?

JW: Well, the first episode has a pretty impressive motorcycle chase sequence that starts inside an art museum. Hoo boy, that was a difficult one to plan. But in the end, like I said, the artists on Archer are so well versed in doing this stuff; many have been working here for years and years, putting this stuff together, all the pre-production work that goes into it, all the production work. Everyone's on the same page all the way through. So, this season, you'll see some exciting stuff. Those first two episodes, there's a hefty motorcycle chase sequence in Episode 1, and then on Episode 2, they go to Karate Island for a kind of Bloodsport-type spoof in a dojo someplace in Southeast Asia. It's looking pretty cool.

DS: After all these years of producing this series, what types of things still prove difficult? What still proves especially challenging?

JW: Well, time is still number one. There’s never enough time. For environments, everyone's kind of got a four-week schedule, so we're just constantly rolling. When we work through a script, sometimes it's a three-week schedule, if it gets tightened up. We need to create all these environment designs based on a script as soon as we get them.

But this year was a little bit different. [Show creator] Adam [Reed] is a bit less involved with the scriptwriting, so a lot of our approvals and input came from our producers. Chi and I work on these environment designs and the people that need to approve them are one office away from us. And they are also people that have worked on Archer for years. It’s really nice.

So that actually became not as much of a struggle. They understand what needs to be done. As long as the design looks structurally sound and hits the notes in the script, which sometimes is based on a two-sentence description, sometimes less, they’re good. So, when somebody writes something like a Karate Island, I'm immediately going to look at Bloodsport and start pulling up what those sets look like in the actual movies. Then I’ll think, what would an actual place like an Asian temple look like? You can quickly start pulling reference like that to put your design together.

CDS: Agreed. Time and budget are always constraints. You only have so much time to spend on something and can only spend this much money. Okay, where do we shortcut? We want to show this big thing. Yeah, if we had all the money and time in the world, we could. But we have limitations, so let's make it the best we can. And as usual, the script, the dialogue, we'll carry it through. We’re always trying to make things visually interesting enough within reason to roll along with how speedy our production tends to go.

I come from an illustration and character design background. I actually started on Season 1 of Archer as an illustrator. And then I moved up to character design, but then jumped onto other projects. So, from Season 5-8, and part of 9, I wasn't super involved with the show. And then I came back this season as associate art director. And it was like, “Okay, I have to design environments now, but all of my background is based on character and illustration work.” So, it was a big challenge for me because I'm having to think of these set pieces that need designing. And I need to do it in a short amount of time.

But I'm really lucky in that I have Justin to work under. He's been very patient with me as I've been learning this new process. And art direction at Floyd County is not just designing art and directing teams; there are so many little things to it. You need to manage time, and budget, and script, and kind of see how all these departments have their own schedules and then make sure they're all moving along.

We'd be talking to character design and they're probably on Episode 4 or 5, but then we have to talk to animation, and they’re probably on Episode 1 or 2. It's a lot of juggling and multi-tasking based on what episode you're working on.

Archer can be seen Wednesday evenings on FXX, FX on HULU the following day.

Dan Sarto's picture

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