Justin Wagner and Chi Duong Sato once again share creative and production insights as FXX’s hit animated comedy returns for a new set of good old fashion, dysfunctional, sexually charged, and often drunkenly performed globe-trotting spy missions; the new season kicks off today, August 25.
Today’s the day, as they say. Archer fans can rejoice and give thanks, with a slightly heavy heart (more on that in a moment), that Season 12 of our favorite, deliciously inappropriate and hilarious ensemble comedy spy spoof premieres with the first two of eight episodes today, August 25, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FXX, streaming tomorrow via FX on Hulu.
For fans of the show, the Season 12 debut sadly reminds us of Jessica Walter’s passing this past March. For more than a decade, Walter has voiced Malory Archer, the show’s acerbic, biting, and wonderfully strident spymaster. This season, thankfully, we’ll continue to enjoy her particular brand of ego, snark, and invective. Executive producer Casey Willis told AWN, “The loss of Jessica was tough for the crew. You have to realize that every crew member who cut Jessica’s audio, drew ‘Malory,’ or animated the lip sync to her audio…they all developed a connection to her, and over 12 seasons, that connection became pretty strong. While ‘Malory’ is present throughout the season, we have plans for some really special moments at the end and are excited for everyone to see how much love our crew has put into this.”
At the time of Walter’s passing, series creator Adam Reed told AWN, "The Archer family is heartbroken to lose Jessica Walter, our beloved colleague and friend. Jessica was a consummate professional, an actor's actor, and the exact opposite of Malory Archer – warm, caring, and kind, with an absolutely cracking sense of humor – and it was both a privilege and a true honor to work with her over these many years. She will be greatly missed, but never forgotten."
Here's hoping her posthumous Emmy nomination leads to a well-deserved win.
In Season 12, we continue the exploits of the world’s most self-absorbed spy, Sterling Archer, as he careens from one bungled mission to another with the help of his dysfunctional office mates / fellow agents. This year, Archer and gang face a new threat: a spy conglomerate known as IIA (International Intelligence Agency). With a limited number of spy jobs up for grabs, can The Agency compete against the soulless vultures of IIA, or will our mom-and-pop spy agency be the next to get swallowed alive?
Guest stars this season include Pamela Adlon, Eric Andre, Bruce Campbell, Harvey Guillén, Kayvan Novak, and Stephen Tobolowsky, to name a few. Back for Season 12 are stars H. Jon Benjamin as Sterling Archer; Aisha Tyler as Lana Kane; Walter as Archer’s mother, Malory Archer; Judy Greer as Cheryl/Carol Tunt; Chris Parnell as Cyril Figgis; Amber Nash as Pam Poovey; Reed as Ray Gillette; and Lucky Yates as Algernop Krieger.
As they did before the start of Season 11, Justin Wagner, a producer and art director on the series, and Chi Duong Sato, the associate art director and director on Episode 6, patiently described their work designing and producing the animation on the new season.
Picking up from last season, where the narrative returned to the “current” world with Sterling Archer’s waking from his three-season coma, Season 12 again employs an exciting, mission-of-the-week format, hopping from country to country in the show’s most expansive location season ever. “Unlike the coma seasons that were each set in a brand-new environment like an island or spaceship, we’ve always had that central hub of coming back to the agency,” Wagner says. “This way, each episode, where you go to a different city or country, becomes its own little mini movie that you have to put together. From my standpoint, that makes Archer always interesting. It's not just office episode after office episode. Me and Chi, we might open a script or hear a rumor, ‘Hey, they're working on the next episode… we're going to London.’ And it sparks, ‘Oh man, they go to the Tower of London, we can put that in the background over here…’ You start pulling things that you want to do.”
“Obviously, since we’ve been on the air for over a decade, we have a bunch of assets that have already been made,” he continues. “So, it's almost like a live-action show. If you go into another season and hear your main character needs to go out into snowy weather, it's like, ‘Hey, go back to the wardrobe closet, see if we can pull out a trench coat for Lana or the big winter coats,’ or whatever you might have. There are some things we reuse, but then you'll find there is always new stuff you have to make. It still surprises us when we don't already have something, like a particular kind of gun we need.”
Episodic production in Season 12 remains similar to previous years, though this year, everyone is working remotely, and as always, there’s never enough time. Wagner and Sato’s jobs, above all else, are to make key design and development decisions early, and quickly, knowing that more elaborate or difficult assets or environments will need additional time, or 3D work, that could hold up the episode if not completed on time.
“We get the script from the producers, and then get all of our pre-production people together: character designers, environment designers, and storyboarders, who all work at the same time,” Wagner explains. “There's a four-week turnaround per episode. Basically, Chi and I just try to keep track of what everyone is designing at the same time. Our first episode takes place in Eastern Europe. There were a bunch of vehicles we had to make. We made these giant Google docs of what's new, what's old. What do we have? What don’t we have? And from there, you’re kind of balancing it out like, ‘Oh man, I’ve got to get all these vehicles designed first because I know they need to go to our 3D team to get rigged and painted and textured before we even get to the environments.’”
He adds, “Hopefully, it doesn't turn into a Jenga tower where you got forgot one thing and that kind of makes it start to sway a little bit, where you’re saying, ‘Oh no, we gotta get this handled really quick before the rest of this other stuff.’ But, you know, I think me and Chi pretty much know the drill at this point.”
“In that pre-production meeting, we essentially go through the script,” Sato notes. “Justin and I have at that point already broken down the script into new environments, new character designs, anything that may pop up that we need. We basically run through the script, making notes… ‘This is a new character, talk to the producers. They're thinking maybe we want to channel this actor to kind of look like whatever,’ or ‘This is a Humvee we're going to use here rather than an SUV.’ We do the best we can to previsualize the episode for them, whether we have photo references or not. Our great production teams pretty much work at roughly the same time. Boards are a little bit ahead of everybody else. And then you have environment design and character design pretty much working side by side.”
This year, the production no longer uses a small Harmony team, used previously for some of the more action-oriented sequences; now, everything ends up in After Effects.
“With animation pipelines, a lot of people describe a pyramid where it goes scripts, pre-production, then all the production people,” Wagner states. “It’s like a relay race with the baton being passed between each of these different stages of production as all the assets keep getting filtered down.”
“For Archer,” he laughs, “our pipeline is shaped like a water balloon that you're holding on one end with our After Effects [AE] people at the bottom end making sense of all the assets being made. They are the people responsible for making the shot come together. We did use a small Harmony team back in the day until our AE director came to us and said, ‘You know, we don't need a Harmony team. In fact, if you just get me the drawings, I can manage all this stuff in AE. Our AE animators can do all this.’ And we were like, ‘If you’re saying this, I know you can make magic happen. Let's do it this way from here on out.”
This year has seen the addition of a layout department, working not just with illustrated elements but backgrounds, a sort of middle stage between pre-production and production. “They’ll look at a shot, say of Lana doing a roundhouse kick, and say, ’We're going to need to get some reference for that. We need to spell this out completely and see how many steps AE needs to make this thing work,” Wagner reveals.
According to Sato, “Say you have two brand new characters. What do they look like? You go to three new locations. What do those locations look like? All these production objects are being worked on, then handed over to production, which is our background painters and illustration team. And the illustration team creates every single asset you see in the episode. They have to make sure all those drawings exist for the animators and background painters, who essentially follow the boards. Every time a shot changes, do we have that background? What background are we using here? Then, like Justin said about the water balloon, that all goes to our After Effects department. They're receiving background paintings, they're receiving character illustrations, and they have to set up and put all of those together in one scene. The After Effects team is talented, but the way the show is made, they can only produce what is given to them. So, if they don't have a drawing for Archer punching a guy, then that needs to be drawn. They can't just make that out of the blue kind.”
“The boards are the blueprint for everything,” she continues. “Those boards also go out to our 3D team because they've had the environment designs at this point. They built all the sets. After they get the boards, that's the time when we're like, ‘OK, here are the actual angles we need for everything.” And then our set builders, the 3D team, they get in there and start sending us draft angles of everything. We go back and forth. This is the minutia stuff, like tilt camera up, tilt camera down, back up a couple of feet, telling them how to change the camera angle to get what we need for those shots. For something like a car chase, what needs to be a 3D moving element? What needs to be a 2D element? Do we need characters for inside all these vehicles?”
Producing remotely because of the pandemic made Season 12 especially challenging. For Sato, this season saw bigger adventures, which meant the workload started getting bigger from the first script breakdowns, and pressure to keep up with a demanding schedule impacted not just the crew, but her personally as well. “We’ve seen our characters develop over the years, but there's a bigger push for character development this season,” she shares. “We have bigger episodes in terms of where we're traveling to, how big the scripts are, how much action happens, and how do we pull this off. The big challenge this year, and it's paid off visually – things look amazing – is going back to mission-of-the-week, where you're jet-setting around the world. Every episode has all new assets to build. So, you’re constantly going at a fast pace to get the show made.”
“And that ties into dealing with the pandemic and how this is affecting people's mental health,” she continues. “So, it was also a big challenge just being there enough for people to know that we support them. And we want them to be able to function in a world where you can't leave your house and feel safe, versus a tight TV schedule. How do we balance that out? Getting the work done, but also being understanding of what everybody is currently going through. And it's a tough challenge at times when you feel pushed to the limit yourself, where you wake up, walk into a room, go to work, leave, rinse and repeat. It's just constant, over and over again. So, that was a big challenge for me this year.”
For Wagner, working through the pandemic was an important learning experience. “We've learned a lot in the past year and a half working straight from home,” he says. “Definitely, the initial change was a big hurdle to get over. But, you know, I think Chi and I learned that communication is number one. I feel like we're communicating more, and better now, than ever. Even if we were in the office together. This experience has made us very aware that we have to be constantly on the same page and able to answer the same question, with vaguely the same answer between the two of us.”
“Justin and I made a point to be on video chats with each other all day, and we did the best to mimic our workstations at the studio,” Sato adds. “So, where I would normally turn around in my chair and ask him something, we would literally be on a call from day’s start to the end. For me at least, it made me feel more connected to the production.”
As far as what makes the difficult work worthwhile, Sato laughs and says, “As cheesy as it sounds, seeing it all together on TV. We work on a production that has a very short turnaround. So, you're able to see the fruits of your labor, all the effort, all the hard work, blood, sweat, and tears, the whole effort, right on TV. You can look at it, be proud of it, and know you've been published. As artists, we often work freelance, or work on projects that you can’t talk about for years. There are NDAs, and you’re not allowed to discuss anything. I've been at studios where we've tried to get so many series off the ground and running only to see them go nowhere. You can spend six months working really hard on project. And then it's like, ‘Ah, it got canceled.’ Archer is a show where I always said, ‘You know, if I didn't work on it, I would still be a fan. I really liked the content we put out. I enjoy the show itself. And this season is fantastic.”
Archer, created by Reed and executive produced by Reed, Matt Thompson, and Willis at Floyd County Productions, is produced by FX Productions.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.