FX’s “Archer” — one of the most anarchic and foul-mouthed animated cable series ever made — gets made in a mall. Pop music blasts from speakers set into the ground outside; a multiplex is a stone’s throw away.
You enter the world of “Archer” through an unmarked door; the first floor entrance also serves as a photo studio for the show’s many random needs for reference images; there are racks of costumes and shelves of props on hand for use. (The overwhelming balance of props needed were various types of guns or various conveyance devices for alcohol.)
But it’s the second floor where everything else happens — where the entirety of the show, save voice acting, comes together to create the spy parody that’s been delighting fans for six seasons now.
I got the opportunity to visit “Archer’s” home thanks to a confluence of festivals: I’d interviewed creator Adam Reed at the Vancouver International Film Festival last fall, and in early February was in Atlanta, Georgia for a separate event. It wasn’t a long walk from my hotel to the mall, I had a few hours free and Atlanta in the winter is pretty tolerable (even if you’re from LA). So I arrived just in time for pizza and a screening of the most recently-completed episode.
Reed, a native-born Southern gentleman, made sure I got a slice and something to drink right away. (Because it was Atlanta, the offerings were water and “Coke,” not soda.) We then watched Kumail Nanjiani crack wise on screen with the “Archer” staff in attendance.
The screenings and ordering of pizza — from the best pizza place in Atlanta, according to Reed — are a semi-regular occurrence for the staff while the show is in production. Though it’s always a bit weird to watch something with the people who made it in earshot, the pressure to laugh faded quickly with the genuine need to laugh. (It helped that this was the episode featuring Pam Kong.)
After the screening, Reed and executive producer Matt Thompson (who’s been working with Reed since the “Sealab 2021” days) sent me on a journey around the offices, meeting people from each department. The layout of the office is similar to a Silicon Valley start-up; an open-floor bullpen lined with offices for higher-ups.
While the walls of the bullpen boast much “Archer” art, other series produced by the team, such as the canceled “Chozen,” are also featured. Dozens of employees were in the building while I was there; random and delightful artifacts scattered across company desks. The office feels vast, yet also small — the entire world of a TV show, created in one anonymous space.
Here’s the production process for “Archer”: First, the script gets written by Reed and his team. Then, after network notes and approval, the voice cast — individually — records their contributions to the episode. Once the voice work is done and edited, the show’s assembly begins, from storyboards to rough animation to 3-D modeling to the final cut.
It’s easy to take for granted, sometimes, the painstaking levels of detail that go into creating a show like “Archer.” But the cure for that is meeting the woman who heads up the team that creates the backgrounds for every scene. To create “Archer’s” signature look, the team takes reference photos and then digitally paints over them: The blend of the real world and the animated world are defining elements that might otherwise be totally overlooked, but when you remember that it’s someone’s job, that changes.
Getting to see all the factors that go into making “Archer” come to life on screen is a lot of fun, but the biggest thrill of the day comes at the tail end of the visit, when I join Reed and a few other producers in an office where they’re already talking with one of the show’s key voice actors via speakerphone. (Some texting of co-workers might have occurred.)
For those who have wondered, very specifically, how the recording of “Archer” dialogue works, here you go: The actor connects, via phone, with the “Archer” staff while he or she stands (or sits, presumably) in a recording booth. An “Archer” staffer runs scenes with or feeds cues to the actor, who then offers up a few options on each line. The recording booth records their performance, which is then integrated into the full voice track of the final product.
The process is bookended by the cast member and the “Archer” team enjoying some sweet, familiar chit-chat about upcoming promotional work for the show; she gets excited about the opportunity to improvise, while Reed and others in the room suggest options. This is all for the season finale, which hasn’t even been storyboarded yet, so they have some level of freedom in terms of how things get staged.
While it’s not actor-to-actor improvisation, the methodology does still allow for some ability to discover new ideas on the fly. Sitting in the room, listening to them come up with alternatives for dialogue, extra embellishments, and “this time, maybe you’re a little bit excited”… Well. Like I said, it’s a thrill.
Afterwards, Reed and I end up back in his office, talking mostly about life in Atlanta — he’s happy to be outside the New York or Los Angeles grind. “I personally kind of like being here, as opposed to being in a company town and surrounded by who’s doing what and what’s your competition doing all the time and seeing billboards and everything everywhere,” he says. “We’re just sort of making it in a bubble. And I forget that it’s on TV. I just write these scripts, then there’s the premiere, and I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, this is a TV show.'”
In Reed’s office, there are a number of framed photos and posters, unhung, propped up against the wall. It’s a superstition of his, born from working on shows that were canceled, like cult hit “Frisky Dingo.”
But so far, after six seasons of “Archer,” things seem to be going well.