Throughout its seven seasons, the spy comedy “Archer” has remained as smart and sexy as anything on TV, thanks to creator Adam Reed, voice actor H. Jon Benjamin as suave yet incredibly lucky Sterling Archer (Bond meets Clouseau) and a graphic 2D animation style by Reed’s Atlanta-based studio, Floyd County Prods.
The result is the “Mad Men” of animation with a decidedly ’60s vibe. However, in the seventh season, Archer and the gang (a dysfunctional version of MI6) moved from New York to Hollywood after being banned by the CIA and opened a detective agency. Thus the series became more serialized with a framing device right out of “Sunset Boulevard,” and left us with a cliff-hanger worthy of “Game of Thrones.”
But with the shift in locale and profession came a host of animation challenges for Floyd County, whose character drawings are based on Atlanta-area models and whose animation is created like 3D character puppets— only in 2D with Adobe After Effects software. (The background 3D models are also done at Floyd County.)
One of the biggest challenges was a lot more crowd animation, particularly during a mid-season party scene. “We had to lean on other departments to cut corners,” noted animation director Marcus Rosentrater. “We actually did a little more training to get staffed to help us with that process.”
There were also more physical fight sequences, including a hotel room brawl and dangerous tumble down a hill for Archer.
“This means our illustrations department, which takes photo reference, had to do a lot more custom drawings in 3/4 position or the full position,” Rosentrater explained. “And also, when there’s really complicated animation, for example, when Lana [Aisha Tyler] needs to do a round-house kick, you need a drawing for every position she revolves. That gets handed over to our Harmony department that does more traditional animation using Toon Boom.”
The series remains dialogue-driven, thanks to Reed’s rapid fire wit and self-reflexive use of pop culture. Fortunately, the character rigs have the flexibility to support a wide range of emotions and movements. This season they added more granularity to the eyebrows, eyes and mouth, which came in handy when the cast was in a room together.
“This season we have a whole new environment in LA and the 3D department built a lot of elaborate, moving backgrounds: entire city streets with extra cars and background characters. And there were more conversations in bars,” continued Rosentrater.
A key component of season seven was a doppelganger theme with cyborgs that pays off brilliantly in the finale. But it required a radical approach when they malfunctioned.
“The scripts called for a ‘Max Headroom’ style breakdown,” Rosentrater said. “In this case, because the expressions on the robot faces were so distorted, as the attitude changed, technical director Bryan Fordney added a subtle blur to look like they’re warping between expressions. It looked great because of instead of us trying to create that expression in animation, an artist was able to spend hours drawing exactly how they would look.”
But they encountered a different challenge with Patton Oswald’s nefarious talent agent, Alan Shapiro, the shortest character whose design went through several iterations.
“And the compositions were weird,” Rosentrater recalled. “You’d have to frame it for everyone else at normal height and pose his design quite a bit to get it right. But anytime you can get a vocal performer like that who’s so energetic, it really gets our animators excited, and they end up doing more to try and capture what they’re hearing in the voice.”