When working in animation, if not television in general, producers get used to dealing with problems. Script changes, talent availability, technical issues — no matter what it is, it’s always something.
But today’s recurring surprises stem from novel circumstances, and for the ever-hilarious “Archer” team, such unprecedented challenges call for unprecedented jokes. “Every other day, some sort of giant problem crops up because of working from home and coronavirus and whatever,” executive producer Casey Willis said. “So we have a [running] joke: ‘What’s that? Oh, now bears are attacking us? Well, I guess we’ve got to figure out bears now.'”
Willis, executive producer Matt Thompson, and many more artisans are still hard at work to complete “Archer” Season 11. The latest from FX’s Emmy-winning team was scheduled to debut in May, before the pandemic delayed (or shut down) a majority of ongoing productions.
“One of the things that I’m most proud of is that every single person that has been working, is still working,” Thompson said. “It’s been quite a logistical challenge for Casey and his team to carry off, but during a pandemic [causing] mass unemployment, I’m so happy and thankful for all these employees who are kicking ass at home and getting this season out. I’m overwhelmed with gratitude.”
The upcoming season marks a return to the series’ roots, after its eponymous lead slipped into a coma in 2016. Over the past three seasons, fans have been given seasonal adventures set within Archer’s dreams. “Dreamland” reimagined the show as a ’40s Los Angeles noir, with Archer playing a private eye; “Danger Island” (Season 9) saw him as a pilot, shifting from a dark story told in a shadowy city to a rollicking adventure set in the sunny South Pacific. Each season kept its cast and sly sense of humor, but little else — including one last voyage, into space, for “Archer: 1999.”
For a show as reference-heavy as “Archer,” dipping a satiric toe into the vast ocean of science-fiction invited a lot of possibilities. Space has been defined for audiences by many disparate pieces of pop culture, from “Star Wars” and “Star Trek,” to animated favorites like “Futurama” and “Cowboy Bebop.” An early glimpse at Season 10, which was teased in the closing scene of Season 9, showed “a heavy ‘Alien’ trilogy influence,” as Willis put it, but future scripts revealed plenty of elements from outside Ripley’s oeuvre.
“When we got the first script from [creator Adam Reed], Pam’s a giant talking rock monster,” Willis said. “So what we thought was going to be the water we were playing in, suddenly shifted.”
Feeling the pressure to nail its homage to one of the great genres, the producers started fleshing out their own look for each episode. “Alien” provided a baseline for the kind of technology being used as Archer & Co. ventured into the final frontier as space pirates, but even that touchstone evolved as the narrative continued.
“We started introducing whatever we needed,” Willis said. “We’d get one script [where] they’re touring around on jet packs. Well then, [we’d ask ourselves], ‘OK, what’s a jet pack look in this world?’ In the second episode, when we go to Bort’s home moon and see this giant gladiatorial combat thing, then we have to do designs for that.”
Still, “Alien” provided bookends for “Archer: 1999,” starting with Sterling waking up alone on the ship and ending with “unknown things happening,” “Archer going crazy,” and a head-fake homage to “Alien’s” infamous breakfast scene. Such a strong structure was matched by a cohesive visual palette — one the animation team had to engineer each season in a task rather unique to TV: Living in a different dream meant animators had to start from scratch every time.
“For these ‘Dreamland’ seasons, each first episode was like doing a pilot episode,” Thompson said. “So the production time was at least double our normal production time because we had to basically design things from the ground up. […] That’s really what makes any animated show work: when you start reusing carts and pieces. There’s a reason why Peter Griffin always has the same outfit on — because that’s how you made it possible to do your episodes.”
All these seasons required not only new outfits, but new backgrounds, new settings, and new styles, which put an incredible tax on the team. For “1999” especially, it meant reigning in certain ideas that simply weren’t feasible given the time constraints.
“I would say that the biggest challenge is not coming up with stories; it’s the stress that is put on the design staff and the limits that we have to place on ourselves,” Willis said. “We simply can’t make the brand new world, every episode.”
And when he said “worlds,” he means literal worlds. An episode that would’ve explored Pam’s rock monster planet had to be jettisoned, along with a trip to what sounds like Archer’s ultimate fantasy: a “pleasure planet.”
“But then we [realized] you would need 30 brand new alien characters and that really put a damper on it,” Willis said. “It was like, ‘Oh God. We have to build a planet for one episode! We can’t. It’s not that we don’t want to — we had two great stories that we had to put aside — you can’t get into, on an animated show, developing that without the budget.”
“It was almost like having a whole new pipeline to figure out every season,” Thompson said. “And that’s what was stressful — I know it was stressful for us, but I can’t imagine the stress felt by the illustration, background, and animation teams.”
Enter Season 11. While it may seem like returning “Archer” to its roots — as a spy-for-hire out of a Manhattan intelligence agency — means less work for the production, Willis pointed out that they can’t simply dust off the old drawings. They have to meet the visual benchmarks set by their most recent work, which takes time, an eye for detail, and the same impressive innovation that’s carried the series thus far.
“Since those last three seasons were so beautiful looking, we wanted to beautify those existing drawings and redo them so that they live up to our standards that we had developed over the past three seasons,” Willis said.
That process has become all the more complicated as artists work from home, but the team is pushing to finish the season in as timely a manner as possible. Even the actors have been enlisted to record two full episodes via remote set-ups organized by the tech team.
“For those people who can’t get to a studio, we use a professional system that sends a mobile microphone to their home that is monitored by a professional audio person from a remote location — so that nobody goes in their home with them,” Thompson said.
Actors receive a sanitized box containing all the necessary equipment, including an iPad that allows them to communicate with the producers while recording. But the recording itself has to be a little more low-tech.
“The standard practice is to ask them to sit in their closet and close the door,” Thompson said, noting that the clothes dampen any reverberations that could affect sound quality. Guest actors — like Emmy-winning voice over actor and “Better Things” creator Pamela Adlon, who joins the cast for the first time this year — and series regulars alike have pitched in, illustrating how committed everyone involved with “Archer” has been to launching the new season.
“Last Friday, Jessica [Walter] was in the closet in her New York apartment with this thing sitting on her lap as she held one piece of paper at a time as she did her lines,” Thompson said. “She didn’t have to do that. She could have said ‘Get bent, and call me when the lockdown’s over.’ But man — and I use this term with great affection — what a broad.”
Resiliency in the face of any obstacle: That’s how great TV gets made. Now, we just have to hope there’s no bear attacks.
“Archer” Seasons 1 – 10 are streaming on Hulu. Season 11 is expected later this year.