Over the last four years, FX's Archer has become one of the most popular cartoons made for adults — each episode blends thrilling espionage plots with witty one-liners, making it one of the smarter under-the-radar shows around. This week, the show returns for its fifth season and one of the key characteristics of the show is the aesthetic. [It's] set in a vague, endless Cold-War era," says Neal Holman, a principal designer and art director for Archer. "The vague timeline allows us to cherry pick the stuff we like and ignore the elements that we don't. We can have muscle cars from the Seventies, computers from the Eighties and cellphones from the Nineties. An average episode takes about eleven weeks from the moment we get a script to the moment we turn it in. We generally have four episodes in production at a time in staggered phases, so we end up doing 13 episodes in 10 months." In this exclusive gallery, Holman breaks down the insides of a scene from a Fifth Season episode, where Archer, Cyril and Ray have just been arrested in South America. The scene starts as they are en route to prison. —Mike Ayers
"Think of this shot like the old rear projection sequences in film," Holman says. "Our characters are sandwiched between a layer of the Jeep Exterior and another layer of its interior. A movie of the mountain road plays behind them. Bing bong boom."
"Shots like the above are our bread and butter; it's three characters running dialogue in a tight shot, with their body positions locked in place," he says. "This is also a good example of [Archer creator] Adam Reed writing to our limitations. He rarely ever calls for lots of broad gestures, with characters falling all over themselves."
"Archer characters are rigged like a puppet, so we're not drawing new poses for every movement like traditional animation," Holman explains. "In this shot, the drawing of the guard's forearm and fist will slide upward into Archer's nose, rather than multiple drawings of the arm movement."
"Above, more of our bread and butter: dialogue shots. Right about now, you might be thinking we are the cheapest, laziest show…"
"But we do these easy shots, so we can afford to do the next sequence…"
"…Where this asshole cow ruins our perfectly cheap and easy scene."
"This is where it gets complicated," Holman says. "In the foreground, we have a 2-D cow. In the background, we have a 2-D painting of the mountain road. The Jeep, however, is a 3-D turning vehicle…with 2-D characters positioned within it, that are also animated. And THEN — "
"It tumbles. And tumbles. And rolls and spins and crashes and falls and… our 3-D team lost a lot of sleep. Again, you can boil this down to three elements: foreground, middle ground and background, all moving at different speeds to make this look like a lot more animation than is actually there. You will see the same tree fly by ten or fifteen times."
"Our 3-D Jeep goes tumbling over the cliff's edge… (still with people inside it, acting and stuff.)"
"We try to limit our animation as much as possible, but when the scene needs something BIG and AWESOME, we try to make it count," Holman says. "Each episode, ideally, has at least one shot or sequence that raises an eyebrow. We want it to be cinematic. I want it to be the Bourne movies with jokes and a less shaky cam, but we only we have two weeks to board/plan an episode, so we have to pick our battles."
"Finally, our battered Jeep comes to a halt, caught in some vines. Phew."
"The script calls for this moment, a momentary pause in the chaos," Holman explains. "By cutting extremely wide, with the jeep dangling into the negative space of frame, we underline the serenity of the moment. You half expect us to leave the scene here…"
"Until the idiot vines break and we're back into Jeep-Goes-Down-The-Enormous-Mountain-And-Ruins-An-Animator's-Christmas gear. By this point, we have enough jungle elements built and painted (vines, trees, shrubs, logs, etc.) that we are trying to reuse as much of it as possible, but composited in a way the average viewer won't catch it."
"Chaos continues as our Jeep crashes through another canopy. Again, our Jeep is a 3-D object, rolling and tumbling so fast that you can't really tell our 2-D characters inside don't match its perspective exactly."
"And so we end here, as a giant tree trunk lands on the fallen jeep," Holman says."One last insult from the jungle mountain gods."