Archer Goes Undercover at Comic Con
Courtesy of Frank Micelotta/FX
by Michelle Gallina
posted on 11-20-2017
It didn’t take a secret agent to figure out that Archer’s appearance at this year’s Comic Con in San Diego was a little out of the ordinary. Typically appearing on a video to inform the audience why he can’t attend the annual event, the protagonist of the spy sitcom by the same name quickly proved that he was, indeed, a live presence.
Rather than create another video featuring Archer half-heartedly apologizing for his absence, the show’s production team thought it would be fun to change things up, and have Archer interact in real-time with fans. Leading the charge was the show’s technical director, Bryan Fordney of Floyd County Productions, who used Adobe Character Animator to achieve the live animation.
ARCHER—Pictured: Sterling Archer (voice of H. Jon Benjamin). CR: FXX
“We’ve always used Adobe software to produce the show,” explains Bryan. “Using Adobe Character Animator made a lot of sense because it features a similar toolset, and we already had a lot of the artwork on hand.”
At the start of the panel, the Archer character appears on screen, explaining that thanks to some time off, he was able to be at Comic Con. The audience didn’t quite grasp the meaning of this until he called out a woman in red with a “pink thing” in her hair, and asked her to stand up. It was then that the crowd realized there was more to Archer’s appearance than usual.
Meanwhile, behind the screen, Bryan and H. Jon Benjamin, the voice actor behind the Archer character, sat at a computer with a lens out to the crowd. While Jon spoke to the audience, Bryan worked the keyboard, enabling Archer to blink, point, and turn his head accordingly. It didn’t take long before Jon caught on, eventually taking control of the keyboard and adding a few gestures of his own.
The interaction didn’t end there. During the Q&A session towards the end of the panel session, Archer occasionally interrupted to add his own commentary — and the audience loved it.
“He got some really good laughs,” says Casey Willis, co-executive producer on Archer. “People were really impressed by the technology.”
The production team was able to take their concept and turn it into reality thanks to their extensive experience working with Adobe Creative Cloud apps to produce the series. They use Adobe After Effects for compositing and animation, Adobe Illustrator to draw the characters, and Adobe Photoshop for background paintings — all solutions within Creative Cloud for teams. Because of this, the artwork was already in place to build the 3D rig.
“We took the artwork and started to experiment using some of the templates in Character Animator,” says Bryan. He built on it from there, piece by piece. The final rig was quite complex, and included several head angles and customized mouths to make Archer’s speech appear as fluid as possible.
Throughout the process Bryan benefitted from some expert advice from Adobe. “The Adobe engineers were great, and gave me some valuable tips on how to tweak it for a live show,” he says. “We spent a lot of time modifying the rig so that Archer looked as natural as possible.”
This side project was in addition to daily production work on the show, which is now entering its ninth season. Storyboards and voiceovers are edited in Premiere Pro. Once cut and approved, they go to various departments for specialized work. The illustration team draws the key poses for every action, every costume, and all of the other visual elements of the show. The background team works with the 3D department to render the backgrounds, which are then painted over in Photoshop.
Once the illustrations and background are complete, they’re sent to After Effects, which contains customized workflows that merge the application’s animation capabilities with its compositing features. The file is then rendered into Premiere Pro, where the final cut is done.
Despite a grueling production schedule, Bryan somehow found time to get his feet wet with Character Animatior. With the basics now under his belt, fans are left wondering — will Archer make another live appearance at next year’s Comic Con?
“Archer’s plans for next year’s Comic Con remain top secret,” says Bryan. “Everyone will have to just wait and see.”
Products: After Effects, Photoshop, Illustrator, Premiere Pro, Creative Cloud