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Storyboarding on FX’s Archer: My Experience

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Kevin Mellon FX's Archer Offices

My day job is as a storyboard artist for FX’s Archer animated TV show. I work with a team of 3 other people, and we have two art directors, Neal Holman and Chad Hurd. It’s a very small team, which I like. A lot of the other sections of the studio are made up of larger teams, but our group is small and we’ve become really tight-knit over the last year.

It varies from episode to episode, but we generally get a script and divide the work up into sections. The two more senior/experienced boarders will take larger chunks, and the rest of us take smaller chunks, usually divided up by acts. It’s generally been Justin Wagner and I splitting an act, and we sit next to each other, so it’s really easy to address any concerns and talk about scenes we have that take place in the same settings so that we’re on the same page with things. We all take turns doing board cleanup, on our own work and each others.

Kevin Mellon FX's Archer Thumbnails Lana

Then I will go through with my sketchbook or some paper or SketchBook Pro using a file with tiny board templates on it (usually 9-12 per sheet) and thumbnail out (as quickly as possible) the whole part I’m working on. This can take a few hours, or the whole day to get through. It varies depending on the complexity of the episode and how many characters are in each scene. The more characters in a scene (and on Archer, there are around 7 main characters, often more depending on any ancillary characters and guest stars) the more complex the scene is and the more time it takes to figure out.

That said, the show is a dialog and joke-driven show, so even scenes with just 2 people can be complex just by volume. I’m working on a scene between Lana and Archer right now that’s just them talking, but it’s around 4 pages of dialog. I feel like my job at that point is not just to convey the acting, but to keep things visually interesting and to find as many camera angles that make sense within our parameters as a limited-animation show to keep it from just being a static medium 2-shot scene with a couple of over-the-shoulder reverses. But sometimes, that’s exactly what’s needed.

Kevin Mellon FX's Archer Thumbnail Lana2
Once I get a pass that I like, I’ll show it to the other boarders to get feedback, and then I’ll work on refining things, and making the figures clearer and indicating backgrounds more. Often-times, backgrounds and new characters are being designed as we’re boarding, so I check with the art directors to see where things are at or get any notions from them as to what a setting will be like so I can accurately stage things at this point (or sometimes let them know how I’m staging something so they can design with that in mind). My camera moves and character setups can change wildly depending on what the setting ends up being, so keeping things loose but readable is key.

All of this takes place in just a few days. We generally have about 2.5-3 weeks to board an episode from start to cleanups. My understanding is that this is a much faster time-frame than most animated shows work on, but since this is the only one I’ve done so far, it’s all I know.Kevin Mellon FX's Archer Thumbnail fight

I was happy and surprised to find myself surrounded by people who are not only talented, but passionate about art and animation and funny as hell. Most of the people I meet in Atlanta who work in animation are amazing to be around and talk to. I shouldn’t have been surprised by this, but I was. Also, everyone wants to make something good. No one wants any part of the production to suffer or be sub-par, and that attitude can be infectious.

The one tool I have beyond being able to draw is to finish that drawing and put it out into the world and then move on to the next one. Being someone who finishes things is key to any walk of life, but doing (and getting) work in art, especially.

As far as keeping inspired, I’m of the school of thought that this Chuck Close quote describes: “Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

I mostly use SketchBook Pro to design characters and pencil my comic pages. I started using it a few years back (2009, I think?) and it quickly became my go-to drawing program. I was incapable of drawing in other programs on the tablet I had at the time, but for some reason SketchBook Pro made sense.

Once I got a Cintiq, that process and result only heightened. The weekend I got my first 12″ Cintiq, I was on a severe deadline and had to do layouts for over 30 pages in about 4 days. SketchBook Pro allowed me to make them my pencils that I could print out and ink from, as I was able to move quickly and intuitively throughout the program and able to go back and forth between pages easily to check consistency. I draw faster in SketchBook Pro, for some reason.

I’ve been a convert ever since. My book with Blair Butler, HEART, was penciled in SketchBook Pro. American Muscle, with Steve Niles, was penciled in it. A lot of my commissions are thumbnailed and penciled in it. It’s my go-to program for sketching and drawing.

Kevin Mellon FX's Archer Brushes

My favorite tools are a custom pencil brush that I made, and a couple of inking tools that I modified off of some of the settings Callum Watt was using at one point. His work in SketchBook Pro is nothing short of amazing and inspiring. For color, I generally just use a few of the marker tools and an airbrush, although I’ve been messing around with the synthetic paint tools when I get a chance.

 

You can see more of Kevin’s work on his site and Insatgram.