How ‘Archer’ Illustration Director Stephen Slesinski Broke Into Animation

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Photo Source: Courtesy FXX

Stephen Slesinski always wanted to work in animation; but he took a foray into the ad agency world and submitted art to a Pittsburgh Penguins fan blog before landing his current role on FXX spy comedy “Archer.” He shares what goes into working on the long-running hit and the advice he has for aspiring animators.

You’re the illustration director for “Archer.” What does that entail?

My main job is to oversee a department of about 30 illustrators. We get the storyboards and the scripts to review, and we make out assignments based on things that we need to fulfill the episode. It’s my job to get those assignments into people’s hands, to make sure we’re getting those drawings done in a timely manner, and to make sure everything is on-model and is built in a way that our [Adobe] After Effects animators can utilize.

Tell me a bit about your career path leading up to “Archer.”

Before I got the job at Floyd County Productions, I had worked mainly as a graphic designer for ad agencies in the Pittsburgh area. I went to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, graduated in 2002, and worked in the ad agency field up until around 2008, when everybody kind of lost their job in the fall of 2008. 

At that point, I had just really started doing freelance illustration. There was a hockey blog in Pittsburgh called the Pensblog, and I started submitting artwork [there]. They had a really big following and started posting my stuff, and I kind of just blew up from there, doing hockey illustrations on request. That kept me afloat for the next couple of years. Then one day, my wife saw a tweet from Floyd County Productions asking for submissions for illustrators. At the time, we were huge “Sealab 2021” and “Frisky Dingo” fans—we quoted the shows a lot. So we were like, “Let’s give it a shot. Why not?” My art style was kind of close to the “Archer” style, so I figured at the very least I had a slight leg up. I submitted some stuff, and [“Archer” executive producer] Casey Willis got back to me pretty quickly, and they offered me the test. The rest is history.

Archer“Archer” Courtesy FXX

What does a typical day look like for you? 

In the morning, the team checks in. From there, folks will submit drawings, and then it’s a full day of reviewing animations and talking people through notes. While the team is drawing one episode, I tend to look at the episodes coming up to see what we’re going to be dealing with, how heavy the action is going to be, and if there are elements that we’ve already done before—things like weapons or specific outfits, anything that I can go back through the library to either pull up for reference or reuse. My day is basically bouncing between the current episode and scouting ahead and seeing what we can do to cut down on the work that we have for future episodes. 

How does the voice cast inform the illustration team’s work?

In the past, we were so far ahead that we just had the scripts and the storyboards to go by. But these last couple of seasons, we’ve been fortunate enough to get radio plays of the episodes. That has helped a lot as far as cutting down on the guesswork—because obviously you have the script, but there’s always a chance somebody will come up with something a little more exciting or give it a spin that nobody was thinking about beforehand. It’s really nice to be able to hear their work and play off of that.

What part of the process do you enjoy the most?

One thing that I really like is problem-solving for some of the more complicated shots. When “Archer” started, it was more like an office comedy—more talky, less action. But as the seasons have gone on, we’ve added more to it, to the point where sometimes each act has its own little set piece, as far as fighting or running or a chase—some sort of weird, crazy thing that we didn’t do in the past. It’s always fun to look at that and see how we can actually pull it off without breaking the budget or needing to bring in an extra team of people just to get to the finish line. The other thing is just seeing everything come together from such a large department. When you see 30 people all working across Georgia, putting all this time into it, and see it come together at the end and click, it is really something special.

Archer“Archer” Courtesy FXX

Do you have an example of a sequence that you were really excited to see come together once it was finished?

Thinking back to last season, there’s an episode with a lot of flashbacks and flash-forwards, where Archer’s thinking back to one of his first assignments and the person who trained him in the field and then having to deal with a past love coming back from the dead, so to speak. That one was filled with a lot of punching, fighting, running, chasing, and then needing to match up past events with present events—making sure the ’40s Archer with the ’40s-style suit was lining up with what he wears in the current day. We really do put a lot of thought and detail into those little things, even as small as: “Hey, the older suit only has three buttons on the sleeve,” or having to track the different cut of the lapels or the vents on the back of the suit. We put all those details in, making sure it lines up perfectly. It’s rough when you’re in the middle of it; but when you see that final cut? It’s really just awesome.

What advice would you give to early career animators and illustrators?

One thing to keep in mind is that perfection is not what anyone’s really looking for. In animation, we’re basically looking for fast and knowing what to focus on. Work at a pace that you’re comfortable with, but know that the more frequently you can put stuff out, the more eyes are going to be on it. If I were on a hiring spree and looking at somebody’s website, I would want to see a lot of stuff. If your website has, like, five things on it, that’s going to make me pause and think, Can you do two drawings a day for the production? Or are we only going to be able to get one drawing an episode, if you’re only putting limited stuff up? Don’t be precious with your lines, and just [showcase] as much as possible.

This story originally appeared in the July 14 issue of Backstage Magazine.