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Artist Behind FX’s “Archer” Lends Insight Into Environmental Storytelling Methods


The hit animated series “Archer,” known for its sharp wit and unique visual style, has captivated audiences since its debut. Behind the scenes, talented artists and animators work tirelessly to bring the show’s world to life. Shishuang Tu, as the environment designer, offers a glimpse into the process of creating compelling environments and the art of environmental storytelling.

The Making of ‘Archer’: A Blend of 2D and 3D Techniques

“Archer” stands out in the animation landscape for its distinctive blend of traditional 2D animation and 3D-generated backgrounds. This hybrid approach allows for a cinematic feel that enhances the storytelling. Tu explains, “We use Adobe Photoshop, After Effects, and other tools to create the characters and environments. Everything was integrated to keep the original aesthetic as much as possible.

The process begins with detailed storyboards that outline each scene’s composition and camera angles. These storyboards are then translated into digital environments using 2D and 3D techniques. “The ability to move within a 3D space allows you to understand points of view better. If you’re having trouble getting your environment art into proportion, try rendering it in 3D,” says Tu.

Shishuang Tu, who has contributed significantly to the show’s environmental design especially in S13, emphasizes the importance of collaboration in this process. “Working with a team of talented artists allows us to push the boundaries of what’s possible. For other artists struggling with their scenes, try reaching out to friends or family for their opinion,” she notes.

Mastering Environmental Storytelling

Environmental storytelling is a powerful tool in animation and gaming. This allows creators to convey narratives through the design and arrangement of environments. This technique uses visual elements to tell a story without relying on dialogue or text. “A well-designed environment can communicate much about the world and its inhabitants, often more effectively than words,” says Tu.

In “Archer,” environmental storytelling enhances the narrative and provides context for the characters’ actions. From cluttered desks to outdated technology, every element is carefully chosen to reinforce the show’s themes and humor. 

Tu explains that the key to effective environmental storytelling is attention to detail. “It’s about creating a world that feels lived-in and aligned with the story’s theme. Small details, like a coffee stain on a desk or a broken chair, can add depth and realism to a scene,” she says. 

Such artistic detail aims to enrich the visual experience and engage the audience deeply. Tu’s receipt of the 43rd American Illustration award stands as a testament to the technicality and emotional resonance behind her intricate designs.

Tips for Creating Compelling Environments

For artists looking to improve their environment design skills, Tu offers a few tips. First and foremost, she emphasizes the importance of research and reference gathering. “Before starting a project, I spend a lot of time collecting reference images and studying similar environments. This helps me understand how different elements interact. You never know, sometimes the devil is in the details,” she explains.

Another crucial aspect is understanding the principles of composition and lighting. “Good composition guides the viewer’s eye and helps to tell the story. Lighting, on the other hand, sets the mood and can dramatically change the perception of a scene. Think of a park at night, versus in the day,” Tu notes. 

She recommends experimenting with different lighting setups and compositions to find the most effective way to convey the desired narrative. Even an absence of lighting can create a pronounced visual effect, allowing the artist to vary the intensity of the scene by manipulating the intensity of the lighting.

Tu advises artists to pay close attention to color and texture in their environments. “Color can evoke different emotions and set the tone for a scene. For instance, warm colors can create a sense of comfort and coziness, while cool colors can bring on feelings of calm or even unease,” she explains. Though many artists are likely familiar with color theory, Tu advises that even experienced illustrators should review the concept.

In connection, Tu stresses the importance of remembering texture, ensuring it adds a tactile quality to the environment, making it feel more tangible and real. “Incorporating varied textures can help differentiate elements within a scene and add visual interest,” Tu says. In illustration, the term “texture” refers to the creation of surface patterns. Texture can be as simple as dotting grains of sand to the whorls and stripes of human skin, depending on the aesthetic and theme of the art being made.

These tips have a single purpose: telling a story without words. “Every object in a scene should have a purpose and contribute to the story. Whether it’s a worn-out book on a shelf or a cracked window, these details can provide backstory and context,” she says.

The Art of Environmental Storytelling

Environmental storytelling is an art form that requires a deep understanding of both design and narrative. It involves creating environments that not only look visually appealing but also serve a purpose within the story. “Every element in a scene should have a reason for being there. Don’t add random items without thinking—imagine a backstory. Why is it here? How did it get here? How will the viewer interact and connect it with the rest of your environment?” Tu says.

In addition to its narrative function, environmental storytelling can trigger emotions and create a sense of atmosphere. “How an environment is designed can influence how the audience feels about a scene. For example, a dark, cluttered room can create a sense of tension, while a bright, open space can evoke feelings of freedom and optimism,” says Tu.

Though an often overlooked part of illustration, environmental storytelling is as integral to art as character design or animation. In the world of “Archer,” the meticulous attention to detail and creative use of environmental storytelling are key factors in the show’s success. Even outside of animation, environmental storytelling can be found in any form of visual media—a painted fresco, a modern film, or on-stage performances.

Through Shishuang Tu’s insights, we gain a deeper appreciation for the craftsmanship that goes into creating these compelling animated worlds. What may seem to the viewer to be a seemingly simple background could have taken a team of artists hours to render. Perhaps, with such light shed on the sheer creativity put into environmental art, more will come to appreciate the dedication required to master it.


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