Archer is a critically acclaimed and award winning animated comedy on FXX. Originally set in the world of international espionage, season ten takes place in a retro 1970s vision of outer space.
This season I am no longer working at the studio in a full time capacity, but I was asked to reprise my role on a remote freelance basis to tackle the computers screens in the show – a task I had undertaken for the previous nine seasons.
The style of the screens are based on the beautiful and simple screen aesthetic of 70s & 80s science fiction movies such as Alien and Star Wars. Simple low resolution graphics, bold primary colors, single-task screens with minimal techno-fluff, clunky 3D animation, it's all here! There's also a cheeky homage to the 1991 classic Terminator 2: Judgment Day in episode two, which was a lot of fun to recreate.
I studied not only the graphical UI of these movies, but also the CRT monitors themselves. Even how they turn on from cold. I wanted to reproduce their effects as closely as possible. Not just scanlines and screen curvature, but also recreating the aperture grill and modelling the way the RGB phosphors appear to shimmer. While there is an abundance of VHS and glitch plugins, I couldn't find one that gave me a convincing CRT effect, so I went about creating my own effect with stock AE plugins – besides, it's way more fun that way!
Most screens appear alongside the characters while they interact with them, or in the background as set design. Occasionally the UI might occupy the entire TV frame if it's particularly important to the story, in which case I reformatted the layout to fit a 16x9 ratio and removed the screen curvature. Below is a variety of screens in different situations.
Creating the graphics
I created the UI graphics and animation at a 320x240 frame size. Tiny by todays standards, but authentic. It was the same resolution as almost every video game system of the 1980s, and almost certainly the size of the original graphics that were fed into the monitors on the Aliens or Star Wars film set.
The art director requested a pseudo alien typeface for any ancillary text, something close to English, but not quite readable. I achieved this quite easily by simply by using a standard font but setting the font rendering to Draft quality, which disabled anti aliasing. With the comp at 320x240 there was really nothing else for the font to do but get all crunchy and weird looking.
Creating the effect (with stock AE plugins)
There's numerous commercial plugins that can produce a similar kind of effect quite easily, but they tend to favor VHS effects, which is not the look I was going for. While CRT monitors and VHS are from the same era and go hand in hand, it was important to make a distinction between 'live' computer graphics and the degraded look of analog tape. Plus I like the challenge of seeing how far I can push After Effects with the stock plugins.
I precomped and scaled the graphics by 400% in After Effects – I needed much more resolution to create the actual CRT effect. The precomp was set to Draft quality to simulate a Nearest Neighbor scale, which would preserve the hard pixel edges instead of blurring them.
Next, I overlaid a custom made 1280px wide scanline template over the top. Each line was two pixels thick. Being a multiple of four, it lined up perfectly with the 400% enlarged 320x240 pixels of the precomp. Boom!
Finally, a two frame looping animation of a 1280px wide checkboard pattern (frame 1 normal, frame 2 inverted) was used to create the shimmer. A bunch of other subtle techniques were used, but that was essentially the core of the effect.