FX Networks
Archer Season 9: M/V Seamus Boot Up
Sci-Fi UI / Illustration / Compositing / Motion Graphics

As Lead Motion Graphics Designer on Archer, one of my jobs was to create the Sci-Fi UI for any and all computer screens that appear in the show.

The final scene of season nine features an homage to the classic 1979 Alien movie with the ship's computer booting up after a long cryogenic sleep. I studied not only the graphical UI of the movie, 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 the final shot in the Archer scene was too small to see such detail, ultimately the effect was created with season 10 in mind. There's bound to be a close up shot of a computer monitor at some point, just like in the Alien movies the season is homaging. And if not, well I still had fun making it!

Reference Material

Alien On
The original scene from Alien (©20th Century Fox)
Alien Close Up
A close up of a CRT monitor from Alien (©20th Century Fox)

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 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.

The original UI graphics at 320x240 (inset) and enlarged 400%

Creating the effect (with stock 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!

Scanline Alignment
Note the perfect alignment of the scanlines to the underlying pixels

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.

A close up of the effect showing screen curvature, scanline alignment, and a dot crawl shimmer
The full screen version
Producer: Floyd County Productions