In a small office, the Floyd County team is talking, extensively, about fingers. Specifically, they’re pondering whether Archer can turn a half eaten hot dog and some scraps into a passable human finger with a class ring on it. Archer, like the team, has to work with what he can get. But this isn’t a joke for an episode. Instead, the team is working out an entirely new way of watching TV, where after seeing Archer dodge mobsters, viewers can do his job for him and even get a prop from the show for your trouble courtesy of their new app, Archer, P.I.
Archer follows Sterling Archer, “the world’s most dangerous spy” as he blunders from one misadventure to the next, dragging along his coworkers as he does everything from oversee the discreet disposal of the Italian Prime Minister’s corpse to a season-long arc where he became the worst cocaine dealer in the history of drugs. The show is packed with in-jokes, pop culture references, and other gags, and that quickly seeped into every crevice of the show: Going through the show frame-by-frame usually yields everything from obscure literary references to subtle nods to past events on the show.
In the sixth season, however, the animation team went further. What looked like random numbers on the profile of a spy the team was hunting turned out to be a hexidecimal code that led to a website. That website, in turn, quickly led fans down a bizarre rabbit hole into the psyche of Krieger, the possible clone of Adolf Hitler and a man with a love of Rush, bizarre Japanese pornography, and turning people into robots. That spawned a second scavenger hunt for the seventh season that saw clues littered all throughout the season, climaxing in fans uncovering a 3D printed file that earned them a prop from the show.
But this season, instead of looking for little clues in the background, the Archer team has invented an entirely new way of watching TV. To find out what Archer’s up to when he’s not on screen, you’re going to take out your phone and solve mysteries yourself, in the craziest, most ambitious scheme the show’s staff has hatched yet. To pull it off, they’ve had to invent new ideas on the fly and even write an entirely new season of the show after the episodes themselves have been completed. Here’s a look at how it works, and how it might change TV.
How Background Jokes Became Groundbreaking Tech
Like everything on Archer, its scavenger hunts started with background jokes. “It was interesting to see people react to it, and then we began to hide stuff,” Matt Thompson, the show’s executive producer, tells us. “We decided ‘Let’s give it to them! Let’s get after it and figure out how tough we can make it.’ It was crazy in its complexity.” The gags were supposed to be just that, jokes, but unexpectedly, the hunts wound up winning Floyd County, Archer’s production company, back-to-back Emmys for Outstanding Creative Achievement in Interactive Media in 2015 and 2016.
“We thought for this season we couldn’t just do that again,” technical director Bryan Fordney explains. So the team decided instead to take an ambitious jump. Instead of hiding codes and gags inside the episode, they’d use pioneering technology to turn everyone watching into a detective unearthing exactly what Archer is up to, in between the hijinks we see on screen.
In season eight, Archer, for reasons that will become clear once the season starts, is hopping back to the 1940s. Sterling Archer is now a PI, Cyril and Pam are LAPD, Lana is a chanteuse and possible femme fatale, and Krieger is… well, he’s still a Nazi and a mad scientist. Like most private dicks, Archer has a case he’s supposed to be working while he’s really doing something else.
An Episode Hidden Inside An Episode
The app lets the viewer use augmented reality, or AR, technology to explore the world of the show, in an unprecedented mix of gaming and TV. For the first time, viewers can uncover for themselves an entirely new story, hidden inside each episode, that you’d never know was there if you didn’t have the app. You don’t need the app to watch the show; instead there’s a parallel story, hidden in the show, for you to find, for the first time.
“The app itself is really exciting. It’s using the core concept of augmented reality.” Fordney explains. “By AR I mean a game that uses your camera or some other device to capture a feed and the real environment around you. VR takes up your whole vision, AR augments your experience.”
Augmented reality has been a Silicon Valley buzzword for years, but for consumers, it’s been more promise than reality. AR has mostly been used in games like Pokemon Go as an optional gimmick, but Archer’s approach is far more ambitious. As you watch, the app finds objects in the show that come to life, leaping off the screen and filling in details. Without the app, you’d never know the game was there; it offers a completely new dimension on what you’re watching, and it’ll even work with certain videos and promotional materials as well, throwing Archer into your everyday life.
Pioneering technology, it turns out, involves a lot of what Archer himself does best, namely winging it. “Because this is a brand new thing, we’re changing our minds as we go along.” Thompson confides. “It’s still changing today. It’s finding it’s own path like water.” But even a simple test build we were shown is impressive; snap a picture, and what seems like just some set dressing on the show comes to life, often in the most hilarious way possible.
Viewers who solve the case get a reward, something tangible from the show they can print out, construct, and even use the app on to find more information about the case. It’s as if you reached into the show and pulled out a prop to keep as a souvenir. It wasn’t until he saw that feature in action that the full scope of what they were doing dawned on Thompson. “They showed me the award I got for episode one. It was a piece of paper that you download. But if you fold it in the manner you’re instructed to, you now have a real world piece of paper, and you hold your phone up to it, and it comes alive. When it happened to me, and I saw what it did, I was like “Holy shit! This is amazing! I can’t believe this is real!”
Going Back, Doing It Again
Getting there is a surprisingly complex process. “We have to start at a point where the episode is pretty much completely animated.” Fordney explains. “We need to find images, that are targets in the show that work well. It’s tricky. You take a bunch of inanimate objects, and you’re like “OK, what is the story we can tell here.” Those objects create more objects we create out of thin air, and as you interact with them, you uncover items that aren’t targets.”
Once the episode’s been written and animated, Floyd County essentially has to go back and make a whole new episode. This means starting with only what’s in the episode itself; everything in the show, from the cast to the objects they handle, is filtered to see if the app can scan them. Once they know what works with the app and what doesn’t, they have to turn those objects into a full case to solve. Not that the team is completely out of luck if an object doesn’t quite work. “The object that’s coded needs to have a high amount of contrast value,” Thompson explains, talking about the creative side of the app. “So it has to either have its own defined shape or enough contrast. For example, there’s a safe with a spinning lock. The lock didn’t have enough contrast for the app to capture it properly, so we went back to change the lock to give it more contrast, and make sure it was featured in such a way that you can snap a picture.”
“This has changed how we look at the show. We’re in production on episode five now, and we’re seeing things that we didn’t see before.” Fordney tells us. For him, the challenge has been how to tell a story in an entirely new way. “We discovered that it was important that the puzzles had to be funny!” He chuckles. “We started by making them challenging, but they were so dry. We kept redoing them over and over again to make them more resilient and fun.”
As the team has been writing and animating the eighth season, it’s driven them to come up with ways to tell a story in parallel with what’s happening and to think about how people watch both the show and television in general. Archer is still Archer: There’s no moment where the show stops so you can get a nice long look at something to snap for the app. Floyd County has had to figure out how to hide an entirely new story in and around their episodes for fans to uncover.
What’s dawned on the team, as they’ve worked on the app, is the sheer scope of what they’re doing, and where it might go next. Both Thompson and Fordney think they can expand the approach to past seasons of the show, or even hop to other FX series. But in the end, it’s about doing something you’ve never seen before. Fordney notes “It is super ambitious. We knew it was ambitious when we went into it, but we didn’t want to avoid the fact that these scavenger hunts were a labor of love, so we had to make it this big challenging thing.” In the process, they might just change how we watch TV.
You can get started right now, with the new season’s promotional materials. Just go to iTunes Store or Google Play and download Archer, P.I. to try it for yourself, and have the app ready Wednesday, April 5th, when Archer returns at 10pm ET/PT on FXX.