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Thomas Weiser, center, with super spies Sterling Archer and Lana Kane. (Animation by Kelton Hamm)

30 Under 30: A simple twist of fate led animator Thomas Weiser to hit TV series “Archer”

Thomas Weiser, center, with super spies Sterling Archer and Lana Kane. (Animation by Kelton Hamm)
Thomas Weiser (center) with superspies Sterling Archer and Lana Kane. (Animation by Kelton Hamm)

Five years ago, Thomas Weiser got fired. And it turned out to be a great career move.

Today, at age 29, he’s a senior animator on “Archer,” one of television’s fastest-rising shows. Produced entirely in Atlanta, the FX prime-time animated series follows the missions of the fictional undercover agency ISIS (International Secret Intelligence Service) and its star agent, Sterling Archer, a self-centered, sarcastic playboy who combines James Bond skills with Don Draper sleaze.

30under30_v3The grown-up humor of “Archer” is rated TV-MA, decidedly NSFW and filled with LOLs. It’s also incredibly popular: “Archer’s” ratings have gone up with every new season of its four-year run, peaking at more than 2 million average weekly viewers. Floyd County Productions, the studio behind “Archer,” has grown just as rapidly. The company employs a staff of 110 and recently announced plans to move from its cramped headquarters on Zonolite Road — as in, desks-in-the-break-room cramped — to a two-floor, 12,000-square-foot space in Atlantic Station.

In 2008, Weiser had been let go from his previous job and was simply looking for work when he took the animation test for the series that would become “Archer.” Now, in his current role, he helps guide the show’s signature style and works with a team of animators to bring the writers’ outrageous scripts to life.

During a break from work on “Archer’s” fifth season, premiering next year, Weiser talked with ArtsATL about his childhood passion for cartoons, the growing trend of animation for adults, and how following a long-distance girlfriend to Atlanta has put him on the path to a lifelong dream.

ArtsATL: Tell us your life story. When did you first get into animation?

Thomas Weiser: When I was five or six, I watched Disney, Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes, the really old stuff. My parents would either take me to a Disney film when it came out or they would have the VHS tapes, and I would watch them all the time. That’s what got me into drawing. But I had no idea people drew things over and over again to make cartoons.

In high school, I learned that people were drawing all these things, and I realized you can actually earn a living being an artist. I researched specific jobs, how cartoons are made. And I started getting into more three-dimensional stuff like clay and sculpture, which is my favorite thing to do. Then I saw “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” and that got me into stop-motion animation, which was a combination of my two favorite things, sculpting and animation. And I thought, “Oh, I can actually do that.”

ArtsATL: Where did you go to school?

Weiser: University of the Arts [in Philadelphia]. They had an animation program, and I saw that some of the animators from there had gone on to big things, like Maxwell Atoms, who created “The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy,” and Mike Mayfield, who worked on “King of the Hill.” That gave me the idea that people could go to this school and move on to a career.

I wanted to become an animator, but I didn’t like drawing frames over and over again. We were still learning very traditional pencil-and-paper style animation; none of the current technology was there yet. But they did have a stop-motion course. When I did my senior thesis film [in traditional animation], I took the whole year up until two or three months before it was due, and it was in the worst shape possible. So I scrapped the whole thing and did a stop-motion film, and it was far better. That made me think I should stick with stop-motion, since it came more naturally to me.

Thomas WeiserArtsATL: And were you able to find work after you graduated?

Weiser: After school, I moved to Los Angeles and found a post with a stop-motion production company called SpaceBass Films. They had done these bits for “MADtv” called “CLOPS,” which was “Cops” but in Claymation. And I remember watching those in grade school and high school, and now I was working there.

They did some stuff for a website called SuperDeluxe, and I worked on that for about six months. But then that eventually dried up, and then it was like, “Studio’s closed, bye.” That was my first encounter with the animation business and how, once production is done, some studios just kick you out the door.

ArtsATL: What prompted you to move to Atlanta?

Weiser: My [Atlanta-based] girlfriend. I had started talking to her in California, and I got it into my head that it would be a very good idea to move here, especially since I wasn’t getting any work in L.A.

ArtsATL: And was there any industry in Atlanta at that point?

Weiser: Not that I knew of! This was November 2007. I just drove all the way over here with whatever I could fit in my car, which wasn’t a lot. When I got here, I found a listing on Craigslist for someone who knew After Effects [animation software], so I told them, “Yeah, I know how to work After Effects.” Then I gave myself a two-week crash course in After Effects.

This place, their bread and butter was those terrible radio station commercials you see on TV, so that’s what I ended up doing as my first job. We also did a lot of website work for companies like UPS. I worked there for about a year before I got let go. It was sort of sudden, but it was partly my fault because I was getting bored. And if something bores me, I get lazy.

Luckily, a friend of mine knew somebody at Radical Axis, and they were looking for people for a new show. I took their animation test and passed, and that was the test for “Archer” Season One.

ArtsATL: What did you have to do for the animation test?

Weiser: It was animating a scene from the pilot. I used After Effects in a much different manner than in my previous job. “Archer” is animated “on twos,” which means for every 24 frames, you’ll see 12 frames of movement, and that’s very similar to how stop-motion is shot.

I’ve been working on “Archer” since Episode Two, and now we’re about to start Episode 50. I started as an animator, and the following year I was promoted to senior animator with three other people.

Archer Season Three DVD Cover

ArtsATL: How has the animation on “Archer” evolved over the years?

Weiser: Every season, we try to push the animation further. We have a 3D department now. At the end of last season, we had an episode in a sea lab with a lot of 3D animation and hand-drawn water effects that were just fantastic.

All of us have grown exponentially. I hate looking at my animation in Season One. I own Season One on DVD, and I just can’t bring myself to watch it because all I’ll see is [the mistakes] and I’ll just cringe. Everyone else for the most part doesn’t care, but I’ll see it. I can always get better from anything I’ve done.

ArtsATL: Does that mean someday you’ll watch Season Four and cringe?

Weiser: That’s definitely possible, but right now I think Season Four is some of my best work.

ArtsATL: How closely do you work with the writers?

Weiser: We don’t work with the writers at all. Only if something is nuts [animation-wise], as in absolutely crazy. Or if in writing it looks good, but when you animate it, it doesn’t look correct, like a stage direction or the way a character’s talking. We’ll try to find a better solution. We do work closely with the art directors and character designers. When we’re animating stuff, we can say this would look a little bit better if you drew the character this way, because we don’t do any of the drawing. We’re given all these pictures and we make them move.

ArtsATL: Who’s your favorite character to animate?

Weiser: Cheryl [the mentally off-kilter office secretary]. She’s very energetic and it’s fun to animate that sort of thing. Whenever she’s screaming or being weird is my favorite thing to animate, and for the most part, she’s always screaming or being weird.

ArtsATL: There’s been a resurgence in animation over the past few years, especially for adults with blocks like “Adult Swim” on Cartoon Network and Fox’s new ADHD. What do you think is driving that?

Weiser: I think it’s because all of us, the people who grew up watching cartoons and who love cartoons, are creating shows and realizing they can make them animated. On shows like “The Venture Brothers,” they can do really crazy, goofy things [with animation]. The people who grew up with the old cartoons are doing parodies of those, while also telling their own stories.

ArtsATL: There’s been a lot of coverage of the growth in TV and film production in Atlanta. How would you describe the animation scene here?

Weiser: There’s so much going on in Atlanta, and it’s getting bigger. Bento Box has just opened a studio here. They animate “Bob’s Burgers” and they’re doing a new show for Hulu called “The Awesomes,” created by Seth Meyers. We have the Savannah College of Art and Design [in Atlanta], and a lot of people came to us straight from there. People are looking in places other than L.A. and New York to make shows, and I hope they keep looking here.

ArtsATL: Since this is for our “30 Under 30” series, and you’re 29, what are your goals as you look ahead to your 30s?

Weiser: I eventually want to be an animation director. I want to lead the vision of a show, but not necessarily create one. I’m not good at storytelling or creating the arc of a story. I might have a good idea, but I would need help fleshing it out. But if someone comes to me with an idea, I can visualize it in my head, how it would look onscreen, and we can go from there.

In college, I set a goal to eventually see my name on a movie screen. It’s fun to go to certain movies and see some of my friends’ names from California. [For me in Atlanta,] it might need to be a live-action film, or there’d need to be an animated feature film studio showing up here. But I do want to see my name up there someday.