Diary of a Wimpy Kid
, a mostly live-action adaptation of the first book in author Jeff Kinney’s illustrated kids’ novel series, was just released as a 20th Century Fox motion picture, directed by Thor Freudenthal. The company that 20th Century Fox relied on
to provide the part of the film that weren’t live actionâ€”200 visual effects and animation shotsâ€”was VFX facility Custom Film Effects
. CFE founder/visual effects supervisor Mark Dornfeld notes that his company has done a lot of work for the motion picture studio over the years. “We were able to give them a budget that helped them to get the film greenlit,” he says.
Dornfeld supervised on set in Vancouver, and brought the film’s animation supervisor, Mike Murphy, in-house to CFE for the six-month shot production period. The team also worked closely with Freudenthal to develop and execute Kinney’s illustrations. Although the characters are live action for the majority of the movie, they also appear as animated versions identical to Kinney’s original drawings, against live-action sets in several sequences, and against animated pages of the book’s diary format in opening title and end-credit sequences.
“Our goal was to ground the movie’s visuals in the book,” said Dornfeld, who noted that the author paid very close attention to the animation’s development. “This was the first time Jeff had let these illustrations out of his hands. We needed to respect and preserve them, and we were really pleased that both Jeff and Thor were so present in the animation process.”
Murphy noted that the illustrations are drawn “with very clean vector art lines.” “If anything was off it looked completely wrong,” he says. “We found that if we just brought those lines to life, as soon as a character paused, it would die.” To prevent that problem, Murphy and Dornfeld came up with a proprietary technique they called the ‘living line,’ where they would draw lines on paper and capture them with an old-school down shooter still camera, then take the shots through a proprietary software renderer developed at CFE to make computer-based lines that looked like they had been drawn in pencil. Characters were then animated and composited digitally using Autodesk Maya, Eyeon Fusion, Adobe After Effects and Illustratorâ€”a faster, more efficient process that resulted in more subtle nuances in characters’ actions.
“Basically we were trying to emulate how pencil lines behave in conventional pencil animation,” explains Dornfeld. “The treatment was limited to the characters that were animated and moving. Background pieces didn’t have the living line technique. It took a lot of experimentation to make everything pop and come alive.”
Rather than working from storyboards to block out each of the movie’s 17 animated sequences, Freudenthal and Murphy, former CalArts roommates, designed the sequences collaboratively, figuring out how each character would come to life. “We know each other so well that we were able to work in shorthand,” says Murphy. “What’s the right acting gag that works with these characters, but doesn’t move them too much or break the model? Thor would approve the idea and we’d take it right into animation.”
Eighteen artists and animators worked six months to complete all the shots. In addition to creating animation sequences (including one with new characters, hand drawn by Kinney specifically for the movie and animated by CFE), CFE also created digital set extensions, replaced backgrounds, turned sequences shot in summer into winter. And they also established a recurring motif in the film: a piece of cheese that goes moldy.
“How do you make a piece of cheese moldy?” asks Dornfeld. “It was a practical piece of latex cheese, with lot of application of CG effects. WeÂ tried a mix-and-match of putting cheese on set and then digitally treating only some of the shots, but we ended up having to treat every shot because it was too hard to match.” CFE also created a digital cockroach (that turns its nose up at the cheese) and applied a pseudo-time-lapse technique with stop motion and motion control to transition the cheese and its surroundingsÂ from growing mold to weathering snow, rain and summer heat.” About 20 percent of the cheese shots are entirely CG, estimates Dornfeld.
“I had a blast working on this film,” says Dornfeld. “It was a nice collaboration and a lovely group of people, and we did it all within a reasonable time frame.”
Located in Burbank, Custom Film Effects was founded in 1999. Its body of work encompasses more than 300 feature films including 3:10 to Yuma
, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
, and Gangs of New York