Spotlight - User Focus
Issue: Volume 33 Issue 6: (June 2010)

Spotlight - User Focus

These characters are so particular and so well loved, they had to look just right. We didn’t want a mob of 12-year-olds coming after us with pitchforks.” 

Maybe animation supervisor Mike Murphy was overstating things. Or maybe not. Jeff Kinney’s illustrated kids’ novel series, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, is hugely popular. Taking Kinney’s iconic characters from page to screen in an authentic way was the filmmakers’ top concern, and paramount to the movie’s success.

Trusted with the task was longtime visual effects studio Custom Film Effects (CFE). The company, which has worked on more than 300 feature films, including Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 3:10 to Yuma, and Gangs of New York, handled all the 200 visual effects and animation shots for Diary. CFE also brought animation supervisor Murphy in-house to its Los Angeles facility to develop and create the animated characters, working with director Thor Freudenthal.

While the characters are live action for most of the movie, in several scenes they appear as animated versions of themselves, lifted from Kinney’s original drawings, against live-action sets. The opening title and end-credit sequences also feature the characters in animated form, against animated pages of the book’s diary format. “The filmmakers wanted to ground the movie visuals in the book,” says Mark Dornfeld, VFX supervisor on Diary and founder of CFE. “Jeff has created iconic images, and this was the first time he had let them out of his own hands. We needed to respect and preserve them, and we were pleased that both Jeff and Thor were so present in the animation process.”

Kinney’s involvement included not only providing original Adobe Illustrator files and models to the animation team, but also drawing brand-new characters to appear in the movie. “For one of the animated scenes, we had all these extras at a press conference and no way to model them Jeff Kinney-style,” explains Dornfeld. “Jeff drew those new characters for us and worked out how he would see them in 3D. Having him decide how he would turn their heads and handle the physics of compositing helped our artists keep the movement authentic in animation.”

Kinney’s role in reviewing the animation was also critical in keeping the movement true to his original models. “We would sometimes have them hit a pose that didn’t make sense to Jeff, and he was able to make adjustments directly with the animators,” says Dornfeld.

Freudenthal also took an active role, working directly with Murphy, his former CalArts roommate, to design animation sequences. Rather than starting with storyboards to block out each of the 17 animated sequences, the two designed them collaboratively, figuring out how each character would come to life. “We were able to work in shorthand, lobbing ideas back and forth: What could happen here? 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 to animation.”

Animating Kinney’s unique drawings presented an overall challenge, which CFE addressed using a combination of traditional camera and state-of-the-art digital techniques. Murphy explains, “Jeff’s characters are drawn so particularly, with clean vector art lines. If anything was off, it looked completely wrong. We found that if we simply brought those lines to life as is, as soon as a character paused, it would die.”

To keep that from happening, Murphy and Dornfeld came up with a technique they called the “living line,” whereby they would draw lines on paper and capture them with an old-school, down-shooter still camera, and 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’s Maya, Eyeon’s Fusion, and Adobe’s After Effects and Illustrator—a faster, more efficient process that resulted in more subtle nuances in characters’ actions.

In addition to creating animated sequences, CFE also handled all the VFX work, which included turning summer into winter, set extension and background replacement, and the unusual task of establishing a moldy piece of cheese as a key storytelling element.

As Diary aficionados know, the cheese, left behind on the school yard pavement, carries a curse worse than cooties to anyone who dares to touch it. And in the movie, the “cheese touch” factors into the resolution of the movie’s main conflict. “The cheese actually plays a fairly important role,” says Dornfeld. “It’s woven in and out of the story to mark the passage of time and highlight important events.” To associate the cheese with time changes, CFE applied a pseudo time-lapse technique with stop motion and motion control to transition the cheese and its surroundings into different states—from growing mold to weathering snow, rain, and summer heat.

Another VFX transformation in the movie is CFE’s work in turning scenes shot during early fall into a winter wonderland. In one snowman-making scene, actors (and a made-of-real-snow snowman) were shot against bluescreen, while CFE created an entire background and foreground, complete with snow-covered houses, placed photographically in 3D; CG moving clouds and bushes; and background actors shot and composited into the scene.

CFE’s small, focused team of 18 artists and animators completed all the work on the movie in just six months. “We enjoy working so intimately with directors and creators like Jeff on projects that are close to their hearts, and so beloved by fans,” says Dornfeld. “It was wonderful to have them choose us to lift these characters off the page for the first time.”