Custom Film Effects, a long-time provider of visual effects services for feature films, handled all of the visual effects and animation work for “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” a mostly live-action adaptation of the first book in Jeff Kinney’s illustrated kids’ novel series. 20th Century Fox released the film, which opened March 19th.
To create the movie’s 200 visual effects and animation shots, CFE Visual Effects Supervisor Mark Dornfeld (also the company’s founder) 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. There, Murphy and the CFE team worked closely with director Thor Freudenthal to develop and execute a unique technique for animating Kinney’s beloved illustrations.
While the characters are live action for the majority of the movie, they appear as animated versions of themselves as lifted from 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 visuals in the book,” said Dornfeld.
“Jeff 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 really pleased that both Jeff and Thor were so present in the animation process. It was a great collaboration.”
Murphy explained, “Jeff’s characters are drawn so particularly, with very clean vector art lines. If anything was off it looked completely wrong. We found that if we just brought those lines to life, 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,’ 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 Illustrator – a faster, more efficient process that resulted in more subtle nuances in characters’ actions.
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. Said Murphy, “We know each other so well that 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 into animation.”
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 ‘invisible’ visual effects to extend sets and replace backgrounds, turn sequences shot in summer into winter, and to establish a moldy piece of cheese as a key storytelling element.
Dornfeld said, “The cheese actually plays a fairly important role. It’s woven in and out of the story to mark the passage of time and highlight important events. We 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.”
Custom Film Effects’ team of 18 animators and artists worked on “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” for six months in the company’s Los Angeles studio.
About Custom Film Effects
Custom Film Effects is a leading feature film visual effects and animation company located in Burbank, CA. Founded in 1999 by Visual Effects Supervisor Mark Dornfeld, the company has established a reputation for its artistry, consistent execution, and flexibility in approaching projects.
Custom Film Effects’ body of work encompasses more than 300 feature films including “3:10 to Yuma,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotted Mind,” “Gangs of New York,” and other top features that showcase its artful’ invisible effects,’ designed to transform environments, time periods, characters and elements in subtle ways.