Computer Graphics World

JUNE 2010

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Wimping Out 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 fi lm- makers’ 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 fi lms, 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 char- acters, working with director Thor Freudenthal. While the characters are live action for most of the movie, in 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 anima- tors,” 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, fi guring 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.” 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 char- acters in animated form, against animated pages of the book’s diary format. “The fi lmmakers 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 fi rst 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 fi les and models to the animation team, but also draw- ing 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 6 USER FOCUS: VFX June 2010 Though hidden, the effects in Diary of a Wimpy Kid helped move the story along. Here, VFX turned summer (left) into winter (right). Animating Kinney’s unique drawings presented an overall challenge, which CFE addressed using a combination of tradi- tional 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 propri- etary 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

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