Custom Film Effects has created 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 much-loved illustrated kids’ novel series. The 20th Century Fox film opened on March 19 in the US, but won't be seen in UK cinemas unitl October 22 (probably due to its winter setting).

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.