The Animated Side of “Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life” – Animation Scoop

The Animated Side of “Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life”

There’s something cathartic about a film in which the protagonist is able to make fools of his/her detractors by outlandish means. The Marx Brothers and Bugs Bunny perfected it. In Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life–which opens nationwide today–the adolescent lead character might as well say, “Of course you know this means war.” War in this case, is against a corrupt, dictatorial principal.

The film is a broad satire in which the live action, directed by Steve Carr (Paul Blart: Mall Cop) is designed to match the animation in cartoon-like whimsy and madness.

“That was very much a deliberate thing,” Ken Duncan (The Lion King, 1989’s The BFG) told us at his studio in Pasadena. “They wanted to amp up the live action. Steve went for a very humor driven feel. You can really get his personality from the way the film plays out. The cast reakky pulls it off. You can see that they’re all having a great time.”

Animation was planned as a constant element of Middle School from the start. “Jim Patterson [New York Times best selling author of the book] was adamant that there had to be 2-D animation. They were talking with us for months as they shot the live action. It was always the goal that Rafe’s imagination came to life through animation.”

Hand-drawn animation was augmented with CG to create a Paperman-like style to add depth to the flat, kid-like drawings. “There’s a sharp, saturated graphic quality that keeps it in the world of the drawing,” Duncan explains. “We wanted the audience to be conscious of the fact that they’re looking at drawings, but we have the advantage of an arsenal of digital capabilities. The art could face the camera no matter what, so we could add camera-like ‘flying’ trough a virtual set of flat images. When you apply CG tools well, you can make 2-D features that are robust and modern but look completely different from what was done in the past.”

Animation director Chris Sauve (The Iron Giant, The Ren & Stimpy Show) also wanted the sequences to become increasingly complex as they are woven through the film. “As we developed the concepts, we realized the animation needed to be more sophisticated than the book illustrations, which are more akin to what a 13- or 14-year-old year old might draw. It was decided to make Rafe an exceptionally good artist to allow us to have designs that would enable more sophisticated animation and art direction.


“We also used a scribble—or ‘boiling–effect. There’s a shot where Zombie Dwight comes out of a television, and in the background you see a scribble effect to bring in the animation. We used that in a lot of sequences to make it feel a little grittier and give more life to it. We often left in the animator’s rough line. If a character became more intense, we could make the line more active to echo it.”

None of the animation was outsourced. From storyboards to compositing, the whole process was done at Duncan Studios in Pasadena. “There were even some scenes with some live action that we created because we needed specific angles or other elements,” Duncan adds. “At the beginning of the film, when the drawings come off the sketchbook, land beside him and shoot the alarm clock, we created backgrounds to match the live action, with a combo of photo and creative compositing. There’s a space ship that was a single drawing. The compositor put lights on it, added trees and finished the building; all of it is seamless, which is the intention.

“The feedback was always supportive and enthusiastic. They were also somewhat relieved that we did our job right.”


Greg Ehrbar

Greg Ehrbar

Greg Ehrbar is a freelance writer/producer for television, advertising, books, theme parks and stage. Greg has worked on content for such studios as Disney, Warner and Universal, with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. His numerous books include Mouse Tracks: The Story of Walt Disney (with Tim Hollis). Visit for more.
Greg Ehrbar
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