maintaning

In most productions finalizing the rig is actually half the battle. Depending on the role of the asset, but most often than not, you will need to maintain that rig. Which means to constantly provide fixes for issues that the animators and you might have missed at first glance. Additionally you may need to adjust skin weights for better deformations or maybe some props need to be attached to a character. Things like that. Therefore it is very important to have good Communication with animators. It all starts when we present/publish our finalized rig.

Of course, you should not be making a big thing out of it, but if there is anything you are uncertain about in the rig it is always good to shoot a quick message or have a chat with the animators about it. They would appreciate it as well. So, I would like to go over some points to keep in mind when communicating with animators, which have helped me through my projects.

Concepts

Even before the assets have been modeled, it is always great to grab some character concepts and pose/expression sheets and have a chat with the different departments. I cannot stress the importance of this, as often people tend to think of only their own little part in the big picture, which leads to lads of issues in other departments. Imagine having been passed a robot model that needs to move in a specific way, but in the place where you would expect a swivel mechanism or a ball and socket one, you have a solid plate. Happens way too often. Don’t do that to your animators.

At this early stage all you need to understand is what controls would they expect and how do they expect them to work. Obviously if the character is a standard biped you already know this and do not need to have this chat. But if your character has a long neck, more than two legs/arms, it is worth having a chat and seeing what the animators would expect from the rig. If you are asked to add a feature which you are not sure about, say so. Most of the time it would be something you can easily test within minutes, so if you are not pressured by time give it a go and come back with a clear answer. Never shoot yourself in the foot by saying you will add a feature without actually being sure how it would work. You would be surprised how well people respond to a reasonable explanation of why something would not work.

Old rigs and early model

In the past I have offered animators I have not worked with some of my previous rigs, just so they can see how I usually work and what I tend to provide in a generic rig. You do not have to do it of course, especially if you are not pleased with your old rigs, but it sometimes helps put context to what is being talked about.

Depending on the budget of the film you might be able to do some tests before starting the actual rigging process. If you are working on a personal project or a student group project, this is essential. Grab an early version of the model and build a basic rig around it. Think about where the joints will pivot from and test out what would give you best deformations. Do you need supporting joints? Maybe ribbons? Are you going to have to add some corrective shapes to areas? A lot of this can be identified very early on and the earliest you know about it the better. Obviously the more generic the character is, the more obsolete this point is.

The point of passing an early or older rig to the animator is to start getting the issues as soon as possible. You should always reasonably expect that there are going to be issues.

Publishing the rig

Once you are done with the rig, depending on the asset, you can either just publish it or do some explaining with it. In big productions there are so many assets that explaining them is not practical, and honestly having to describe how your rig works is something you should not have to do. The rig should speak for itself, through it’s controls, attributes, etc. In some cases though you might have a limited choice of control shapes. But I digress. The cases where you would explain things about your rig are when working on small projects with a couple of characters and you could really focus on them. In such small teams you are bound to have a chat about everything which is great.

Something that horrifies me is a rig with loads of features which end up not being used at all. It happens way too often. All these features do in that case is bog down the performance. So make sure the animators know about all the features and their benefits. It would make their lives easier and your time spent worth it.

You should not expect an animator to go through each and every control and make sure it works properly or has everything that it needs. That would be amazing, but you should not expect it. The way these things come up is by the animators actually posing the rig and seeing how it behaves. They cannot possibly know each pose needed, so you really should not be expecting them to have a look at everything. Let them play with the rig in front of you, while you mention all the good and bad stuff about your rig. This way they can have a bit of a clearer picture of what they have to work with.

Maintenance

From then on, rigs occasionally come back with the animators flagging up a missing or broken feature, messed up deformations, bad control shapes, etc. Needless to say, you should never get angry with an animator or feel like they are the enemy, because first that is stupid and second they are probably trying to get the best out of the asset just like you are.

Most of the time animators ask for features which are possible and sensible. Occasionally though, you would get asked to do something that just will not work. It might be a limitation of the software (Maya has plenty) or a limitation of the design. In either case, it is very important to learn to say no to animators and be firm about it. Of course, you should be trying to give them the best possible rigs, but when something will not work, you should say so. More importantly, you should explain and if possible illustrate why it will not work. Nobody will ever be convinced if you just say “Nah, that won’t work” and you will look like an asshole. You will find that everybody in the industry makes compromises, when you keep your cool and explain the problem. This is key.

As I mentioned in the What do we need from a model post, just remember to not be a dick and keep in mind you are all part of the team, trying to make the best possible project you can.