career

As any other creative endeavour, rigging tends to have a steep learning curve. There is just so much to learn. But fear not, the steeper the learning curve the higher the satisfaction of going along.

Previously, I have written about how I got to be a rigger, but I do want to go over the thoughts that made me persist with it. Because, persistence and deliberate practice is the only way to acquire and cultivate a passion.

So, a lot of people getting into rigging for the first time start with trying to rig a character. I understand that, usually there is a need for that, so it only makes sense. It is unrealistic though to expect that the rig will be any good. Which is of course fine, considering it is your first time rigging. But making something that sucks is quite discouraging. To make it easier for yourself to persist with it, I would suggest to predispose yourself to winning. How do you go about doing that?

Well, a common example is making your bed. If you do it first thing in the morning you have started your day with a small win. If you setup more tasks like that you create a chain of success, which tricks your brain on expecting and predisposing yourself more towards the same thing.

So, instead of a character rig, how about starting with the bouncing ball? If the animators start with it, why not us? I did not rig a bouncing ball though, so preaching rigging one does not sit right. What I started with was a super simple anglepoise lamp like this one.

Anglepoise lamp

It is quite similar to pixar’s luxo junior, so I thought it would be a good fun and it really was.

After that I moved on to rigging an actual character. It still sucked, but I definitely felt good about it, because even though I had rigged something before, it was still my first character rig. Additionally I remember how excited one of the two rigging workshops that I had at uni got me. There was this setup of train wheels.

Train wheels pistons rigging

The lecturer asked us how to go about rigging this, so we only control the rotation of the wheels and the pistons would follow properly. If you have some basic rigging knowledge, give it a go. Pistons are always a fun thing to rig.

The reason this got me excited was that it actually opened me up to the problem solving aspect of rigging. You are presented with htis situation and you have to find a way to make it work in a specific manner. That’s it. There might be many ways to go about it, but in the end the desired result is only one. This means you cannot bullshit your way out of it, because if it does not work, it is pretty clear that it does not.

So after you have got some simpler tasks under your belt and maybe you have started rigging your first character there will be a lot of roadblocks. And I do mean a lot. Sometimes you might think that your problem is unique and you will not be able to solve it but I assure you, everything you are going to run into in your first rigs most of us have gone through, so you can always look it up or ask. Honestly, we seem to be a friendly and helpful lot.

The way I overcame most of my roadblocks was to open a new file, build an incredibly simplified version of what I am trying to do and see if I can build it, however messy it gets. This helps isolate the problem and see clearly all sides of it.

At about this point where you have some rigging knowledge I would suggest opening the node editor and starting to get into the vastness of maya’s underlying structure. I do not mean the maya API, although that is certainly something you’d need to look into at a later point, but more to get familiar with the different nodes, how they work and potential applications of them. If you are anything like me you would want to build your own “under the hood”. It is a blessing and a curse really as sometimes I feel too strong of an urge to build something that is already there just so I can have it built myself. It’s crazy and very distracting, but also it gets you asking questions and poking around which proves to be quite useful.

So seeing the actual connections of everything you do is really nice in terms of feeling that you understand what you are doing. For example, if you graph the network of a parent constraint you would see where the connections come from and where they go, which will give you some idea of what happens under the hood. Same goes for everything really – skinClusters, other deformers, math nodes, shading nodes, etc. What this is supposed to do is to make you feel like you have a lot to work with, because you really do. With the available math nodes, you can build most of the algorithms you would need. That being said, the lack of trigonometry nodes is a bit annoying, but you can always write your own nodes when you need them.

The last tip I can think of for keeping your interest in rigging would be to start scripting stuff and not use MEL to do it. There is nothing wrong with using MEL if you really want to, or to support legacy code, but considering that 99% of what is done with MEL can be done with Python and the other 1% is stuff you definitely do not need I consider using MEL a terrible idea for your future. Python is a very versatile programming language and also (personal preference) it is simple, very pretty and quick to prototype with. Honestly, I think The zen of python is awesome to live by.

Honestly, I think everyone should learn to code, not only because in the near future it will expose a lot of possibilities to make nice changes in your day to day life, but also because of the way coding makes you think about stuff. Some of the main benefits I find are:
– The process of writing a script to do something makes you understand how it is done
– The time saved is invaluable
– The satisfaction of seeing your code work is incredible

Then what I would do after having some rigging knowledge, some maya infrastructure knowledge and some scripting knowledge is build a face rig, and take my time with it. If you create a nice face rig, it will be loads of fun to play around with it, which is very satisfying. And I am sure, at that point you will be hooked.

That’s it. I covered most of the things that have kept me interesting in rigging while I was struggling with it. I am sure that if you have picked up rigging enough to read this post, you already are a curious individual so sticking to it will not be hard.

Considering that my career can easily take over most of my time for the next 20 to 40 years, I believe having good reasons for getting into it is essential.

Even though I do not plan to be doing it for 20 years, I do feel there are some quite strong reasons for my being a rigger in the animation industry. From talking to rigging people I know I gather that some of these reasons are shared among most of us, so do not be surprised if you find them quite obvious.

Nobody else wanted to do it

I think most of us have a story to share on this one, so here is mine. During the second year at university we had a group project aimed at creating an animated short. We had to pitch ideas and request additional members with specific roles. So in my pitch I outlined that I intend to direct and take on modeling and lighting, and that I will need people to do pre-production and texturing, animation and techy stuff – rigging and water simulations. Then when my pitch went trough and I was assigned some teammates I realized I am the most technical person in it, so if I wanted to see my film come to life I would have to rig and run the water sims myself. That’s how I became a rigger.

Now, I was not psyched at all but I was sure I am going to do it, and do it as best as I can, as again that was the only way to realize my idea. From talking to some people who do rigging it seems like this is the most common way of getting into it. What we did not know, though, was that we are going to love it. I downloaded all the tutorials on rigging I could get my hands on (the university gave us access to digital tutors and lynda) and I got on with it. Very soon I was hooked.

Art and maths

Throughout my getting familiar with the process of creating computer animations, the concept of it being a combination of art and maths would keep coming up and understandably so. To add on that, I do find a lot of artistic beauty in maths and it is also no secret that art has greatly benefited from maths as well (rule of thirds, fibonacci spirals, etc.) Additionally, these two have always been my subjects of choice. Unfortunately, I am neither a great painter nor a great mathematician, but I find that exploring each of them individually or their combination gives me a great deal of pleasure and understanding of the world. What is more they converge incredibly well in some fields such as architecture and computer graphics.

Then there is always the discussion in the field whether you are more technical or more artistic as if one undermines the other. Either way, I find rigging to be the sweet spot between the two. We have to make rigs that perform as fast as possible and not break. On the other side we also need to provide the animators with the ability to hit the shapes and poses needed for the production. In other words I think a rigger should be spending half his time on the technicalities of a rig – how well it performs – and the other half on making sure the deformations as appealing as they need to be.

We can go as deep in maths and programming as we want to, or we can let maya handle most of it for us. Similar thing goes for the artistic aspect as we can ask for a very thorough pre-production and try to match that or get a design and explore it to see how it works. Obviously, anatomy is always a big thing in animation, so the more artistic training a rigger has, the better.

Problem solving

The most obvious one probably. I was never one of those kids who were opening up their toys or gadgets to see how they work. I wanted to be though, but it seems I was too easily distracted to keep at it. But then now, it is not unusual to find me awake well into the early hours trying to figure out a problem. I hate going to bed without having cracked it, even though in the morning I am at least twice faster at finding the solution. A couple of nights ago I stayed up until 3am to try and figure out how to make sure maya’s python interpreter would always take my latest code changes without having to restart maya or use python’s reload function.

Another big one was trying to figure out how to build and Ik/Fk matching function for the first time. I had some clues from a friend, but I still spent a long time on that one.

It is stupidly exciting though! Finding the solution to a problem is always an immense satisfaction. If I cant find the solution, I cannot let it go. My girlfriend says “I can hear you think!”.

Rigging lies in the center of the pipeline

It is always nice to see how much crossover riggers usually have in the other aspects. It is no secret that the best riggers are also knowledgeable in modeling and animation. Josh Carey from Reel FX said in an interview that being able to model and animate is one of the main requirements for getting a rigging job there.

As a rigger you would usually have to communicate with all other departments which puts you in a very central and responsible position. I crave these kind of jobs, you know ego and all that. I want to be responsible for a lot of important tasks, so I can always be pushing myself out of my comfort zone.

Additionally, people tend to respect riggers for this precise reason. What is more it, I found rigging helped me to stay on top of things more easily when I was working with other people on my two short films.

Programming

One could easily create rigs without writing a single line of code, but you will rarely if ever find such people rigging in the industry. It is just very very inefficient. In a production pipeline it is incredibly important to have a non destructive workflow, which could hardly be the case if not for programming. Imagine having to build an arm rig with all it’s bells and whistles – ik/fk, elbow lock, twist, stretch, etc. – manually each time you rig a character. Not only is it going to be incredibly boring after the 3rd time you do it, but also it is going to take a ton of time, that quite possibly you do not have. If you script it once though, you get it for free every time you need an arm. So obviously, most of the rigging workflows people are based around coding.

Why is that an important reason to me though? Learning the code is really an eye opening experience. It gets you thinking about being effective and efficient. It teaches you to break problems in smaller and recyclable chunks, which can be tackled one by one. The benefits of learning to program are a whole other subject, but I would strongly suggest to anyone excited about personal growth and development to consider learning some basic programming. After all, coding is the engineering of the 21st century and it is going to get even more beneficial as time goes, mainly because everything is slowly becoming programmable.

Better contracts

Disclaimer: This one is completely speculative, because it’s based on talking to my university teachers and my coursemates who are now working in the industry.

With the great responsibility from the Rigging lies in the center of the pipeline point, luckily comes another benefit. TDs of all sorts tend to be paid slightly better than some of the artists in other departments. Additionally, as rigging pipelines tend to need some getting used to, it does not make sense for companies to hire short term riggers. Therefore, we would usually get longer contracts which as most would know is very rare in the animation and VFX industry.

Now for many people this point would not matter, but for me that stability means that I can stop thinking about just surviving, but instead think about advancing and developing myself further in my areas of choice.

These are the main reasons for my deciding to get into rigging. Another one I did not include is rigging being so much fun in general, but I thought it is a bit vague, even though anyone who has ever played around with a good rig knows what I mean.

All in all, rigging has been an incredible journey for me so far, because it has taught me to think in a certain problem solving manner about everything in my day to day life. I am therefore very glad these reasons got me to apply for rigging positions.