Examples of facial rig of 3D animated characters

What Every Great Facial Rig Should Have


If you’re watching a 3D animated movie, the most likely place you’ll be staring at are the character’s faces. This is where the dialogue in the movie is being spoken from, but it’s also where a lot of the character’s emotions show through. It’s the animator’s job to create believable facial performances in the 3D puppets, but it’s the riggers responsibility to provide the animators with enough control and flexibility within the facial rigs so the emotions can be posed out. Often times, the facial character rig can be overlooked and the rigger may not create enough facial controls for the animators. So what makes a great facial rig? And what kind of controls should you be providing to the animators down the pipeline? Let’s take a look at what goes into creating a great facial rig that every animator will love to work with.

Narrow and Wide

Wide mouth 3D riggingWhen it comes to the mouth, there's a lot of movement going on there. Just take a close look at your friend’s mouth as they're talking, lots of different shapes going on, right? Now look away before you freak them out! Not only does the mouth go through many different shapes as someone speaks, but if a character is happy, sad, scared, shy, concerned or any emotion in between there's going to be a unique mouth shape. Depending on the shape, the mouth may be narrow like in an “O” shape or very wide like in an “AH” shape. Because of this, you want to make sure that not only do you provide enough controls around the mouth to achieve this, but you want to make sure that the deformations look correct. The animator should be able to create an extremely narrow shape without any pinching or strange deformations, as well as a wide shape.

Don’t Neglect the Upper Face

eyebrow rigging on 3D animationOften, the majority of the time is spent on the lip and mouth area. Now, this area is extremely important but you don’t want to neglect the upper face, i.e. eye brows, eyes, forehead, etc. A lot of a character’s emotion comes from the upper face so you should spend enough time creating these controls. Put in things like squash and stretch controls for the upper face area so the animator is able to achieve some really nice fleshy animations when they need to create something more cartoony. You also want to make sure there's a lot of flexibility within the brow area of the character. The eyebrows are a great place to show certain emotions, and not only should there be enough controls to achieve this but you need to make sure that the deformations around the brow area don’t look strange, even with very exaggerated shapes.

Sculpt Facial Blend Shapes

Animators love to quickly get into a specific facial pose and blendshapes are an excellent way to do just that. When creating the blendshapes you really need to sculpt them in properly, you don’t want to have any pinched vertices or strange areas on the mesh. You need to spend enough time to make sure these blendshapes look like the particular emotion you’re trying to create. It’s also important to keep in mind that animators like to exaggerate things. Don’t stop when the blendshape is anatomically correct. If an animator is working off one of your blendshapes they should have the ability to really push the pose, so exaggerate your blendshapes.


Eye rig on 3D animationAs you’ve probably heard time and time again, the eyes are the widow to the soul. This is especially true in animation, because so much emotion can come just from the eye area. For example, the way a character’s eye darts around can show that they are shy or nervous. Even the shape of the eye lids really help to sell the emotion. When it comes to building the controls for the eye lids you need to think about the type of dynamic shapes the animator is going to need to achieve. You should have more controls that just an open and close for blinks. Think about the different eye shapes, and build the controls around the lids to really achieve any shape needed around the eyes. Another great feature to include in your eye rig is the ability to have the eye lid follow where the eye moves to. So if you move the eyes up, the lids will follow properly.

Give the Animator Options

Animators love to have options within their facial rigs. The animator should never feel like they can’t achieve a certain facial pose simply because the limitations of the character rig. Blendshapes are an excellent thing to have within a facial rig, but you also don’t want this to be the only way to achieve any type of pose. If you have a facial rig that relies on blendshapes, the freedom animator’s love just isn't there and they’re stuck with whatever the blendshape gives them. While blendshapes are great, you should also have enough controls so the animator is able to really fine tune the facial expressions. This is a type of blendshape/control hybrid because you’re giving the animator both options. Often times an animator will use a blendshape to get into the basic pose, and use the controls on the face to really tweak it to how they want. Another great thing to include into a facial rig that the animators down the pipeline will appreciate is basic phoneme blendshapes for lip sync animations. So when the animator is working on the lip sync they can quickly get the basic “O” shape from the blendshape and adjust it if needed with the controls on the rig. Whether you’re creating your own facial rigs for a personal project or you’re a rigger getting ready to create a facial rig to be passed down the pipeline make sure you consider these few tips. The key thing to remember when it comes to a facial rig is flexibility. The animator should have enough control to really achieve any facial pose possible, and using things like blendshapes will help speed up the animator’s workflow. Be sure to check out the many rigging tutorials in the Digital-Tutors library, and keep learning with the courses and posts below!