What Makes a Great Character Rig? 12 Things Animator-Friendly Rigs Should Have
Rigging is a vital part of the 3D pipeline, without rigs there would be no way to animate the characters. As a rigger it's your job to create flexible and intuitive control rigs that can achieve any animation thrown at them. This article will teach you some of the key features every great character rig should include so you can start creating animator friendly rigs that any character animator will enjoy using.
This is probably one of the most important aspects of having a great character rig. A rig needs to deform properly and believably in every single area of manipulation. If a character is bending over, the stomach and chest all need to deform properly like a real human would.
Bad deformations can stick out like a sore thumb, and not only look bad at animation time, but also when rendered. To fix this, you'll need to make sure you're painting the weights properly and in the right areas.
As the character comes down from the modeling department the character should have enough resolution to deform well, so it's up to you to ensure the characters you receive have all the right edge flow and topology in order to create a great rig. Before ever passing your rig on you should have a strong testing phase to ensure that all the weights have been properly painted to achieve a realistic deformation, so your rigs won't be kicked back by an animator due to deformation issues.
Clear Control Curves
In order for an animator to move the individual joints on a character they'll need to have access to control curves to make the selection process much easier. The placement of your control curves should be clear on the rig; the animator should be able to tell exactly what the curve will influence on the particular part of the character without having to select it first.
The control curves should also be big enough to see so the animator can easily select them. Clear control curves will ensure the animator spends less time figuring out what a control does and more time actually animating.
A GUI (Graphical User Interface) picker is a great feature to include on a rig with hundreds of controls. While clear control curves are vital, depending on how many controls are actually needed on a character rig can make the selection process extremely difficult for the animator. A complex character rig can sometimes get up to the thousands in the number of controls. Having a place where all these controls can be displayed is very beneficial.
GUI pickers are especially good for facial controls because often times there can be hundreds of controls all populating one small area on the face, making them extremely hard to find or select if doing it directly in the viewport. Giving the animator the ability to see a representation of where each control lies on the character and allowing them to select it in a different window can greatly speed up the animator's workflow.
However, it's important to keep in mind the GUI picker should be simple enough to use. Try not to have numerous submenus for one character all with different controls. A GUI picker should speed up the control selection process not slow it down.
Great Eye Controls
When it comes to character animation the eyes are extremely important. The rig may be used in subtle acting shots, where the eyes can play a key role in selling the character's mood and emotions. There should be more than just an open and close control for the eye lids because the animator will most likely need to do more with the eyes than blink.
Having several eye shapers along the lids will help push the expression of the eyes and sell the overall emotion the animator is trying to achieve. You can also incorporate squash and stretch controls in the eyes and lids to help push the fleshiness of a blink and to create more exaggerated animations.
IK and FK Options
In any character rig you create there should always be the option to switch between either IK or FK, whether in the arms or the feet. A great character rig will give the animators different options, because not all animators like using IK for every shot. And as a rigger you can never predict the types of animations your rig will be used for.
In a character rig there should also be the ability to switch to IK or FK for the feet. While most of the time IK will be used for the feet, there are still times when an animator may want to use FK to achieve the right look. Having IK and FK options for both the feet and arms will eliminate any possibility your rig will be sent back because an animator likes to work in FK.
You never know what type of animation your character rig will be used for, so you should design your rig to be versatile. The rig should perform well for very subtle acting shots, as well as realistic body mechanics or more cartoony animations.
You can incorporate stretchy limbs and squash and stretch controls where needed to give the animators the ability to exaggerate their animations when needed. Not all shots need to be cartoony or subtle, but a character rig should be able to perform well and achieve the look wanted no matter what type of shot it is.
Of course, depending on the project there will be times when your character rig will be used for only very realistic movement, and will never need to achieve a cartoony style animation. So it's important you have clear communication with the other departments on the limitations that need to be set for a rig, and how much freedom you have.
Full Finger Controls
The finger controls are an extremely important aspect in a character rig that sometimes get overlooked. The controls on the fingers should be more than simple opening and closing in one rotation axis. The hands are used to express emotions, and getting the right posing is extremely important.
A great character rig should have the ability to rotate each individual finger joint in the X, Y, and Z rotation axis. This'll allow the animator to incorporate things like drag and lead and follow into the finger animations. It'll also give the animators a great deal of control over the fingers so they can get the perfect pose.
You can even take this a step further and add in squash and stretch controls for the tips of the fingers to get the compression that occurs when a finger is pressed up against another object, like a table for instance.
Having the ability to scale a character rig is great for ensuring the character will look right in any environment. The animator should have the ability to completely scale the entire rig, including the controls.
This will give the animator as much control over a shot as possible. For example, animators are often required to cheat certain things to the camera to achieve the look they want, and scaling a character down can be perfect for establishing perspective between two characters in a shot.
Breathing controls are a great feature to incorporate into any character rig, because if this is a living and breathing character, they will obviously need to be able to breath, which means they will need to be animated to give the illusion of breathing. By including breathing controls you can speed up the animation process.
You'll give the animator the ability to quickly and easily create a breathing animation without having to move and scale the chest controls to try and simulate this effect. Providing a simple slider controlling the characters breathing means the animator can get a realistic animation in a fraction of the time by keying this one slider.
Automation in Important Areas
Having places on a rig where simple tasks can be automated is extremely beneficial to the animator. This can be an expression that simply controls the opening and closing of the eye lids to create a blink, and the animator can go in and fine tune it as needed, but the overall pose is already there.
Another example of this would be an expression controlling the opening and closing of the hands to create a fist. Having these areas of a rig that can be controlled by a simple slider will speed up the animation process and allow the animators to quickly get into a pose, and then adjust it further from there.
Different Control Levels
As mentioned before, a complex character rig can sometimes get into hundreds or even thousands of controls. This can bog down the computer, and the speed at which an animator can navigate the viewport, making it a frustrating process. While not all rigs will have this amount of controls on them, it's important you have a lightweight version of a rig that will eliminate this problem.
Animators will often want a lot of controls to be able to get the perfect pose, but that doesn't mean they all need to be visible at one time, and they may not all be needed for every shot. Giving the animators the ability to switch to a lightweight version of the rig with fewer controls is vital for maintaining a control heavy rig that's not taxing on the system they work on.
Pickwalking allows you to use the arrow keys to select through different controls on the character rig. For instance, if you select the wrist control you can pickwalk up to the elbow, then the arm.
While this might not be as vital as some of the other features listed above it's still a great feature to include in your character rig. Even these very small additions are extremely important to the animator, and can help them speed up their workflow.
Taking the extra bit of time to include the ability to pickwalk will not only create a more intuitive rig, it will also ensure that the animator's are able to spend more time animating. Take note that depending on your program, pickwalking may be called something different.
Now that you know the key features every character rig should include, start incorporating them into your next project. Whether it's a simple addition like pick walking or a more vital aspect like clean deformations they all play a part in ensuring your character rig is the best possible for any animation. If you want to learn more about character rigging check out Introduction to Rigging in Maya, and continue learning with the hundreds of other 3D rigging tutorials.