You’ve just been handed a shiny, new 3D model for rigging. Oh joy of joys! It is vertex sculpted perfection and you’re just DYING to get this model running, laughing, slapping, squirming, and generally exuding life. So you open up the model and start adding bones and parenting them to the mesh.
Are you SURE that each toe needs full rotation? Does the script say the submarine periscope will rotate or not? Does this character’s mouth need to be fully rigged, or do they just walk through the background in silence?
With a bit of planning and forethought, you can not only save yourself some time, but you can ensure your rig is the best it can be in the ways that matter most to animators.
Before you start, take some time and think about how the character will be used. Review any animatics or storyboards you may have. Be sure you know what the animators will need to do with the model and any acting choices that may be important. Is the character behind a desk the entire show? Will the character need to convey heartfelt emotions? Knowing what you need to focus on and what may be unnecessary will save you time and help you focus on what’s important. I mean, yo, why does the desk guy need fully rigged legs and toes? We ain’t gonna see ‘em. Whatupwitdat?
Once you know what you need the character to do you can determine the main core of what needs to be rigged. Typically this includes the major body structures (head, body, arms, legs) but it depends on the model and its anatomy. You may indeed have a more technical 3D model, of a car or tank perhaps. Again, you want to identify the main structures (chassis, wheels/tracks, etc.) but remember step number one: be sure you know what the model needs to do. Perhaps your ten-ton tank is just out for a leisurely stroll and doesn’t need to rotate its turret. Unless it sees a pretty, pretty butterfly. Then it may need to turn to appreciate the beauty all around it. You know, like tanks do.
Based on your main controls, you can dig a bit deeper and add some finesse to the model. Start looking for the things that will add a bit of character, like whether its controls to allow the hair to move or the ability to really stretch the neck for a particular outburst in a scene. These secondary controls allow the animators to infuse the character with more life, but again, stay focused on what you need and don’t need.
As you review your pre-rigging process, be sure to take notes on any things you feel are important. This is a great time to gather helpful materials. Look at reference videos, anatomical illustrations, diagrams, or whatever you need to get your head around how a thing moves. Is there something in the real world that will help you with a particular problem? Are there details you might be missing? Did you leave the stove on? Oh, you should go check. We’ll wait.
Hopefully, as you go through these steps, you are answering questions as you go, but sometimes you’ll come across things AS you are rigging that are stumbling blocks or even opportunities. Will you be able to try a different rigging technique (such as Jason did with Bendy Bones in Blender) or is there something you might want to pay close attention to (will the joint pinching be covered by cloth or hair?). Also, ask yourself what platforms this model might be used on since many 3D assets are used cross-platform now and what may rig well in one program may not convert over well to another.
Making sure you get the most productivity out of your rigging session shows not only an ability to make a top-flight rig but a level of professionalism that is appreciated in the industry and will get you repeat work. As Jason mentions in the video, amazing rigging on a secondary control at the expense of something more crucial will just frustrate animators, and then they cry. You don’t want to make animators cry, right? It’s not pretty.