A Character TD/Rigger Nims Bun who worked on Black Panther, Aladdin, and Thor: Ragnarok talked about what it means to be a Rigger, how to become a professional in it, and shared some new procedural approaches that allow saving time on rigging.
My name is Nims Bun. I am a character TD/Rigger with over 15 years of experience. I studied 3D Animation at George Melies school in Paris in France where I’m originally from. I worked on movies like Black Panther, Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi, The New Mutant, Aladdin, Transformers: The Last Knight, Thor: Ragnarok, Kingsglaive Final Fantasy, the Minions, Despicable Me 2, and many more.
The first year in my career I was an animator. I have always been a big fan of animation movies, both 2D (Ghibli, Disney) and 3D (Pixar, Blue Sky, Dreamworks). So, I wished to work in this sphere. During the first steps in my career, I had to animate lots of different rigs. Rigs are the puppet you can animate for the movie to make it basically alive. A rig comes with a lot of controllers and is deformed when you move the controller. I often stumbled over some rigs I was not satisfied with.
So, I started modifying the rigs I had and it turned out that I loved doing it, so I became a full-time rigger. The rigger's main task is to provide animators assets and tools for them to animate. The assets often are characters who need to be deformed with a skeleton and a skin. The process when controllers are added on top of the skeleton can resemble Gepetto creating Pinocchio.
Getting into the Film Industry
It took me time to really get into the film industry. I started in 2006 with a kid TV show called Gudule then I worked on some commercials and video games. It was in 2010 when I got to work on my first long feature animation called Jack and the Heart’s Mechanics and in 2015 I started working on my very first VFX movie – Independence Day: Resurgence.
Main Tools during Production
I mostly use Maya and PyCharm (a python editor). My workflow vastly depends on where I am working but there is some common point for all riggers. First, I receive a model. Then the first question I ask either production or animator is what my asset is supposed to do, how it is supposed to move and deform. The rig would not be the same if the asset needs to be able to make a backflip to a close shot or if it is a simple digital double that will have 2 seconds of screen time or if it is tiny and not moving.
I also need to know the due date. The deadline – either it's 3 days or 2 weeks – changes what I can focus on or spend details on. So, I gather as much info as I can. Then I can use Maya: import the model and set up the skeleton, skin, and rig based on the tool the studio has. It takes time to place the skeleton and orientation as it is a crucial step. Skinning is the longest process and cannot be expedited but there are some helper tools I use every time. And rigging is generally fast with tools and scripts. Once done I like to have the rig tested by an animator before putting it in production.
More Specifically at Pixomondo and Amazon Games Studio, I was able to use the rigging tool called Baguette. It is a condensed rigging pipeline as I don’t want to recreate the wheel every time I have to deal with a new rig and system (even though we often have to do it).
New Procedural Approaches
Since the beginning of my career, the rigging process has basically been the way how to optimize time to create rigs, making faster rigs for animation. The tool we wrote is essentially to save ourselves time. So the deep learning and procedural approaches in rigging are a natural progression of our job. It might seem more automatic and less human control but we will still need visual control of deformation and smart placement of joints anyway. So anything making my job easier is more than welcome, although rigging will always be a necessity in a certain way.
Speaking of Metahuman, it is a wonderful tool, I barely touched it but it is very powerful from every result I’ve seen so far. I’m confident it will be used a lot for small and mid studios and probably some big studios, too. However, animators will mostly drive where they want to animate, as of today, the majority of who work in the film industry want to animate in Maya. So, most of the studios who want to integrate Metahuman and Unreal Engine in their pipeline have to keep Maya and create some tools to assure total transparency between them using LiveLink or their own tool. In every way, it opens quite some opportunities for the riggers.
How to Become a Professional Rigger
If you want to be a professional rigger, I would say you’re lucky because rigging is always demanded, so it's a good choice. But not all riggers are successful so here are my general tips. Knowledge is king and it gives you power. If you assume you know how to rig a stretchy arm, don't think there is only one way of doing it, learn all the ways to create it if you find several methods. Do every single tutorial you could find. I haven’t seen one recently but I recall Gnomon tutorials. More recently I remember some good videos from Rigging Dojo.
Also be curious, when you use a script: read it and try to rewrite it to fully understand how it works (you will also practice your scripting skill).
My ultimate secret of being a good rigger is to be an animator or at least try to pretend to be one. When you rig, always ask yourself what would you do if you were to use your rig. Is the controller hard to select? Does the deformation look good for what you want to achieve?
Tips and Advice
To be a good junior rigger and be seen, you need to have these qualities that companies always like and also what I like to see myself when I recruit:
- Know Python well. It helps in every DCC you could use today (Maya, Houdini, Blender), also in the proprietary software (Zeno in ILM, Presto at Pixar). Back in the day, it was not necessary to know Python to be a rigger. This time is over, every rigger today needs to know it.
- Good technical ability to create tools. Even a simple tool and user interface is a big plus.
- Good artistic eye to create deformation. It could be muscle, facial blend shape, a regular skin, or a ZBrush model – you should know anything that reflects the person, not only technically but also understanding how things deform.
- Realize soon that we mostly work for the animator. Some riggers tend to forget that the main goal is to be sure we give the animator all the ability to realize the wanted animation on the project.