Anyone who has watched a Disney animated film and marveled at the realism of the animation or who has giggled at the antics of a toy spaceman in a Pixar movie has experienced the work of a character rigger. These professionals can make the difference between a so-so cartoon and a work-of-art animation. Rigging requires skills, knowledge and just the right personality.
Character riggers design the skeletal framework of a person, creature or moving object according to Git In Media. They use a virtual “wireframe” (the rig) generated through a computer program to position moving parts like arms and legs. It is somewhat like puppeteering, though the puppet is a 2-D image. Characters are made to jump, skip, stretch, yawn and adopt other movements; backdrop trees sway, barrels roll, and car gears turn all because of the use of a character rig. The rigger builds a skeleton for a character and fleshes it out (so the skin can tighten or sag, dimples can flash, etc.) before the model is animated. That way, the movements seem more natural.
How it Works
Rigging is a tedious process. There are software programs that are used for facial movements and others that allow riggers to make their characters move through space. The process involves building the model and then interfacing all programs so that things move the way they should. An arm, for instance, will only move at the joints. According to an article in Forbes Magazine, new software has been developed that will allow the animators to build the rig in minutes. Without this innovation, the process of character rigging can take days.
What Riggers Need
They need the ability to work with computer software. There are many rigging programs and the professional must know which will be best for their applications. Some of the tools built into these programs are things like “morphers” that allow riggers to blend motions so that they aren’t “jerky.” Animators must know how to access and use these tools. Additionally, character riggers must be detail-oriented. Movements are interconnected and sometimes involve minute changes in a muscle or facial expression. Anyone who has made animation by drawing similar pictures on a pad of paper and then flipping rapidly through them understands the difference between that process and the smooth, lifelike movements of an animated character in a video game or animated feature.
Most employers require the minimum of a bachelor’s degree in computer animation or another related field. Experience is also valuable, and riggers often begin working for small video companies to gain the skills they need.
How to Become a Character Rigger
In an article in Rigging Dojo, a character artist for Disney shared his story. He was so interested in the field that he found some self-teaching materials and began doing just that when he was 16. That gave him a head start in animation when he began college where he studied graphic and web design, web scripting and other courses in animation. His first job was with a small television studio where he “modeled and rigged all the characters for the TV series development.” One of the things he mentions is that he has done extensive research and experimentation in “topology.”
Topology is the study of how features are inter-related. In addition to core courses in computer science and programming, degrees should include courses in biology, physiology, kinesiology, anatomy and other related areas. The Disney animator worked as a freelancer for some time, as well as working for other companies before landing the sweet Disney job. It isn’t a quick jump up; most riggers work their way up in the profession and most employers demand experience.
What they Make and Where they Work
Glassdoor, the employment website, lists several openings for riggers. Snapchat needs a rigger and is willing to pay $62,000 to $100,000 depending upon experience. The Nickelodeon Channel is looking for a rigger to work with its lead character developer to create rigs. They also must know how to use new rigging tools. The right person can earn $70,000 to $110,000.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for animators is $78,230. Top employers are Disney Cruise Vacations, Sony, Viacom, Nickelodeon, Pixar and others. Industries that use riggers are advertising companies, television networks, film companies, game companies and others. The best cities to work as a rigger are Burbank, CA, Los Angeles, New York and San Diego.
Although there isn’t a dearth of riggers, the anticipated growth in the profession is four percent. That is about average for all occupations. With the popularity of gaming and the use of game technology in teaching curriculum, there will be a need for this profession for some time. New technology may make the animation process quicker, but there will always be a need for a human to bring life to the characters. The character rigger adds that life and allows viewers to suspend disbelief and be entertained by creations such as toy spacemen and animated cowboys.