Get to know: Isabella Cheng – Technical Artist and Rigging Dojo Alumna
Technical Artist at Survios
Let’s get started with a bit of background about you, were you always in to computer programming and tech?
I was always into games and computers. I went to school at USC for Computer Science with the notion that I’d be a game programmer. Turns out I really like working with artists and I happen to also be artistic, so I applied my skills as a Technical Artist. My first industry job out of college was pipeline scripting for mobile games. But then I discovered the ?magic of rigging ?and working with character art, and thought, “Hey I think I can get pretty good at this.”
Can you share your learning curve and experience over the years as a TD going from finishing school, finding Rigging Dojo and getting your first industry job?
Personally my transition from mobile pipeline stuff to rigging and Unreal felt almost like a career change. When I was first dabbling in rigging on my own, I had no idea what I was doing. I was self teaching myself using tutorials online but they weren’t enough to help me really grasp the core concepts. I heard about Rigging Dojo and signed up as soon as I could, and a couple months in Rigging 101 filled the gaps I was missing. I used what I learned from Rigging Dojo on a couple side projects, and finally landed a job at Survios rigging and scripting for VR games.
Walk us through what your day or week looks like. How much time coding or pipeline work vs. rigging and character work are you doing for example.
I do a whole variety of things, and it really depends on the needs of our projects. There was a huge need for pipeline scripting when I joined, so a lot of my time was spent building pipeline Maya tools that help our artists and animators. But when a project ramps up with a lot of characters, I fill that role as well. I could be spending a whole week on one task. Another day could be that I’m rigging a character in the morning for one game, and I’m scripting a tool in the afternoon for another game. To my surprise, by far my favorite part of my job is working on motion capture and the mocap data pipeline, it’s incredibly rewarding to take a human performance and see it on a 3D character.
Was there already a pipeline in place at the studio you’re at now or did you have to help build it? What was a challenge or improvement that came from that process?
There was a rigging pipeline in place before I joined using an auto-rigger. After I joined, the characters for our games got more complicated, and I helped build out our own inhouse rigging tools. The rigging and animation team never stops improving the pipeline. The biggest challenges I continue to face is balancing time in R&D with actual development. Luckily my team is given time to research the best solutions to solve character and animation pipeline issues, but it’s challenging to begin trying something, not knowing exactly what to expect. But this is also what makes my work exciting and rewarding.
Let’s talk tools, are there publicly available scripts or tools you like to use when rigging?
Absolutely! First and foremost we use the Unreal A.R.T tools because Survios is an Unreal house. I use ngSkinTools personally for skinning weights, even though my coworker hates it ?
I came across Studio Library for our animators and it’s been great. But if I don’t find a tool that suits my needs, I tend to either find something close and modify it, or build it from scratch.
How much stock Maya vs. custom inhouse tools or maybe runtime rigging in Unreal are you using?
For player movement, we have a system in Unreal that handles our character movement in VR that is completely custom inhouse. Unlike traditional games, our animators don’t necessarily animate everything for the player character because locomotion is being tracked by the VR controllers and head mount display. For other NPC characters, we are using the stock Unreal rigging stuff given to us. On the Maya side, we use a combination of stock, third-party and custom inhouse tools. The problem with having a ton of custom inhouse tools is we can’t migrate our tools as fast as new Maya versions come out.
Anything you wish would get fixed or changed in the software to improve production work and make it easier?
Right now his tool is in Beta, but I hope Jeremy Ernst releases his second version of the rigging tools soon!!
Do you see any major changes to how you are working now with Unreal and character rigging?
I definitely see major changes working with Unreal, it’s a whole other beast. One of the biggest considerations we take creating characters is how easily we can reuse animations and what that implies in Unreal. Unreal can retarget animations from one skeletal mesh to another. But that means if we want to fully utilize our animation budget, we have to make sure a number of characters are not wildly different where we have to create a whole new set of animations for one character. This mindset starts all the way at the character concept phase. Of course, these decisions are project-specific, but we only have 3 animators, 2 riggers and 2 character artists! As riggers we have to decide the best way to build the skeleton that will work for a variety of characters, and when brought into Unreal, making sure the animations don’t look and retarget terribly.
Having first worked with Unity and now Unreal what are your thoughts on learning them and any tips or gotchas you could share?
Learning Unreal is really fun, and being familiar with Unity made it a bit easier. The gotchas for me are the Blueprint system in Unreal and animation retargeting.
With the animation retargeting on skeletons instead of a “rig” like in Unity, are there any things you know to help out that process or have looked into to improve the retarget results?
Since we are conscious about retargeting and reusing animations across multiple characters, we make sure our joint orients and positions across our characters that share the same skeleton/animations are similar enough that the animations won’t look terrible in engine. For retargeting in general, I have just started playing around with MotionBuilder, and I’m super excited and impressed with the results I’m getting!
What have you found , training wise to have been the most helpful to you growing as a character TD? Any last tips or advice you can give to someone that wants to improve their skills as a TD?
Rigging Dojo, duh! The community that surrounds rigging is actually super cool and friendly, which makes finding resources very easy. So feel lucky as a growing character TD you chose this path, and don’t be shy to reach out!
If you’re working on your demo reel, find a model you think would be a fun challenge to rig, and try it! And +100 points if you find an animator to test it for you and give you feedback, and they could use it on their portfolio. It’s a win-win.
Want to really improve your skills as a TD? Go and take the online anatomy class by Scott Eaton. It is amazing, period. I’m in the middle of it right now, but it’s already helped me understand the puzzle pieces of the human body. Which makes me a better rigger!
At Rigging Dojo we get a high percent of female students and some of our most successful students have been women. If at all, have you faced issues or challenges that male peers might not have?
I can fortunately say that I have not faced these sorts of issues. I had pretty much the same challenges, and luckily at Survios we maintain a really collaborative and inclusive culture, and I’m not treated any differently than any other game developer because of my gender.
That is great to hear that and also a nod to the studio you work at for making it a balanced environment.
Now that you’re working vs. fresh out of school is there anything that you see missing in current TD skills or reels? Could be advice to your past self making a reel.
I didn’t come from an animation background, so sometimes I feel like I’m a mechanic that doesn’t know how to drive a car. I’m learning a ton from the animators I work with at Survios about their creative processes. As a rigger it’s been a learning experience working with them first hand and balancing their wants and needs. Advice to myself (past and present) would be to take some animation classes and try to animate things myself in order to better tap into an animator’s mindset. I wouldn’t necessarily put my animations on my reel, but I would learn some valuable things about what animators expect out of a rig, and those choices are important for a portfolio.
Last question – what book are you reading right now or last finished?
For my class we’re using a book called Figure Drawing For All It’s Worth by Andrew Loomis. Beautiful drawings and approximations of the human body. I’ve never taken art classes so this pretty much blew my mind.
The last book I finished was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Phillip K. Dick. Because Blade Runner.
How can people best find you online?
Thank you so much for taking the time for us.
Thanks for the interview!!!