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Disney character artist shares his story

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Josh, Brad and Chad

Interview with Character TD Sergi Caballer


Let’s get started with a bit of background about you. What led you to computer graphics and rigging as your specialty?

I guess it all started around 1997-1998 when I was 16 years old and I got interested in computer graphics and 3D. I remember I saw a commercial on TV for a collectible magazine to learn how to start doing VFX like they do in Hollywood. So I started this collection and this was both my starting point in the field and how I got started self-teaching. This collection was oriented to 3D Studio DOS and it was everything I had to involve myself in the 3D field for the web in those early days.

In 2000 I already had some experience with 3D Max when I started college. I studied Digital Design & Graphic Design, but during those years at college I didn’t specialized in CG, it was more of a generalist education in the design field (graphic design, web design, introduction to web scripting, art theory, photography), instead of the kind of studies where you finish with a very specialized demo reel to start looking for a job in your particular mastery, such as modeling, look, rigging, etc. During those years at college, I took all the classes offered that were related to the animation industry, and the introduction to Maya class was one of them.

During my last years at college, I started working as a web designer. Those were probably my first steps into scripting.

In 2006 I got my first job related to the 3D animation field. It was a very small company in my hometown, Barcelona, where I got the opportunity to work as a 3D generalist for an animated TV series development, and also for the toon version of the FC Barcelona players. I did everything from modeling to rigging to texture, lighting, and the final comp. As I mentioned, it was a very small company! At that time, I was the only one at the studio with rigging skills, so I modeled and rigged all the characters for the TV series development. That was my first time writing code for rigging.

Where did you go from there, you were working as a generalist but then did you have an area you liked best?

During my following steps at different companies, I’ve been primarily working as a character modeler, lead character modeler, or modeling supervisor, but I’ve been rigging as a freelancer for The SPA Animation Studios and Aardman, or rigging my own stuff in my free time. Here you can see some examples of my rigging work:




Given all of that, it is difficult for me to choose a preference between working as a modeler or as a rigger, because I enjoy both the artistic and the technical side. So, I think that’s why I’m very conscious about the relevance of a good topology and all the implications of the modeling work on the rigging side.

During all these years I’ve also been working in the educational field, as a lecturer and online lecturer/instructor, specifically on this subject. I’ve recently finished my collaboration work as a lecturer for The CG Master Academy (CGMA) about the technical side of modeling work (

Since I arrived at Disney in 2013, I’ve been working on Zootopia (, most recently on Moana, as a character modeler.


(Work done: Character Modeling Assistant Mayor Bellwether)

(Work done: Character Modeling Stu Hopps)

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It seems like you had a big jump from being a generalist to then go through Aardman and then end up at Disney. What was that transition like for you as an artist, and did it change your workflow or skill set?

Yes, it was a big jump, but it was a process that took eight years from when I started working as a generalist to when I landed here at Disney as a character modeler. During those eight years I’ve been working on my artistic and technical abilities, always oriented towards characters, but I have the impression that now I’m more focused on the artistic side, mainly because at Disney I have unlimited resources to keep growing as an artist, from my friends and coworkers seated around me, the feedback I receive from my supervisors and art directors, and because of the legacy and tradition that the company has.

On the other hand, now that I am spending 70% of my time using zBrush, it means that I spend most of my time on the artistic side, working on the volumes and shapes and am therefore less focused on the topology or neutralization which always come later on during the modeling process.

You mentioned your experience modeling and rigging and how, because you have done both, you are more aware of topology when modeling. How do you approach topology differently, and can you share some tips for both TDs and modelers wanting to improve?

Definitely having experience in both fields dictates a lot of the way I work, especially if I have the opportunity to model and rig the same character.

There are some basic rules about topology that more or less everybody knows, such as uniformity on the topology density, facial topology layout, avoiding triangles, nGons, or poles with more than 5 edges, etc., but there are a few simple topology things that are very helpful for the rigging side that I always do on my characters.

I always use quadrant/quarter meshes, especially on the character’s limbs. This basically means that I have a cylinder mesh for the limbs, which makes it easy to identify the middle edgeloops to split the mesh in quarters. For me, this is always very useful in terms of joint placement or even painting weights.

Another important thing I always do on my characters is to maintain consistency and uniformity on connection areas, which basically means to use clearance layouts on connection areas, keeping all the poles, for example on the shoulder area, on the same edgeloop. This consistency helps me to keep an easily readable topology while working, for future examination of the model, and also as an easy way to share parts from my different models. Also, on the rigging work, it helps me to paint the skin weights, because the weight distribution grows homogeneously thanks to the fact that all the interruptions on the mesh and poles happen at the same level, since they are all on the same edge loop.

Another good habit as a modeler is to be consistent with your topologies, especially in production. If there is not a universal mesh, it is a good practice to try to identify some landmarks or areas to keep in the same spot between your different characters.

Lastly, I like to publish my models with the mouth and eyelids closed, because it is easy for me to track the correspondence between loops coming from the upper lip/lid to the lower lip/lid. This makes it easier to keep nice topology, paint weights, and even to get a texture on the eyelids which doesn’t stretch when you close the eyelids.

All of this, obviously, is not a “must”, but for me it is always helpful and makes my work easier as a modeler and also as a rigger.

(An example of the facial topology layout I use for my own projects, which is ready for production)

Modeling tools have gone through a big revolution over a short time. How has this affected your work? And as far as technology and skills, what do you feel is needed to get the characters to that next level a production requires.

For sure, modeling is probably one of the areas which have evolved fastest in recent years, due mainly to the implementation of zBrush in the majority of production pipelines. This implementation means that you can create high-polycount detailed assets, as well as bake all the detail into displacement maps, or normal maps in case of VFX or video games. One of the pros of using sculpting software like zBrush is that it is beneficial even when working on traditional character modeling for animation, where the baking details techniques are not required because the characters don’t demand that amount of detail. I’m thinking of the traditional process of modeling, where we basically push vertices to get the desired shape. This process has become easier thanks to sculpting software because now, instead of tweaking vertices, we move and push these vertices using brushes, and this results in, not only a big improvement in performance and speed, but also the capacity to try and experiment faster, so iterations on the modeling process have become easier.

Before I started working at Disney Animation, I wasn’t a 100% zBrush user. I had used it in the past, but it wasn’t as definitively an important part of my workflow. But since starting here, I have realized all the benefits of using it in production, especially in terms of speed, the fast tweaks you can do on your model, and how easy it is to get some polypaint on it to help you to present the character for approval.

Also, here at Disney, we tend to use a universal topology to populate the different worlds of our movies. This topology evolves from show to show to accommodate the different needs of each department or the different demands of each show. In general, we tend to use a quite dense topology in order to be able to have enough resolution to recreate the variety of designs that exist in our shows. So having the ability to work easily with dense meshes makes zBrush an important tool in our pipeline.

Simplicity in rigging is a big challenge for booth speed and animator overwhelm. What are your thoughts on how to keep animation controls intuitive?

All animators have their own preferences in terms of how to make the controls more intuitive for them, but in general what they want is to have all the manipulators around the character to avoid traveling with the cursor to the right side in order to change values in the channel box.

This means you have to find a balance between a manageable number of controls on the character and how to relate their different transformations and axes (translate, rotate, and scale in XYZ) with all the different behaviors or deformations you’re providing to the character, especially in areas with a large density of controls, like the facial area. Of course, there is always the opportunity to provide different levels of control to the animators, such as main controls or micro controls, for instance, the micro controls for the lips. But at least, on the main level, to provide an intuitive balance between control vs. manipulators.

Your Troglodita rig caught our attention, and that of many other artists. Would you walk us through some of its making? Deformations on it are stellar and the face rig has really nice control, and I am guessing there are quite a few fixes or corrective shapes on the rig to help with deformations.

The Troglodita was a freelance project I did for The SPA Studios. They had an older version of the character done in 3dMax, so in 2012 they contacted me to create a new version of the character, new modeling and rigging, but this time for Maya.

It was a great project because of the complexity of the rig. Sergio Pablos, the owner and director of The SPA Studios, who has a background as a Disney 2D animator, requested a rig with a broad range of deformation that was able to, for example, move, rotate, and scale the majority of the controls on the rig to give him the desired range of plasticity/expressivity.

For both the body and the facial rig, I wrote a python autorig. The body autorig is a standard kind of body rig, only with an extra level of control, such as the body hair deformations, in line with the customer’s expectations.

The facial rig was trickier, as it was basically a bunch of guided deformers sliding over a nurbs skull surface in order to help the animator keep the focus on the animation instead of on the constant volume preservation or fixing the interpenetration with the different parts of the face. This was very important, especially on the muzzle, where I wanted each control to describe a non-uniform arc trajectory, when it was translated through a single axis according to the precise muzzle shape at that particular moment. This guided system allowed me to create a coordinate system based on the UV coords of the nurbs surface to build a dependency/relationship system for the facial controls, and to enable a PDS system to drive a bunch of corrective facial shapes.

As a skin influences the facial deformation, I used a mix between joints and a nurbs patch system that was dependent on a bunch of nurbs curves which received the direct input from the animation controls.

So, in order to be able to create this kind of system, I wrote a bunch of extra python tools to help me to manage the work with the corrective shapes, including exporting the raw meshes to work with the shapes separately from the rig, splitting the corrective shapes, connecting them to the final rig, and updating them when necessary. It was a ton of work, but at the end I was very proud of the work done, because in a lot of aspects, it pushed me to unknown areas at that time.

(Example of the work done for the Troglodita rig)

We haven’t talked much about scripting, but you mentioned that you first started writing scripts for your rigs when you were a one-man show. How did you continue to learn and advance your scripting ability? Do you find that it has benefited you as a modeler also and not just when rigging?

I started with scripting in college and then at my first jobs when my career was focused on the web design industry. I remember some fun projects I did with action script, the scripting language for Adobe Flash. Later, when my career started to focus again on the 3D animation industry, I used this amateur scripting knowledge to start doing small things with MEL, such as the zipperRig and some other stuff I’ve never shown publicly. At that time, I remember some friends at work recommending that I switch to Python, so I decided to enroll in a couple of scripting workshops for MEL & Python. I’ve kept in contact with my coding guru friends, including Angel Pavon (, who is always willing to give me some coding advice.

Did scripting help myself as a modeler? Yeah, of course. Scripting is always a plus, even on modeling—especially when you realize that you are doing any kind of labor too often, from procedural modeling tools to tools designed to help you split facial shapes. Scripting is always a good thing to have in your toolset, as it’s often a time-saving tool, especially on tasks which require trial and error.

What do you tell students who don’t want to learn programming or more technical aspects of modeling and the software?

Modeling and sculpting is a discipline more attached to the artistic side, so not all modelers develop their skills on the technical side, especially these days where, thanks to sculpting software, you can start with just a piece of digital clay.

Definitely, the artistic eye is the most powerful tool for a modeler—and it will be even more in the near future. So scripting isn’t ever a “must”, but as I was saying before it could be very beneficial for some particular modeling tasks, or at least in order to be able to communicate with someone with technical skills to develop a tool for that particular kind of modeling work.

I have a few more rigging questions, the zipper being one of them. It is a really cool looking rig. What was the process to get the zipper effect and how did you get the models to line up and not go through each other?

The zipper rig was one of the first autorigs I wrote with MEL. It was more than 8 years ago so I don’t remember all the details, but it was just a bunch of point-on-curve info nodes on a curve constrained between the editPoints of the main curves of each half of the zipper. Then, depending of the current state for that particular point on the zipper, open or closed, the point-on-curve info node returns a position along the uCoord of the curve, where 0 or 1 equals opened and 0.5 equals closed. But as I said, it was a long time ago so I don’t remember all of the finer details.

How do you deal with the re-rigging process early on in production when models are being changed and tweaked so much?

This is always part of the process, so I usually write my rigging scripts in different modules or stages and I like to save my WIP files in these different stages so I can easily re-do some parts of the work if necessary. Also, on these different rigging stages, I like to create ‘sets of things’ to make certain kinds of nodes more visible for me as a rigger. These sets are part of my creation process but they never go to animation. An example of these is my different joint sets, which I use to help me with the skinning process, where instead of adding all the joint hierarchy at the same time, I gradually add the different joint chains as I’m going through the skinning process.

No talk about model topology is complete without discussing the default pose to rig. Do you have a preference? Why?

This is always a tricky point. From a modeling point of view, modeling on a TPose is always easier, especially when we have to deal with modeling fingers and hands. Modeling while your piece is aligned with the world axis is always easier, but you can find ways to work with an unattached arm aligned to the world if your goal is to end with an APose character. The same idea could be applied if we’re talking about an easier way to place a character rig guide for joint placement during the rig creation. TPose is always easier, for the same reason.

From the deformation standpoint, APose is probably the most efficient way to get a neutral base for your shoulder deformation, because this is exactly the upper arm’s middle range of motion, especially if you’re only using joints for the deformation. On the other hand, if your pipeline allows you to work with PSDs, TPose would be my choice because this would be the neutral mid-point for all the corrective shapes for the shoulder/upper arm area.

Another thing to keep in mind is the look or appeal that the character has when we deliver the model to rigging. TPose is always kind of a weird pose because, from a design and proportion standpoint, it is harder to appreciate the shoulders’ width, the upper arm vs. the lower arm proportions, or even the whole arm vs. the body proportions. At the end, as a modeler, you always end up deforming the area at different ranges of motion to see any weaknesses in proportions.

Related to this topic, especially for the shoulder articulation area, I always recommend the work of Brian Tindall ( as a reference for modeling for articulation, to study pivot joint placement and how the corrective shapes help to achieve the nicest deformations, especially with their gifs where you can see the effect of using only the skin cluster vs. adding the corrective shape over the joint deformation.

Deformations are always a balancing act between character design, topology, and animation needs. How do you approach skinning and the final deformation work? 12. Can you talk about your approach to bone placement and skinning vs. what you do with corrective shapes, helper bones, or custom deformers?

I don’t have any particular secret way of painting my weights, what I usually do is paint them in a very methodic way, blocking all the influences and only releasing two of them each time I paint or modify the influences: the one I want to paint, and the one I want to steal influences from.

When I worked as freelance rigger, I always tried to avoid 3rd party plugins because I didn’t want to have to install them on the animators’ computers, such as pose readers to drive my corrective shapes or custom deformers. For this reason, I always approached corrective shapes using a bunch of standard Maya nodes and assuming that I would have some limitations. But by putting in extra effort on helper bones, especially in articulations such as the elbows, knees, or even knuckles and fingers, I can define some behaviors to these helper bones to help me to keep volume preservation on these particular areas.

Do you use any publicly available scripts or tools when rigging? Do you have any modeling scripts or tools/tips you can’t live without?

I do not use a lot of external scripts but there are a couple that have become very useful on my pipeline:

abSymMesh, a very useful script to check symmetry meshes and to create symmetrical/asymmetrical shapes. I use it constantly, not only for facial shapes, but also as a checking script when I bring my meshes over from zBrush.

cvShapeInverter, another tool I use a lot to extract the deltas to be applied as a corrective shape on my rigs.

Is there anything you wish would be fixed or changed in the software in order to improve production work and make it easier?

One of the things I would like to change or fix is the limitation on the number of inputs/outputs of Maya’s nodes. Sometimes, to do a rig or any kind of process that requires multiple instances of the same kind of calculation, you end up with an unnecessary number of the same duplicated node because you only can input/output one value or 3 per each node, in the best scenario with the XYZ/RGB output channels, instead of having an unlimited number of inputs/outputs.

I would love to see this reviewed, because it would help to get better performances and maintenance on the rigs, instead of ending up with custom nodes, which are easy to track and update in a company environment, but difficult to manage for small projects or freelance riggers.

Do you see any major advancements in rigging for characters in the near future, or are the techniques mostly standardized now?

This kind of question is always difficult to answer. I’ve been rigging with Maya my entire career, so I guess my answer is going to be conditioned by that.

As riggers, we know the animators’ needs and the kind of controls they need to perform their work, so very often we end up with a recurrent pattern of node structures to deliver the standard package, such as switchable IK/FK limbs with bend deformations and pin elbows/knees on a biped character. This means we’re using a lot of nodes to create one specific rig behavior that is a kind of standard in the industry. So, my guess is that at some point we will end up having custom nodes to achieve these results while being more efficient in terms of node economy and rig performance.

What have you found, training-wise, to have been the most helpful to you for growing as a character TD and modeler?

I consider myself to be self-taught in the fields of modeling and char TD. However, I enrolled in some rigging and scripting workshops because they are always interesting in a way of how to start with a new tool or software.

But what most motivates me to learn and keep learning is to be inspired by other artists. By just looking at and studying their work you can learn things, or establish ideas or solutions to follow. Sometimes you can see something on a TD reel or in a “making of” that catches your attention and makes you ask yourself, “How do they do that?” Then, you start a journey of trying to figure out how to accomplish that goal, following your own paths and ideas and trying new things. This gives you a learning path where you have to find your own way, your own solutions. Maybe you end up with something totally different, but I bet you’ll have learned a lot of things along the way. Also, talking with other people about your own questions and having their point of view of how to approach a problem is something very effective in terms of continuous learning. You can do a single thing in so many different ways…

You have been teaching now, so on the flip side, what has been hard to get students to understand when it comes to animation-ready modeling?

I’ve been lecturing for some time and also recording educational stuff but it’s always been more related to the modeling side with an approach to the technical side, in terms of how to deliver a proficient model for rigging, or how to create facial shapes ready for animation.

One of the questions that comes up often when I’m teaching is regarding the density of facial meshes for animation or production. Obviously, when you are starting with topology puzzles, it is always a pain to add density on your mesh, so students, or even people who only create characters for still images, tend to focus only on the shape of the mesh, without adding enough topology density to enable a successful facial deformation or performance, so they are often surprised when they see examples of characters for production.

Related to this topic, people also ask me “What if I model a low version of the character and then I subdivide the mesh to get enough detail for facial deformation/performance?” And my answer is that I prefer to manually model the mesh that will receive the deformation, from the rig or even from the shape modeling, because I like to have control and to identify the main edgeloops of, for example, the face, because this will allow me to decide which are the edgeloops which will become a wrinkle or fold, which are the two edgeloops in between the folds to use to create the wrinkle… I like to have this kind of decision-making power over my meshes, so if instead of this I modeled a low version and then subdivided it, I would get a mesh with some areas that would get unnecessary detail and others that would be without the required density for facial performance, which is more important for future deformations.

Facial Modeling Timelapse Article:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Lastly, it is always really insightful and interesting to hear what a “Day in the life” looks like for a production artist at Disney working on a big feature animation project. Can you share with us what your day looks like?

A regular day at Disney Animation starts around 9:00 and we usually begin with the department rounds where the character modeling supervisor of the show and the production assistant come to each office to check how your character is going and when it will be ready to show to the art department. At Disney, we don’t work with the traditional orthographic views of the character, so we normally get a couple of ¾ views from the art department, and from those we create the sculpture of the character in zBrush with all the elements that help us to sell the model. This includes polypaint, slightly posed, etc. Then, when the modeler and the supervisor are happy with the model, we show it to the art director to get feedback from their side. This process includes more rounds, including the art dept., draw-overs, etc. Once all of the people involved with the sculpture are satisfied with the result, we present it to the directors of the show. If we get the approval from them, we start the whole process of neutralizing the character to get it ready for production.

Character creation at Disney Animation is a strong iterative process until all of the pieces match perfectly, so when a character has been approved and published, it goes into a test and a calisthenics process where even the smallest point could be iterated and polished even more.

One of the things I most like about being at Disney is that we are fortunate to have access to a huge library of documentation recorded and archived from past productions, from the early days at Disney to the current shows, where we can still learn, so there is always something interesting to watch or listen to while I’m working.

We also have a program called Educational Enhancement where we have an annual budget to spend on continued education, so it is very easy to keep learning new things.

Obviously, there is also time for fun and recreation. The studio is always organizing events, screenings, presentations, or even concerts to maintain a creative atmosphere all around—and of course there are the foosball and ping pong breaks!

Any last tips, advice, or anything that you see is missing in current reels or training?

One of the things I would like to see more often on reels is a balance between technical and artistic stuff. The majority of the time we can see modeling reels with impressive artistic skills but I miss the technical side a little bit, such as topology, or even facial shapes, which prove your skills and control, not only on neutral or posed shapes, but also on shapes in movement.

On the other hand, we can find impressive rigging reels, from the technical side, but often I miss the artistic eye on the rig performance a little bit, such as on body or facial deformations. We should always prepare our reels thinking not only from the position we are aiming for but also on the customer who we will deliver our job to, modelers to riggers, and riggers to animators. They are the ones who will judge our work from a different perspective, so keeping them in mind when we work on our reels is always a plus.

Last question—a fun one. Which book are you reading right now, or which was the one you finished most recently?

Actually, I’m very passionate about my work, whether it be modeling or rigging, so if I have some free time and I’m not going out with family or friends, I gladly spend this time on something work-related, either for a personal project or on learning something new related to CG. But if I finally get some extra time, for instance when I’m on a flight, I always read. My last book was Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull.

Thank you for your time and for sharing your amazing work with us!

It’s my pleasure; thank you!

Blog Post interview

Interview with character TD Ehsan Kiani

Hello everyone and happy February.

Time for candied hearts and interviews with top talent. Lets get started by showing some love to Ehsan with your time reading this interview.

Green Candy Heart Rigging Dojo
Lets get started!

Interview with  character TD Ehsan Kiani

Let’s get started with a bit of background about you, and what led you to computer graphics and rigging as your specialty?

I think I started to get passionate about computer graphics when I first bought my Sega console back in 90s, I was totally addicted to video games for a short time. I used to study industrial electricity for my education and for my career I was a fighter in Taekwondo global league of my country. I used to think I’m going to remain a fighter forever and become an Olympic medalist one day, but things changed all of a sudden after I met a family friend. He was working in advertising industry. He knew some stuffs about 3D software and the creation process of visual works, so he introduced me to it and I began to research. I was just falling in love more and more with 3D, I wanted to create, feel and live with it. I was a pro fighter at the same time, but passion for CG was growing and eventually I got to the point to choose between fighting and CG, and I chose to be a 3D artist. For almost 2 years I worked as a generalist, but I always liked problem solving and works that are challenging to make you find or create a solution. So I shifted toward rigging. Since then I’ve been working as a rigging artist.

Games vs. Film/Commercial work is always a hot topic; how was the transition from games to film? What’s different?

Both game and film works have different requirements. When you work in games, the real time interaction matters the most. Due to the limitation of hardware, the engines should define some boundaries to optimize everything to get the best real time interaction for users (gamers). A game rigger should consider these boundaries in the setups, to deliver the best performance in a real time game. In movies there is less limitation(users change from gamers to observers), as there are no real time interaction to consider hardware limitation however a rig’s real time performance in scene matters when handing it to animators. You can make more realistic and complex deformation in movies because of this. When coming from game to film works, it’s like you already know things that when rigging in film a rigger might have not considered, by you keeping the track of every little thing of the rig to get the best performance, and you have freedom and the chance to make it more real and add layers on top of it.

What are some of the challenges that you like and dislike in games/film?

In games usually you have to deal with many vs. few main characters like in movies. Imagine you have 100 characters, it’s a big quantity, and it means you have to create an efficient setup which first is compatible with the engine and the needs of the characters, and then later you can roll it over to the other characters as well. Most of the time, you should consider these kind of situation, and it helps to the development of the pipeline too at the same time. In movies and cinematic work, you mostly focus on the main characters and develop their setups individually unless you have a group of similar type. Also you’re free to implement any kind of method to improve the realism of the rig. I would say, there are more access to the tools when working on a film rig. Though in film works, sometimes some works that are done on the characters in the past cannot be reused for the future characters, so it’s the best to have that possibilities in mind.

What is it like to work on a big team vs the lone character TD?

When working in big teams, usually a set of tools is available to you. You have to follow the pipeline conventions and build setups the same way as every other rigger in the team is building. So if another artist is going to work on your setup they would be able understand it easily. Also when you develop scripts and tools, you need to code it in a way that it fits to pipeline, basically follow the coding convention. It’s teamwork and the rigs should be accessible any place in the pipeline, so if at any time any part of the rig breaks, they can fix it by looking at the problem. It is very important to have a flexible behavior in the team, so you can accept the right comments and opinions about your work and also you kindly criticize other’s work if needed. I think being friendly and comfortable with other colleagues is very important, and helps to the whole projects development. But a lone character TD can be someone that is working in a team but is the only person responsible for rigging works, or could be a freelance character TD. It’s best to develop a personal rigging pipeline considering the thoughts and needs of the animators so the rig has the features that animators are comfortable with.

Can you share your learning curve and experience over the years as a TD, from starting out to working on new tech and across different studios?

In regard to different studios and new techs you have to learn, actually every one of them taught me something new as you deal with a new pipeline and they have different workflows. Though I’d say learning new techs is not something that takes the same amount of time as the time you wanted to learn the basics for your career, if you know one major software and in and out of it, then learning most of new techs becomes easier, so basically everything is almost similar but through different workflows and to adopt faster. I’d look at samples of setups and tools that are made in the new tech to speed up. Animators’ preferences also varies in different studios. Every new lead animator I met almost had some specific preferences, for that reason I had to consider their inputs in my rigs.

How did you see the work change during your time there as far as technology and skills needed to get the characters to the next level that each production requires?

At first when I got into this business, the character work were not really as complex as it is today, most of the teams were using a single software to do their character pipeline work. Basically you didn’t need to know more than one software to do a character set up. Now there is a lot of tools and plugins to create the controls or characters, creatures and more. As technologies improved, more software and tools became available to artists. Now you can setup in one software and work on deformation in another, for example. Due to software interoperability and common file formats, technology is going toward tool unification and that has opened a lot of possibilities. Tools, besides the most common, are now used in production. Scripting and additional languages available between multiple big software packages and lesser funded ones, is another point of advancement to unification. Currently, most of the major applications are using Python, so I would say, these days, as a rigger, you need to know more scripting and software development tools than in the past and be familiar with plugins and available open source tools to satisfy the production requirements.

Simplicity in rigging is a big challenge for both rig speed and preventing overwhelmed animators. What are your thoughts on how to keep animation controls from overwhelming the animators?

No animators like a big mess of controls in their setup, although animator’s preferences are different. Usually, for parts of the rig that are not going to be procedural, I create simple and accessible controls for the animators with some visibility parameters in the assigned control panel of the rig. For the procedural parts I create a master control with procedural parameters attached to it, so an animator just works with the master control and then any tweaks are in the parameters of it. I always try to avoid creating controls that are complex or that that have controls that are not linear for animators. There are advantages, when keeping the controls simple, in the maintenance of the setup. If animator needs a change, just simply go through it do the change, and update the character rig version. So I’d follow these for my controls:

  • Get the project’s lead animator input
  • Agree upon a naming convention for the whole setup
  • Layer everything with clear names
  • Minimize the control quantity
  • Have a visibility control panel
  • Create control shapes that are self-task describing (Though animators have different preferences)
  • Separate control nodes hierarchy in its own

Anything that drives automatically I usually have a control attached to it, so it can be tweaked in a manual way. This is in case it does not perform well. An example of this, is where I usually set up an armor rig. Assume the shoulder pad is driven with some sort of automatic setup, so with a control on top of the auto layer, you give access to the animator, in case there is a penetration happening between the pad and the other parts of the character mesh. Image below shows the armor manual control that is been driven by its automatic setup.

I believe a clean and simple setup is when you have considered all aspects of maintenance and future uses.

How do you deal with the re-rigging process when models are being changed and tweaked so much, early on in production?

If I use the tools that I wrote for automatic rigging modules, then I’d like to save the main skeleton templates without them being rigged at the very beginning stages of the rigging process, basically it will let you choose your rigging controls and skeleton to be saved without being rigged in a separate file right before you run your module rigger codes. Later, if any changes happened through the model that you’re working on, you need to disconnect the module and then you delete the module and then import the saved template for skeleton and controls and then edit and run the rigger code to re-implement the setup. If you work handier and with less coding then what I prefer most of the time is to start the process of rigging in parallel to the modeling, so there are chances that you get a model that will be tweaked later on, but as long as the proportion is the same for the main skeleton, the rig can be updated easier. When your rig is ready you’re most likely to have the finalized the mesh or if you don’t have it yet, you just need to skin the basic mesh and pass it to the animators till your final mesh comes. This way you save time, animators have something to play with while modeling works to finalize the mesh and meanwhile you’re moving on to the next models. Best thing to avoid time consumption is to work together with the rest of the team, specially modelers and animators, and you finalize in the most efficient way.

We talk a lot about model topology and the default pose to rig, do you have a preference?

I think a default pose means a pose that specifies the range of motion in different directions that a character can rotate his joints (ex. Arms, Legs, Elbows, etc…) so I choose that based on the description of the character’s movement. I ask questions like, is the character going to go extreme in all direction like a fighter character or is it going to be a driver which mostly he hands is at the steering wheel? That helps a lot because you wouldn’t have to worry about the poses that the character never get into.

Deformations are always a balancing act between character design, topology and animation needs.  How do you approach skinning and final deformation work?

I go with different stages for deformation work, depending on the complexity of the model. The image below shows how I approach the deformation for a complex setup:

As you can see in my skinning stage, I skin a low poly mesh then transfer the data into my high poly mesh and keep polishing it till I get the best I can (I don’t leave behind thing that can be done at any stage for the next stage). Next I go for pre muscle stage that I just pass this step and refer back to it after the muscle work is finished, to clean up any mess and bad shape that is created after the muscles are skinned. In the muscle work stage, I build the muscles, shape them and sculpt them. Then I will run it through the any of the possible options for the muscle skinning solver. Last step before I catch out is to do the second pass of the corrective shapes using blendshapes and pose deformer, so any correction happens here. Finally I output my mesh to a mesh that is going to be catch out. The whole process can be in a single mesh or on few different meshes, what we do is transferring data from one mesh to another. I also use referencing to separate the skinning from the muscle work.

Can you tell us about your approach to bone placement and skinning vs. what you do with corrective shapes or helper bones or custom deformers?

I tend to get what I best can get out of the bone placement and skinning rather than ignoring the issues and waiting to fix them in the correction step. So after I build my skeleton, I start skinning a basic mesh then transfer its data into the high-poly mesh. The key is to polish the skinning on the high-poly mesh as much as possible. I presume that there are no corrective shapes or helper at all, so I use the main skeleton and I paint and I use vertex-weight manipulation tools, till the point that there is nothing to do more with it. At this point I start building corrective shapes, sometimes a few sometime more to get the best interpolation. I use nodes to trigger them, I prefer to use Hypershade nodes more than touching the expression editor to drive the correctives shapes and helpers (they are faster and easier to work it).

Code vs. Visual rigging systems:

What is your approach to R&D at the start of a project (animator input, film reference, modeling adjustments, etc.)? Has it changed for you personally or does it vary between projects and studios?

Normally I gather as many reference as I can to familiarize myself with the project. References could be anything that can give you an idea of how the setup should be (Videos, Articles, Web Pages and other similar works …). I also keep writing and taking notes while I’m looking at references so I don’t want to miss the points and revise to catch them. I contact the animators and ask for their input all the time and sometimes I involve modelers as well to keep them in loop so if there is any preferences in the modeling side, they’re already aware of it. When I almost have a draft from my R&D I start testing and making prototype before I take it into production. The prototype should get as solid as possible before going to production, I write down everything about it and I comment any coding part of it, then I test it till I crash it and get the bugs out or warn that there are possible bugs if this and that happens. How far the R&D goes and how deep it digs depends on the project and its deadline really, but when there is not much time, I minimize the R&D to the most critical requirements for the project, otherwise I keep researching and testing the prototypes till I get a good output.

Do you use any publicly available scripts or tools when rigging?

I used to use a lot of scripts from, but these days beside my own scripts and tools I use Comet’s PSD and NGSkinTools. They can be found here:

How much stock Maya vs. tools you had to write yourself are you running?

After a while rigging, I’m mostly using my own tools than Maya ones, but some of my tools are automating Maya ones, so they fasten the process. Maya has some great tools with a little bit of modification and customization they will become very solid to use.

Anything you wish would get fixed or changed in the software to improve production work and make it easier?

Maya lacks a good and solid Muscle Simulation system and is something that I think can be improved for sure. The current one is not performing well and it needs a lot of work to make it work solid. Maya also can have many more nodes that they can be very useful while rigging, so I hope a new set of graph nodes can be added to Maya soon. I believe Maya also needs a set of Motion Capture tools too, so maybe as nodes, so riggers can integrate them into their setup.

Do you see any major advancement in rigging for characters in the near future or are the techniques mostly standardized now?

It is a tough question to respond, but I believe that in future rigging will use and reference reality or life to build itself more than it is today. I’d say something like a self-rigging systems with a bit of AI into them. I think at the moment we have good techniques to rig, a lot of smart people working in this industry, so we have had great development in a short amount of time, but hopefully we push the limits and improve or innovate new techniques soon.

What have you found training-wise to have been the most helpful to your growth as a character TD?

Interaction with other artists, it really has helped me as I share ideas and people would share their ideas, sometimes in these interactions an idea or the solution to my problems would trigger. Other than that reading articles and documentation has helped me a lot, there is a lot of information available in documentation provided by software developers. Also whenever I have had a chance I have got the video tutorials of other artists as well, to see how they approach a problem, that’s a great help. I think asking question is very important tool to grow too, whenever I didn’t know something, I have asked other artist to help myself understand better. Sharing ideas and teaching it to other people also has helped my understanding. Learning programming and scripting has absolutely been usefully for me, I believe there is very tight connection between the way I rig and the way I code, as they can benefit each other.

Any last tips or advice you can give to someone that wants to improve their skills as a TD? Or something that you see missing in current TD skills or reels?

Learn how to code, not only the high-level scripting but low-level programming too, because even if you have to live in the higher-level, learning the lower-level programming will give a programmer eye to code in an efficient way, and also you can build up rigging tools with high performance. I think rigging reels today are good but they have lack of solid tools in them. I’d say code and make tools and put them into your reel.  I think a good rigging TD reel needs to have 1/3 of it filled with useful tools. Also I’d say communicate with other artists and share ideas to help yourself and others, and make good connections. And lastly please don’t give up if things get confusing, just push the limit a lot more and the answers are there.

Last question – what book are you reading right now or last finished?

I’m reading a C++ book “Gang of Four” at the moment, and last one I read was a book named Conceptual Blockbusting.

How can people best find you online?

Please contact me with my Gmail or add me to your Google Talk:
[email protected]


Thank you for your time.



interview news

November Newsletter Preview : Javier “Goosh” Solsona and his rigging work on DreamWorks “Turbo”.

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November Newsletter Preview : Javier “Goosh” Solsona and his rigging work on DreamWorks “Turbo”.

javiJavier "Goosh" Solsona



Our November newsletter will feature Javier “Goosh” Solsona and his rigging work on DreamWorks “Turbo”.

Javier has been a friend of ours for a long time now and has been an inspiration in teaching and rigging through his website and our co-sponsored Google+ group of the same name

We will have some other early announcements in the Newsletter so sign up if you haven’t. We have moved to MailChimp for the newsletters and they look great thanks to Chris Lesage.


Here is a very short excerpt on Games vs. Film rigging

Lets talk Games vs. Film, this is always a hot topic for new and old character TDs. Tell us how you made the transition from games to film and what’s different.
What are the differences? Similarities? Everything and nothing.
Ultimately, in Films or Games you do the same thing. You build a motion system and you build the deformations. You probably also write tools to help you along the way. That core concept doesn’t change, it’s the same. That said, how you go about building them is quite different, especially when it comes to deformations.

Rig by “Goosh” for Turok

In games we are limited by the engine. There are a lot of things that we simply cannot do and still get the performance necessarily to make a game run at 60fps. So usually in games we are most concerned about performance.

In film we don’t have that restriction. We use any tools we have at our disposal to make things look right. This often means you are sacrificing the performance of the rigs, but often picture quality wins over performance.
The transition itself was hard; I knew it would be. I was very comfortable where I was (in games) and I was happy working in Maya. I knew DreamWorks had their own system and that I would have a pretty steep learning curve. The system we used to have at the time was like nothing I could have imagined. It took a bit of time to “unlearn” Maya.