The future of rigging

Hi folks,

I have been thinking about an interesting topic to start a discussion over here, it has been a while since the last one, and I thought about sharing a bit of what we have been talking (and working on) with some colleagues at work lately regarding what’s going on in rigging and where are we going as an industry, it’s a very interesting topic to me and I’m very curious about your thoughts on this, so here we go… The future of rigging!

A revolution is coming… Eventually

If you know me, or have had a chat with me about rigging in the past, you will know that I have been thinking about this for a long time, there’s even an old entry (a rigger’s journey) touching on this.

Actually, if you take a second to read my linkedin profile, you will see that one of the first paragraphs goes like this (this text has been like this since I created the profile, many years ago).

I look forward to further develop my career as technical artist, I firmly believe that there is much room for improvement on our workflow and the current paradigm in my area of specialization, I want to be part of the change.

And it’s not about big words, I really mean it! I’m certain that a revolution is coming, it has to happen, but I wasn’t sure what the big change will look like… Until now.

What’s going on in rigging?

So rigging tech hasn’t changed much in the last 10 years, we have more complex assets to work with, less time, but the tech itself hasn’t changed much (other than OSD and some proprietary/patented tech). If anything it is more accessible thanks to the internet and online courses on the subject (not as many as animation or modeling, but you know, there are a few).

So where’s the revolution?

Well, in order to talk about the future we need to take a look at the past… If you were able to rig an IK/FK limb 10 years ago, you were set for success, but today’s standards and expectations are way higher than that.

Right now, riggers are a mix of things, you have to be a bit technical to automate things in order to deliver rigs in a reasonable time frame (the complexity of high-end rigs demand automation, it’s not optional anymore) and artistic enough to hack your way around in order to deliver believable and appealing deformations.

Said that, riggers do not need to be engineers or sculptors, it’s a weird middle ground, and that’s exactly what I think is about to change.

Learning from the past

If we take a look at what happened to other specialities, it’s clear that after some period of time were artists hacked their way around the tech to get a decent looking product out of the door, there’s an inflection point where specialized developers have to step in allowing artists to be artists and engineers to be engineers, hacking stuff around is not enough anymore.

A perfect example of this is shading, some years ago shading artists used to program/hack shaders together in interpreted-languages/visual-programming and somehow eyeball surface effects until get the desired look, as a result shading was very dependent on lighting conditions and it was very difficult to have a consistent look across a variety of environments. After a while, people realized that in order to achieve physically plausible results we need to move to more complex models and the entire industry moved the tech side of things to specialized developers/engineers while leaving the artistic decisions to artists. We went from technical artists eyeballing shaders according to each lighting condition to photorealism, and the only way to get there was thanks to the split.

I firmly believe that rigging has reached that inflection point.

But I love rigging, is it going to disappear?

It’s not going to disappear, but it will change (and we need to change). I think rigging will stop being a mix of things and will become a bit more serious in order to advance the tech behind it… We cannot move forward at the pace assets are moving by using constraints and linear skinning, or having layered rigs running at 6 FPS.

If you take a look at rigging openings on big studios you have a clear split between studios looking for artists with some technical skills (great sensibility to achieve appealing deformations, plus some scripting abilities to survive while using proprietary tools) and the ones looking for technical minded people with some artistic sensibility (basically engineers able to create the tech enabling modelers and animators to articulate the puppets in a believable way).

The split is happening and the gap will only increase until we reach the point where the artistic input can be done directly by modelers/animators (there will be an intermediate time where riggers basically assemble rigs from libraries and deal with tech annoyances, wait… That’s now! :) )

Where to go from here? How to survive?

If you are all about deformations and appealing, I highly recommend to move towards modeling (specifically sculpting), that’s really the area where those skills shine (and will keep shining for a while)… Also being familiar with rigging requirements in terms of topology is a big plus!

On the other hand, if you are into technology, I think rigging will become way more close to software dev and knowing 4 things about for loops and variables will not be enough anymore, after all coding is the new literacy and knowing the alphabet will be considered the baseline for most areas sooner than later.

In order to really make this happen, we will need to step up big time and become a developer/engineer (I’m not talking about the degree, but the mindset), have a clear understanding of the main programming paradigms (OOP, pure functional), being able to design reasonable APIs, understand data, being able to develop fast code by understanding the hardware (especially GPUs, parallel computing is already a big deal when it comes to deformations).

In short, not cut corners and do the work towards those topics (not dogmas, the real stuff), learn all the lessons we can from software development in order to not make the same mistakes.

There you go, that’s my Armageddon right there… Of course it will not be black or white, there’s a lot of room for all kind of skills on studios of all sizes, but if you really want to have an impact I think the changes are right there around the corner and now is the best time to start shaping your career towards what really moves you.

What do you think? Am I crazy? Please let me know in the comments below :)