Exploring character Rigging

Set around a tree-dwelling community of squirrels, ‘Trouble Up Top’ is a concept idea I had for a children’s story some time ago. Based on a hierarchical structure (in both a literal distribution of real estate within the tree and also within the leadership organization of the gang) the story arch unfolds in a series of misfortunate events, set-up by subordinates and subsequently passed along the chain of command for a resolution. With our protagonist in a position of power as ‘the Boss’, the moral focus of the story is the responsibility of leadership as we see the hardship he endures to keep ‘the family’ functioning.

In the wise words of Uncle Ben (from Spider-Man, not the guy who makes the rice) – ‘…with great power. Comes great responsibility’

For some time, I endeavored to develop a solid draft for the story, but eventually the project found its way to the back burner – having been shelved in my thoughts by other pressing matters with the full intention of picking it up somewhere down the line. Rich with potential; the project still holds plenty of promise with the emerging of a visual aesthetic and the glimmer of a core idea that simply needs time to explore. Like digging into a vein of cookie within a tub of ice cream.

At the time of conception, I had been binge watching ‘The Sopranos‘ which was at the fore of my thinking and a heavy influence with the seed of an idea. So when it came to putting pencil to paper and considering the character design for our protagonist, I couldn’t help but think of Tony Soprano, slumped, crow-eyed at the breakfast table in his dressing gown. His physical neglect emphasizing the toil of his responsibilities. This can be seen in the demeanor of the character with his stubby legs and slightly bulging physique. Neglected, he is not without his own flaws.

'Boss-Man' character design

‘Boss-Man’ character design

For a while the project sat gathering dust; our character patiently waiting for some attention. Taking on freelance work as a storyboard artist for an animation team, I decided it was only prudent to expand my own skill-set and experiment with some of the tools commonly implemented in studio. This was a great opportunity to reinstate ‘the Boss’ in my thoughts and give him a run out….

As part of my responsibilities in studio, I am often required to create and set-up assets to pass over to the animators. This provided me with an understanding of how elements are laid out and manipulated, but I wanted to take this a step further and learn how to rig a character, effectively combining a set of body parts into a skeleton structure, creating a digital puppet. In need of a victim to experiment, it only seemed right to take a surgical knife to ‘the Boss’ and start to operate.

Character rework

Character rework

As the initial character drawings were never intended for this purpose, the first task would be to redraw the model in layers, considering overlaps at key pivoting points and thinking about how he would have to work in motion. With my aesthetic approach involving a distinct line style, this would mean paying particular attention to points where lines may cross or overlay as elements are compiled in layers, to ensure that the integrity of the modeling is consistent with a variety of poses.

Character rigging

Character rigging

The next step was to set up the rigging that would form the skeletal structure to allow the characters key anatomy to move – in a way not dissimilar to a paper puppet. For this, I was advised to try a cool After Effects plugin called DuIK, and searched online for some handy video tutorials (one especially worth looking at by Mt Mograph) to get me started. At first, the whole thing seemed daunting, but after putting the examples into practice, the process can be considered quite straightforward and logical – working a series of points and bones, with the option to set up ‘controllers’ to directly manipulate key body parts.

Now I had a character rigged. Able to pull and pose, throwing him from side-to-side like a new toy.

Kung-Fu Master

Kung-Fu master

It’s all well and good playing around when no one else is watching, but now I had to animate this character in a meaningful way. Not since I was in my late teens, experimenting with early versions of Macromedia Flash (remember before it was owned by adobe?) had I entered into the role of an animator. Fortunately, there are plenty of reference material online to provide support such as a handy Walk Cycle Tutorial by Alan Becker. This short video is amazing, with concise notes to help any novice animator set out the key positions the body makes in a simple cycle, and tips to vary key movements to add personality to a walk. From an enthusiastic jaunt to a slumped shuffle, different characteristics can be created with a slight variation in timing or tweak to the body positions. At this point this is something beyond my consideration; one step at a time…

Simple walk cycle

Simple walk cycle

A fundamental of animation; it was only natural that a walk cycle should be the first place to start.

Having previous encounters with Flash and After Effects, I had some knowledge of working with a timeline and keyframes. The focus is a sense of rhythm with the presence of time as an additional dimension. Any seasoned animator would have this down intuitively, but I found myself overthinking the problem. How long should certain motions take to execute? Without any clear guidance on this aspect of motion, I had to resort to rational consideration, simple mathematics and some play acting to measure these key movements. The result is a mechanical movement lacking any finesse, but functional as an experiment to illuminate my understanding of the processes.

With a simple walk cycle down, there were a few additional details I would have to address. I often put an emphasis on certain elements by creating a thicker outline around characters. With the composition a series of layers, it would not be possible to do this without drawing each frame independently – a time consuming and impractical way to address the issue. So I found an alternate technique to duplicate the composition, using functions in After Effects to create a perimeter around the full comp as it changes in each keyframe. The original was then laid over the top; the results – a much more aesthetically consistent animation.

Not without its flaws, the eventual animation was a success in providing me with a more in-depth knowledge of character rigging and animation. In hindsight looking back at the timing of the motion, I still feel that there could be tweaks to make it feel less labored, but as the product of a learning exercise, I’m quite happy with where we are. The beauty of a walk cycle – as the name suggests – is that it is a repeating series of motions, meaning it can be looped as a stand alone animation with neither beginning nor end.

Bring this character to life has again brought him back into my thinking. Who knows? Maybe ‘Trouble Up Top’ is a project I can find enthusiasm for once again…

Bringing the character to life

Bringing the character to life