Characters rigged to tell emotional tale

Riggers bridge gap between artists, animators

Dancing between the artists who sculpt models for CGI films and the animators who create the characters’ performances is a group of specialists called riggers. Their work is invisible, but without it, “Toy Story 3’s” Buzz and Woody, and “How to Train Your Dragon’s” Hiccup and Toothless would be statues, incapable of conveying the emotion that makes them come alive onscreen.

Although you could think of rigging like the process of attaching digital puppet strings to a cartoon’s various characters, the reality is a lot more complicated than that.

“My office looks like a doctor’s office,” jokes Jeff Light, co-supervisor of character technical directors (with Nathan Loofbourrow) for DreamWorks Animation’s “Dragon.” “I have an anatomy class skeleton and charts on the wall for muscle systems. We have to make sure the animators have the bones and muscle and skin and fat set up in a system, so they can slide a dial or turn a knob or click a button and move them.”

Animators use the rigs to create dimples in a character’s cheek, the wink of an eye, the turn of a lip. A rig can make a bicep bulge when an animator closes a bully’s fist, or help a dragon fly.

“In a nutshell, rigging gives you control,” says Bobby Podesta, supervising animator for Disney/Pixar’s “Toy Story 3.” “Some people call the controls muscles. Some call them rigs. They can be as simple as one or two controls, or thousands of controls.”

The latter is far more common today.

“We had 200 controls for Woody’s mouth,” Podesta says. “In the old days, we might have had a couple dozen.”

Early versions of Buzz and the other legacy “Toy Story” cast were created with fewer controls. But even though Pixar’s riggers updated these characters to a 21st-century system for the third film, animators still had to respect the integrity of the familiar 1995 models.

“Just because Buzz could do a lot more, it didn’t mean he should,” Podesta says. “It was an odd challenge. We had Tom Hanks, Tim Allen and Joan Cusack back, and they know these characters, so we had half the battle won. But for animators who had not animated the characters before, it was like stepping into a role that an actor on Broadway had established. We could do more subtle acting and emotion, but we had to make the characters part of the world we all knew.”

For their part, riggers working on “Dragon” had the extra challenge of creating complex systems for a variety of imaginary flying creatures. “If you look at the wings, and all the ways you might want to control them in every circumstance, you could easily have over 2,000 controls on a dragon,” Light says. “Our head of animation, Simon Otto, made a wing-flap cycle we put into the rig with intensity sliders the animators could use to tone it down or give it maximum amplitude. But for a hero performance, animators don’t use automated cycles.”

Adding to the difficulty was the fact that each breed of dragon behaves differently: Zipplebacks have two heads, another has an extra set of wings, and the hero dragon Toothless wears a harness. “Toothless was the most complicated dragon,” Light says. “He had to be expressive. We rigged his teeth so they could stick out or recede. His eyes had to look charming. His harness had a rope that goes through the wings, it connects to Hiccup, and it all has to interlock. It was an amazing feat. But when I see them flying and see Astrid reaching up through the clouds, it was all worth it.”

More on Eye on the Oscar: Animation:
Toons get animated start | Annie voters see light of ‘Day’ | Characters rigged to tell emotional tale | Toon shorts offer innovative views