Gio Coutinho is a rigging artist at Rooster Teeth. She’s been involved in projects such as RWBY, RWBY Chibi, and Red vs. Blue, and somehow finds time to record Autodesk tutorials about the techniques she uses for people wanting to follow in her footsteps. I recently had the chance to talk to Gio about her work, and how she came to be one of the most prominent professionals in her field.
Alayna: Hi, Gio! It’s awesome to have a chance to chat with you. Tell us: what does a rigging artist do?
Gio: Hi, Alayna! It’s great to chat with you, too.
I like to think of a rig as a marionette. Imagine a stiff, motionless doll with no articulations — that is a 3D model. It’s a completely static figure that is made from a 2D concept. As a rigging artist, I take that doll or 3D model and give it strings, which allow it to move and articulate however it needs to, so I work closely with animators to ensure all their requirements are met.
That being said, not only do characters need rigging — anything that moves, including props, sets, and vehicles often need rigs in order to come to life. A good rig is easy and intuitive to use, taking work away from animators since they are the ones responsible for making them perform according to a script and/or storyboard. A bad rig, however, imposes limits on animators, which in turn decreases the overall aesthetic potential of whatever they try to produce.
In more technical terms, a rig is often composed of a skeleton, controls, constraints, and a number of other features that help something move the way it needs to. There is a lot of problem solving involved in order to find the optimum way for something to move, and you must have a very keen artistic and technical eye to reach creative solutions to specific problems and challenges.
Alayna: It sounds like rigging is vital for creating 3D animations, so why are rigging artists so rarely talked about?
Gio: Rigging is a very difficult subject to talk about verbally and to understand when you’re not already a rigging artist, so it tends to get paired along with animation or not talked about at all in order to avoid lengthy explanations. There is also a much smaller number of people in the rigging field than in most other roles in the 3D industry due to the technical nature of the subject.
Because of a combination of those two, I feel like rigging artists end up disappearing behind the work of animators and the performance of the characters you see on screen, but a trained eye is usually able to see through that and analyze the quality of a rig based on the animation that is done on it. Low quality rigs tend to stand out more than high quality ones due to limited range of motion or funky looking movement — meaning that, many times, professional rigging artists stay invisible.
Alayna: So if there are so few people in rigging, how did you get into it? What do you love about it?
Gio: I was hooked in rigging as soon as I was introduced to it at university. The combination of art and logic involved immediately caught my attention since I’ve always enjoyed both areas, so it felt intuitive from the very beginning. The possibilities in this field are endless, and really, you’re only limited to your knowledge of the subject when making a rig. So although it isn’t always necessary to give certain rigs certain functions, there aren’t many things that I can think of as being impossible when it comes to rigging, which I find pretty inspiring.
Aesthetic judgment is very important when it comes to rigging, as the artist must be able to figure out how to make characters move in the most appealing ways possible. This involves knowledge in anatomy, design, and sometimes even mechanics when pertaining to non-organic assets. If a rig is poorly made from an aesthetic standpoint, it is likely that animators will be unable to make their work look natural and seamless, regardless of their skill level.
On a more technical level, there are many ways in which a rig can “break” if it’s not properly assembled. Think back to the marionette analogy; if strings are connected to the wrong parts of a character’s body, it will be unable to move naturally. If they’re not properly attached, they could come apart completely, making it unable to move as a whole. Similar issues can happen in rigging, and it takes a high level of technical planning in order to prevent problems like this. A good way to avoid technical problems and also to speed up the rigging process tremendously is to rig through code, which in Maya mostly comes down mostly to the scripting languages MEL and Python.
There’s also a lot of satisfaction involved in making it possible to move something that was previously static, which makes watching animations with rigs I’ve made very rewarding.
Alayna: Rigging sounds like it must be pretty tough! Are there any particular challenges you’ve faced in your work? How have you overcome them?
Gio: That’s true! Rigging can be very tough. New rigging artists are typically scared of non-bipedal characters, since they require less obvious creative solutions for specific situations, which can be a daunting task. Since there are so many possibilities in rigging, there are also a number of ways in which every problem can be tackled, but some methods are more effective than others. That’s when research — both theoretical and practical — comes into play. There are plenty of sources for rigging techniques both online and offline, but sometimes it’s hard to tell which technique will work best until you actually put it into practice.
I was in charge of rigging Ruby’s weapon, the Crescent Rose, which has a very unique transformation from rifle to scythe. This transformation involves a specific set of objects moving, rotating and scaling at certain rates, and I had to replicate the exact data from the original weapon used in previous seasons in order to maintain consistency throughout the show. It was an overwhelming task that required planning and a well-thought-out action plan, but with patience, attention to detail, and the help of tools in Maya, I successfully translated the transformation into our new, updated rig.
Alayna: Impressive! And now you have a tutorial series all about those tricks and techniques you’ve learnt. How’s that going?
Gio: It’s been going really well! Before I started, I was a bit scared since I had no practice making tutorials and talking into a microphone while working in Maya, and it felt very unnatural. I also had no idea how people would react or if it’d just go unnoticed as a whole. But I was determined to share some of the rigging knowledge I’ve obtained through the years in a way that would be easy to understand, and it seems like I’ve been able to achieve that goal. It’s always a wonderful feeling when someone tells me they’ve really enjoyed the series and that they’d like to see more!
That’s why I was so happy to have the opportunity to make some tutorials for Autodesk with RWBY rigs. I knew the videos would reach a lot more people this way, and being able to use Ruby to showcase some of my techniques was a great way to give people a glimpse of what rigging is like in the industry or in a professional environment.
I’m currently taking a short break from making videos due to time restraints, but I have plans to keep on making content that will help other rigging artists improve their skills. There are a few specific subjects I’d like to cover already lined out, but I’m also open to suggestions!
Alayna: It sounds like you already have a lot happening, but what’s next for you? Anything exciting on the horizon?
Gio: There’s always exciting possibilities on the horizon! Right now at Rooster Teeth we are preparing for 2017, and we’ve started working towards the shows scheduled for the year. Things will probably be pretty busy, but I’m also hoping to find the time to work on even more videos to share with everyone. Who knows what the future actually holds in store, but the prospects are definitely exciting!