Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Should I be a 3D Rigger? | Interview with AnimSchool Rigging Instructor Daria Jerjomina


We recently had the chance to interview AnimSchool instructor, Daria Jerjomina. Daria has worked as a technical animator and rigger for video games, stop motion (Laika), VFX and is currently using her skills outside the animation industry in tech. In our interview, we talk to Daria about what it takes to be a rigger, working in each field, why she made the switch to tech and robotics. We also gain insight into her rigging courses, including Rigging Automation, where students create their own rigging tool, just as they would at a studio.

Watch our interview with Daria on Youtube


How did you first get into rigging? Did you always know you wanted to do rigging for animation?

I didn’t know anything about rigging until I went to school (Academy of Art University). I wanted to work in animation and visual effects but I didn’t know about the difference between the different disciplines. After taking a couple introductory classes I learned about different parts of the industry and found that I enjoy rigging the most. I saw there was a combination of it being both technical and artistic, and that really appealed to me. And the rest is history!


Where have you worked?

I started working at some small video game companies. Then I worked at a company that did a little bit of everything. They did visual effects and theme park things. And then I worked for animation at Laika. And after that, I worked for some tech companies. I feel lucky that I’ve tried a little bit of everything.


Can you talk about what it was like working for Laika on a stop motion feature as opposed to 3D animated projects?

I enjoyed working at Laika a lot, and the stop motion side of it was part of the reason. It was just so great to walk through hand-built sets when walking towards my desk and collaborate with so many extremely creative people, who do the kind of work very few others can do. Working with 3d printing was very exciting, and it was so cool to be able to hold the face you rigged in your hand after it was printed out.


Laika is a stop motion company, I’m surprised they need riggers. What kind of work did you do for them? 

I came in when they were working on Boxtrolls, but I mostly worked on Kubo and the Two Strings. They have a department called Graphic Prototyping Department and they work on just facial animation and facial rigging. So what happens there is that all the body is animated by hand, in a very classical stop motion way, but then the faces are animated in CG. Kind of the same way they would be animated in any other CG studio. All those faces that are animated CG are then printed. The old-school stop motion way would be to sculpt different faces and replace them on the character in the scene. But Laika is taking that a step further and what they’re doing is 3D printing those faces. So almost every frame they print out and place on the characters. That way it feels very seamless and fluid. If you look at the older stop motion films, you’ll see the facial animation is a bit choppy because they hand-sculpted all of those faces.

What kind of tools did you create there?

At Laika, I switched from doing rigging into doing more programming. I started there as a rigger but then went into the engineering department. So I was writing tools for 3D-printing-related pipelines. All of the tools I created related to how rigging is happening and how the models are being passed to the rigger and how the rig character is being passed to the animator. One of the tools helps pass information about the rig onto the servers so the rigging can happen on the farm. Some tools were for creating ways to automatically check for model intersection. A lot of things to help review the model before it gets printed, how we can rig it faster, or review the models before their animations. 


Who and/or what are some of your biggest inspirations in animation?

For technical work a lot of what we do is behind the scenes, and you realize the intelligence with which a tool or a rig is built only when you yourself work on a project. For that reason, most people that have inspired me are the people I’ve worked with. Seeing the amazing work that they contribute to a mutual project inspires new ideas and pushes me to learn more.


Do you need to be able to code in order to be a rigger or technical director?

It’s different per company, but nowadays in most cases - yes. You need to be able to create tools that would help with rigging. Which is why I’m happy to be teaching a Rigging Automation class at AnimSchool and help students learn those skills.


AnimSchool teaches modeling and rigging together in their Character Track program. Do riggers need to be able to model as well?

No, not really. It helps though. At some places, riggers do a lot of blendshape and corrective shape sculpting, with that it really helps to know modeling. I’m not very good at modeling so I'm an example of being on the more technical side of it. Animschool teaches modeling and rigging, but they also have a rigging automation class where we do all that tool writing.


Can you talk more about the Rigging Automation class?

I like this class a lot because I see how much students improve in that class and all the great work they do. In that class, students write a tool of their own design from the beginning to the end of the term. They work on the tool at home, and in class, we review how they’re working on it. It can be any tool they want, but it has to help automate some part of the 3D pipeline. Most choose to make an auto-rigger, which is a tool that automates the rigging of the character, but they can choose any other aspect as well. And in the class itself, we go through important programming concepts. So they don't need to know any programming when they start the class.  We talk a little bit about mel but mostly about python and we talk about all the concepts such as writing loops, variables, classes, functions, all those things they learn in that class. We do a lot of practice and small exercises in class to help them write their own tool. A lot of the tools people create in this class are really good tools. They can put them up on GitHub and then companies can notice those tools and bring them to their company. 

Do you need to know programming in order to take rigging classes at AnimSchool?

No, not at all. It’s not expected. If you know too much programming, you might be bored in the class. But If they know a little bit, that’s fine too. The concepts we learn are applicable to all parts of the 3D process. And it’s not just riggers who can benefit from the class, modelers and animators can too. There are cases where animators write tools for their company. It's a very valuable skill. 


You found rigging work outside of the animation industry. Can you talk about this more?

When I started I was the same way thinking it was just for animation, games or VFX. But that's actually a pretty small field, and there aren't enough animation companies for everyone. Other fields are very interesting. At the robotics company, we had a team of animators animate a  robot in Maya that was modeled and rigged in Maya. We then exported that animation onto the robot. My position there was tools engineer. So I wrote tools for maya to help animators create their animations and export their animations onto the physical robot. That was really fun for me because I never before thought about how rigging and scripting could be used to fill the gap between 3D and the real world. It was so much fun.

I understand that you are working in the tech industry now. Why did you switch? How does this differ from the animation industry? 

I used to work in robotics at my previous job, for the past two years I’ve been working at an AI company that creates realistic digital human characters. I switched because an opportunity came my way, and I wanted to try something new. It ended up being a great decision, working in tech is very exciting, and I have a chance to work with very innovative people from different industries. I definitely don't regret switching, but I don't think it's superior to the animation industry or vice versa….different things work for different people.


Were your skills from animation rigging transferable to your tech jobs?

A lot of the work I do is very similar, the differences are usually very specific to each project and company. A lot of the skills are transferable though because it's still working with the same software and there's still rigging and type of programming involved. 


What is your advice to students struggling to decide which industry (film/tv/games/other) to pursue?

There are some people who want to get into feature films or VFX. And there are some who just want a job and don't care where. I think both are fine. I think it's fine to have one goal in mind and strive for it, but it's important to remember that not meeting that goal may not be dependent on you, it may just be dependent on luck. It's good to have an open mind, but it's ok to have specific dreams.


What are some key concepts you try to emphasize to your students in your class?

I think it's important to be open to other ideas and different approaches. In my intro to rigging class, I teach them how to do it my way, but then when they go into intermediate rigging class and they learn it a different way, I don't want them to just stick to my way. People would come into my intermediate rigging class and they would come to me and be very stuck on how they were taught something differently in the previous class. I think it's important to see the different approaches and try them as well.

Also, I think one important thing, especially when starting a new job, is to understand that not everything will not be perfect at the studio. A lot of times when people start working they expect the big, fancy animation studio to have perfect tools and rigs, but it's not like that. If they're hiring you, they're probably in crunch time and just want to get the movie done. So of course there are going to be duct-taped things here and there. You can't have perfect code and rig. It's important to remember that when you go into a new studio or project, you shouldn't come in and say “This is not how I learned it in school.” 


What kind of person do you recommend going into rigging? Do they need to be more technical or creative?

I think anyone can go into rigging. And definitely, everyone should try it to see if that’s something they might enjoy. The combination of technical and creative usually works the best, but the bigger problem is that people often don’t see themselves as technical and get afraid of doing tasks that they might be good at if they were to learn the method or get more familiar with the software. I think if someone is just very technical and not artistic at all, they can pick up the artistic side and vice versa. It's good to have a bit of both, but I don't think it's a requirement.

Aside from the technical skills, what are some soft skills that are essential to being a good rigger?

It’s good to be flexible, to be able to adapt to different workflows at different workplaces. When people are less experienced they usually want to find some flaws in the new pipeline or new codebase they see. But with time I think you learn to adapt yourself, rather than try to change the project or workflow to be “the right” way.


What are your biggest demo reel tips for rigging and TDing?

Put your best work first and don’t make the reel too long. Also, it’s a good skill to have to be able to put together your work and make changes to your reel quickly, especially when starting out. That way you can cater your reel to different workplaces, and create new ones if companies ask for examples of other work.

With that said, we all have a finite time to spend on our work, and I would prioritize getting better at what you do, being rigging, animation or tools, than spending too much time working on your reel.


Is it easier to get a job as a rigger compared to an animator?

I think it is easier to get a job as a rigger, just because fewer people are doing it. Another good thing is that if you're getting into the programming side of rigging more, and you decide later on you want to switch industries, it’ll be a lot easier as a rigger than an animator. I think this discipline is a bit more flexible in terms of jobs.


What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to someone just starting out?

See the different methods with which different people work and try them out. If you rigged a character one way, try to create another rig a different way. This way you will try different methods and can see what works better for you. I would also say that it’s important to not be afraid to fail or be “bad” at something. We all start at the bottom and we all make mistakes. Students that I see succeeding are the ones who work on their projects despite the fallbacks, who are not afraid to redo the work, and don’t get discouraged by negative grades.

What has been your experience as a female in the animation industry?

You do definitely find yourself being in male-dominated groups. At my current job, I'm the only woman on my team. So that happens. I think even not that long ago, 5 -7 years ago, it used to be felt a lot more. I felt there was under the rug sexism going on, but now to be honest I'm not seeing it. Maybe I'm just lucky at my current job. I’m not seeing any different treatment; I'm being treated very well. It might also be because I'm getting higher in my experience. But yeah, I have to say I have noticed some of it, but I'm not really seeing it for myself right now. It doesn't mean it does not exist or that there are people who are not experiencing this mistreatment. We hear stories from various companies of course and that’s horrible and we should do everything we can to prevent that. But again that hasn’t been my experience recently. If we have more women, we’ll have a more diverse and more comfortable environment for everyone. In my experience, at teams and companies where you see more women and just diversity in general, it just creates more ideas and comfort for everyone.


Can you talk about your experience watching your student’s skills develop through AnimSchool?

That's my favorite thing! Just to see how people improve from knowing nothing to creating rigs and tools. That’s just great. I think it all boils down to how much time and effort people put in. The people who put in the most time and passion for something, improve a lot, and seeing that improvement is amazing. For rigging automation class,  people come in that know nothing about programming. They ask these questions that can be considered very simple, but it's always very good that they ask questions if they don't understand something. Then you see those people who were worse than their peers in the beginning, and by the end become better than everyone else.


Why should students that are interested in rigging and programming for animation attend AnimSchool?

I think AnimSchool is really good. All classes in general are a nice system where you can listen to the lecture. It Is nice that the lectures are being read for students so they can interrupt the instructor whenever they want. The deal I make with my students at the beginning of the term is that if you don't understand something, interpret me and ask the question. I tell them they can even interpret me mid-sentence. I think that's the big benefit of AnimSchool because other online schools use pre-recorded videos that you watch. And of course the reviews as well. We have one lecture class and one review class each week. Those reviews are very beneficial for students as well. It's a critique of their work. And then just the professionals who work at AnimSchool are just great too. I love to watch some of the videos from the other classes, it's just so educational.


How do you like teaching at AnimSchool?

I love it a lot. I didn't expect to like it as much as I do. I like to see how people grow in the class. I really like to learn things from students. Because when students have a question, it will make me think differently about a concept or design pattern that I'd normally do automatically. And they stop you and ask why you do it that way and it makes you pause and ask yourself “Yeah why do I do it this way?” Sometimes they even bring up that Maya has this new feature that I’ve never heard of, which then forces me to research and ask others about that feature and determine whether I need to talk to my students about this feature.


Where do you see your career going in the future? Do you think you’ll ever go back to animation or are you happier in the robots/engineering world right now?

Only time can tell! At the moment I’m very happy working in tech, but I am not opposed to going back to feature animation, games or VFX in the future.


Sign up today to learn from industry-leading animators like Daria in our online accredited courses (ACCSC). Apply today at animschool.edu She is currently teaching Rigging Automation and Intro to Rigging.


Follow the links below to learn more about Daria!

Reel

Instagram

AnimSchool YouTube (Daria is featured in How to Create Rig Controls and An In-Depth Guide to Maya Constraints)


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