The Reality of 3D Character Model Rigging for Animation

Jessica “Psy” DeLacy, USV class of 2010, talks about her previous position at PDI and DreamWorks Animation as a Character TD (technical director).

She describes the role rigging plays in bringing characters to life this way, “When we get the models, they are entirely static, they don’t move on their own. In order for us to prepare them for animation, we have to build rigs and motion systems. This is everything down to the joints that are placed along an arm or leg, or IK/FK (inverse and forward kinematic) systems. But, more so than that, it’s deformation as well. It’s how things look when they move.” Understanding how a muscle flexes when an arm bends, for instance, is an essential step towards building these systems. “You get a little bit of muscle bulge on the bicep and when you twist the arm, that also needs to come across,” she says.

Rarely does a theater audience look at facial expressions or posture as a reflection of the underlying systems that make the character move as they do. Yet, it is is these movements that enables them to express their personality. As a child who loved Disney animated movies, Psy remembers telling her mom she was going to be an animator some day. When she went to her first movie with human characters, she had to be convinced that the characters were real people acting in front of cameras. 

Creating Systems for 3D Character Rigging that Flow Naturally

Psy shares her unique way of seeing the world and its underlying structures with USV students, some of whom reach out to her for career advice as they develop their own paths in 3D character model rigging for animation. “It’s all about creating those systems that can work together in harmony and look good. Most importantly, they must feel right. So, when a character moves you don’t think there is something funny about that, it just feels real, it feels right.”

Character Model Rigging
Image source:

In her spare time Psy has developed her passion for building custom bicycle frames, helping people find parts or more information on their bikes and sometimes making 3D parts herself. Her collection of bicycles illustrate her eyes for the structures that support movement.

Behind the Scenes of Rigging 3D Models for Animation

When she was a student, Psy refined her 3D model rigging skills for her portfolio by developing a rhinoceros that could move realistically and even wink. Subsequently she has developed more complex movement systems for animating animals such and penguins and chipmunks. “I guess riggers have a little bit of say in how we tell the story, but for the most part we are the ones who are building the tools and building these rigs and sending them out into the world,” she said. “We say, ‘go, go make great things’. That is how we contribute to it.”

Psy has recently moved back to the Bay Area, where she is working as a Simulation TD at Pixar Animation Studios.

Subscribe to the Newsletter