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The secret backbone of animation

Just like in real life, every character in a 3D game has a hidden skeleton

Early this year, the internet was taken over by a very menacing, very tall woman. Gamers can’t get enough of Lady Dimitrescu, and the answer why is obvious. We’re all big rigging fans!

Just like in real life, every player character, enemy, or NPC in a 3D game has a secret skeleton. Unlike real life, probably, these skeletons are made by artists in a 3D graphics software – artists like Sol Brennan, who was a technical artist-slash-rigger on Marvel’s Spider-man.

“It’s fairly safe to say if something’s moving,” they say, “And it’s moving in a more dynamic way, or needs an animator’s hands in creating it, it’s being driven by a rig.”

A rig contains a series of rigid, interconnected structures, accurately called bones, as well as control points and data about how everything should move in relation to each other. Almost every animation in a 3D game relies on a rig for manipulation. Rag dolls, which rely on physics-based procedural animation, still use a rig to help the body maintain a roughly humanoid shape, even though it gets all wobbly at the joints. Even motion-captured footage requires a lot of fine detailing, so to make a game actually look good, somebody has to finesse those animations individually.

That’s where the rig comes in.

“Most game studios will have a rigging tool set that they built, or maybe that they bought and pay for, that auto-generates a lot of very common components,” Sol tells us. “There’s certain systems that can be used over and over.”

Reusing rigs can save game developers a lot of time and labor, but there are some big drawbacks to relying on them. Watch the video above to learn more about just how much rigs affect character designs.