Gaming Character Rigger: Career Paths Earnings and More

Character Rigger: Career Paths Earnings and More

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Character riggers are some of the first people to bring a character and a story to life when it comes to animation. They are often behind the scenes but are key parts of making the character someone is watching or playing feel realistic. 

This article breaks down what a character rigger does, what their job looks like, and what steps to take to get hired as a character rigger.

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What is Character Rigging?

Character rigging has a few different names. You may also be referred to as a rigging artist, a rigging technical director, a technical animator, or a technical artist. If you want to specifically work on characters, you will want to make sure that word is somewhere in the job title or description. 

A character rigger is part of the animation team. They handle some of the first parts of animation, specifically setting up the movements and structure of a character. They take the 3D still models done by modelers and set up the structure. This includes the facial skeleton, limbs, and even body movements. 

They may also be in charge of setting up key movements, such as nervous tics or habitual movements. Character rigging specifically refers to the movements of characters, but there are other forms of rigging. Anything that will move on screen needs a rigging system to ensure it moves correctly. 

One thing to note about character rigging is that it is a constantly improving field. To keep up with trends, a character rigger must be willing to always be learning and take steps to learn about new advancements in their field all the time. 

What Does a Character Rigger Do?

A character rigger is a person on the team that makes the framework of a model. This is the structure that the animation goes on top of and sets up the shape, height, structure, and movement of a character. 

This structure, while never actually seen, is the base for good character design. They are used in movies, games, and ads to make sure that a character moves correctly and fluidly so that the immersion isn’t ruined for the watcher or person playing the game. 

Essentially, a character rigger makes the bones and muscles of the character before someone applies the skin on top. If the bone structure isn’t right, the character will come across as odd or unrealistic. 

Even for characters that aren’t human or realistic, such as animals walking on two legs, or a mix of two different species, there has to be a semblance of realism, or customers won’t be satisfied and the game or movie will seem cheap and poorly thought out. 

This is why character rigging is such an important part of the design, even if it is something that the client or customer will not directly see. 

Character riggers, Modelers, and Character animators Comparison Table

Character RiggerModelerCharacter Animator
Career PathAt least a four-year degree in animation with a specialization in rigging where possible, an internship, and a portfolioA four-year degree in animation, internships, experience, and a portfolioA minimum of a four-year degree in animation, with experience or a master’s in animation being preferred. 
Job DescriptionDesigning the bone structure for 3D models Developing tools and code to make animation easier Making movements of characters realistic and fluid Eliminating glitches or inconsistencies in character movementsInterpret abstract ideas into character designs Ensure consistency of UV mapping Produce models based on reference materials providedMaking a character come to life Identifying key parts of the story and scenes Turning storyboards into reality
Skills Proficiency in physics and math Extensive knowledge of animation, coding, and anatomy Communication and collaboration abilities Ability to stay organized Experience in common animation programs, language, and softwareUnderstanding f texture, color, and form Strong polygonal subdivision modeling skills Proficiency with a basic understanding of depths, physics, scale, and proportion Understanding of the human and animal body such as anatomyExperience with 3D models and rigs Understanding of acting, cinematography, and visual storytelling Advanced concept of all visual languages
ToolsPerl Java C++ MotionBuilder 3D Studio Max UNIX Operating SystemBlender Maya RenderManHoudini MariMaya LightWave Unreal Engine MotionBuilder
PayUp to $100,000Up to $180,000Up to $110,000

Character Rigger Job Description

When you look at the job descriptions of a character rigger, you may notice that they all ask for something slightly different.

However, there are some common job descriptions across all of them. To have the best chance of getting hired, it is best that you have some experience with these job responsibilities. 

  • Creating joints as movement points for rotating and pivoting
  • Testing and designing of character rigs
  • Facial rigs
  • Drawing sketches to show key movements of a character
  • Designing bone structures for all sorts of models, but especially 3D models
  • Tracking bugs and errors and troubleshooting where necessary
  • Working with other parts of animation teams like modelers and animators to create characters and bring them to life
  • Always research new developments when it comes to character production
  • Developing tools and plug-ins for the optimization of animation
  • MEL scriptwriting for specific animation requirements
  • Making believable, fluid, and glitch-free character movements and expressions

Character Rigger Skills

There are a few skills that character riggers need. One of the most important is some experience in a variety of different scripting languages. They also will likely need an anatomical understanding of both people and animals, as well as the imagination to mix the two. 

Some other skills that a character rigger may need are:

  • Understanding of the basic laws of physics
  • Understanding basic animation so they can test out their designs
  • Understanding of anatomy and natural movements for a variety of animals and humans, and what a mix of the two may look like
  • Proficiency in mathematics
  • Attention to detail
  • Communication and collaboration skills
  • The ability to stay organized at all times
  • Understanding of how weight, flesh, limbs, and gait affect movements

Types of Character Rigging

Character rigging is a very specific job, so there aren’t many types of character rigging jobs out there. There are some slightly different job descriptions though between character riggers.

For example, you may be in charge of more animalistic characters, more realistic characters, or completely new styles of characters. Some people even specialize in people with different structures than are common, like those with wheelchairs, missing limbs, cyber technology, or deformities. 

There are different types of rigging as well. While character rigging is one type, some riggers may be in charge of vehicles, trees moving in the breeze, or background movements. 

Character Rigger Software and Tools

A character rigger often uses a combination of various software and tools throughout their career. Common software for character riggers includes:

  • Maya
  • 3D Studio Max
  • Blender
  • Advanced Skeleton
  • Perl
  • MEL
  • MotionBuilder

How to Become a Character Rigger?

To become a character rigger, you will want a portfolio that shows you can do rigging. Most employers don’t care about a bachelor’s degree, though getting a certification in certain software and tools will boost your chances.

Generally, a bachelor’s in animation is the most common, but there are some colleges that offer a specialization in character rigging or at least character animation that may be worth checking out. 

Character Rigger Career Path

To become a character rigger, there are some specific steps in your career path you must take. Since it is such a specialized career, you have to make sure you are working on experience in that specific type of rigging. 

In college, this can be hard unless you find one that offers a specialization in character rigging. For most people, you will get a bachelor’s in animation or a related field, and work on specializing in character rigging during your own time. 

During college, or after, you want to look at internships as well. While finding ones specifically for character rigging are ideal, you can also look at other forms of rigging or just basic animation. As you do well in your internship, you may also be able to ask for more specific practical applications to increase your skills with character rigging. 

You will want to practice daily, whether at work or on your own. Work on practicing essential skills and improving specifically your character rigging skills. As you make products you are proud of, you will add them to your portfolio. 

Once your portfolio is impressive enough, you can start applying for jobs. While you want the majority of your portfolio to be examples of character rigging, you can also add some examples of your other experience with animation and rigging to show you have a wide range of skills. 

How Much Does a Character Rigger Make?

At an entry-level position, a character rigger makes around $25,000 a year. While this isn’t all that much, a lead character rigger has the potential to make closer to $100,000. Since it is a fairly specialized field, the pay can increase quite a bit if qualified people are in demand.