Jen Bahan is Rigging Supervisor at Tau Films where she leads rigging and technical animation teams on projects that include feature films and themed entertainment. Her career started in game development at High Voltage Software and Midway Games before she moved to San Diego to lead technical art on console games. She has supervised rigging and technical animation (cloth/hair sim) teams on Oscar nominated projects such as, Golden Compass (2008) and Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) at Rhythm & Hues (R&H) Studios. She was also on the rigging team at Blue Sky Studios for projects, such as, The Peanuts Movie (2015) and Ice Age: Collision Course (2016). Jen is also on the Rigging Faculty at JHI.
Are there distinct differences in the rigging workflow for all-CGI-animated shows versus Live-Action/VFX projects?
At Blue Sky and Sony, the focus was on getting smooth deformations and silhouettes. Riggers need to exercise their artistic skills and be decent sculptors.
VFX projects rely more on solving technical problems. How do we get the ticks and twitches, life, and grit that help the audience forget a character was generated on a computer? Riggers must be pipeline savvy, script or program, and study a lot of anatomy. I remember losing a lot of sleep during Land of the Lost (2009) trying to figure out how to take camera data and a CG-animated dinosaur to drive a machine on set that Will Ferrell could actually ride. The payoff was totally exhilarating.
Land of the Lost (2009). © Universal Pictures
How has the process of character/creature rigging evolved since you first started in this discipline? For example, has performance capture affected the way you rig?
Back then, we barely had a user interface, and we walked uphill both ways in the snow. Of course I’m joking, because I started in the late 90’s. We were already using House of Moves for motion capture for video games. The biggest advances in VFX seemed to come about when people like Michael Comet started creating muscle systems, and big studios like Rhythm and Hues developed skin-slide techniques. Now the expectation is that an animator can work while seeing a close representation to the final shot. That means higher resolution geometry, effects like ballistics in scenes…none of that stuff was available when I was starting out.
Happy Feet (2006). © Warner Bros. Pictures
From your standpoint, has Technical Animation/Character FX (CFX) been the appropriate discipline to transition to Character Rigging and why?
I think that’s a recent trend, but it’s a fallacy. Riggers come from all different backgrounds and are drawn to rigging. I don’t think rigging should ever be considered a step up from technical animation/CFX. Both disciplines are equally needed, and a rigger might wish to one day become a technical animation/CFX TD. Or, if you’re like me, you go both ways. I enjoy the pain and panic of working in shot production, but I also love the problem solving and range of experience needed to rig. I think that working in technical animation/CFX makes me a better rigger, and rigging makes me more intimate with the technical animation/CFX.
Snow White and the Huntsman (2012). © Universal Pictures
What related creative and technical pursuits helps a rigger stay on top of the game?
Life drawing; coding; yoga; photography; late-night forum browsing
You are supervising a global team of riggers and technical animators? What are the benefits and downsides of having a team that is dispersed worldwide?
It means that we personally work around the clock and at odd hours. On the bonus side, someone is always on-line working on tasks, so we always have resources. I travel a lot, which i like, but it’s very taxing on family life.
My view of people has definitely shifted. I’m originally from a very small town with a distinct value system. The more I visit other parts of the world, the more I understand that cultures aren’t correct or incorrect, they’re just different.
The Peanuts Movie (2015). © 20th Century Fox
Any word of advice for folks who are aspiring to be character riggers?
You have to be absolutely passionate — the way a doctor wants to save lives and an archaeologist needs to dig up history. Also, a little math and fine arts help.
- Interview by Shish Aikat