Nexus Productions rely on Morph-O-Matic to create award winning animated ads campaign.

Nexus Productions rely on Morph-O-Matic to create award winning animated ads campaign.

Nexus Productions rely on Morph-O-Matic to create award winning animated ads campaign.

Nexus Productions rely on Morph-O-Matic to create award winning animated ads campaign.

Nexus Productions rely on Morph-O-Matic to create award winning animated ads campaign.

Nexus Productions rely on Morph-O-Matic to create award winning animated ads campaign.

Nexus Productions rely on Morph-O-Matic to create award winning animated ads campaign.

Nexus Productions rely on Morph-O-Matic to create award winning animated ads campaign.

Nexus Productions rely on Morph-O-Matic to create award winning animated ads campaign.

Nexus Productions rely on Morph-O-Matic to create award winning animated ads campaign.

Nexus Productions rely on Morph-O-Matic to create award winning animated ads campaign.

Nexus Productions rely on Morph-O-Matic to create award winning animated ads campaign.

Nexus Productions rely on Morph-O-Matic to create award winning animated ads campaign.

Nexus Productions rely on Morph-O-Matic to create award winning animated ads campaign.

 Di-O-Matic.com > Press > Success Stories  

Behind the scenes with Luis San Juan, character rigger

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Once again, Di-O-Matic tools are used by an Oscar-nominated studio to bring amazing CG characters to life. We had a unique opportunity to sit down with Luis San Juan, character rigger extraordinaire. In the following pages Luis reveals in details his take on facial rigging techniques and share with us the character animation pipeline used at Nexus Productions for their latest commercial for the International Olympic committee: All Together Now.

As an accomplished freelancer, could you tell us about the different studios that have employed you in recent years?

Luis: I have been freelancing for the most part of my professional career. Working as a 3d artist for the past 9 years, I did start with a more generic position doing modeling, lighting, texturing and rigging, a bit of everything really. Quickly though I put my focus on my Character TD role which brought me, last years, to creating Pipelines and custom tools. Amongst the important studios I have worked for in my career are Nexus Productions, Keytoon Animation studios and Ilion Animation studios.

Nexus Productions, was quite challenging but had a great working environment. The amount of CG artists working on commercials varies quite a lot depending on the projects. I have worked there the longest in my career and the great thing about Nexus is you end up working with lots of different directors with different styles.

Keytoon is a nice studio in my home town of Valencia, Spain, where I had a great time. Most of the projects when I worked there were for the Unites States and always put great focus on characters from design, modeling, rigging to animation. Keytoon has a really talented crew; you always feel part of the team.


Facial mask rig in action at Keytoon.

Ilion is the company behind Planet51. I worked there for 6 months, during the preproduction stages of the movie, working on the rig system for bipedal characters and the facial animation system that was used on the feature. I had a great time working in a feature film environment, quite different from commercials. It opened my eyes to a different way of approaching a production and to the importance of a good pipeline. During that time Juan Solis was the Character Development Supervisor and we worked together for the prototype of the facial animation setup, Juan introduce me to a plugin he had come across working at Blur Studio named Morph-O-Matic, I loved the tool and since then used it in various projects throughout my career.


Autodesk: exclusive behind the scene look at Planet 51.

As of January 2010, I have been working at The Mill, in London, where a couple of very interesting projects are in the works, and I am enjoying my new working environment using Softimage and Maya.


 

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International Olympic Committee: All Together Now

As a rigger you are always faced with a number of challenges, how would you describe your experience with the production of the International Olympic Committee: All Together Now ?

Luis: The IOCís "All Together Now" was an interesting project. Directed by FX & Matt and created at Nexus Productions. I supervised the character setup and worked a lot with the modelers David Fleet and Andrew Hickinbottom to get a good topology for the bodies and the faces.

Good topology and the correct deformations were fundamental to achieving the results we needed.

Typically we will model a few key facial morphs to make sure we can obtain the desired face pose then, if we are happy with the pose, we will later elaborate a more complex facial rig for this pose is to make sure the character is going towards the right direction. These key face poses are usually; a frown, a big smile or an O shape trying to put a face in the most extreme poses and making sure it will behave nicely. Once this is achieved we move on to rigging.

Since this project was on a tight schedule, we had to develop the character rig in stages, each character went through several versions as we where; tweaking the skin, adding controls, improving facial animation, So we needed an initial rig early on to start working as soon as possible and we will keep making new versions as the project progresses. To update each character rig †efficiently custom tools were developed for us and allowed us to update the rigs and load the animations each time very quickly.


Behind the scenes: All Together Now

We started focusing on the body rig of the main character, for the body rig we used one of Brad Nobleís rigs, Brad used to work for Nexus productions, and he starting developing his rig system when he was working for Nexus, later he went back to Australia where he continued with his rig project .We have collaborated together frequently in recent years. His rig is a really complete cartoon rig that suited the job perfectly. On top of the rig we run our own script to make changes and to make the rig work with the tools and pipeline of the studio.

We used another tool, created by Matt Clark one of our fellow freelancers at Nexus, which allowed a good fast automatic skinning for a starting animation and proxy version of the mesh. (Sliced mesh linked to the rig for having a quick frame rate). The skinning was improved later and we used skin morph to model correction shapes where we needed in the models, mainly hips, elbows, knees and wrists.

Later we focused on facial rigs. I prefer a nice UI that makes animating easier, so the UI we used was a mask to select controls for the eye brows, the jaw, lips, lip corners and animate them as you would move them in reality. So if you grab a lip corner and move it on the side it will move the corner of the mouth to the side. I like each icon to be quite graphic so the user is not confused with what he is grabbing.

We don't model morphs for expressions or phonemes, we model each morph to move a certain area of the face, normally imitating the movements of the muscles. And for certain areas including eye brows and lids or lips we have a main control to animate that area and micro-controls to be able to change the shapes of the area.

To work quickly we had a naming convention for the morphs that allowed us to connect them directly to the UI, connecting each area separately. So we could focus on desired areas, or keep adding more morphs to the rig in stages, particularly in this commercial we focused on the eyes and brows area first, because a few shots where showing only that part of the face, then later we added more morphs for the rest of the face.

Apart from the normal rigging, the commercial is full of ropes which the characters are interacting with, sometimes more than one character at a time. So I developed an automatic rig for ropes and the animators where able to create and customize the ropes they needed for each shot without the help of modellers or riggers. This was vital if we wanted to get the job done in time.

We also used a custom tool for constraints, since the characters grab and drop ropes all the time, they even grab each others.

This custom constrain could be saved and reloaded every time the character was changed. The tool was very easy to use and allows re-timing and key frame editions by the animators. For the last year it has become the standard for constraining at Nexus.


Your facial rigging technique is very graphic but not what we could call very common. What are the advantages of your mask rigging technique?

Luis: I prefer a nice UI that makes animating easier, the mask is quite graphic and is obvious as to what each control does.We have controls for each part of the face, jaw, lips corner of the mouth, cheeks, eye bag, eyes, eyebrow...

Each control can be moved, rotated, moved and rotated or even scaled! This translates directly on the face mesh, so the relationship between the mask and the face is very fluid and animators feel comfortable with that.

If you grab one of the lip corners and move it on the left it will move the corresponding corner of the mouth to the left. I like each control to be graphically self explanatory so no one is confused with what they are manipulating. I am keener on using this kind of UI as opposed to a long list of parameters.


All Together Now: Facial mask rig in action.

A main control is assigned for each area. With it you can move and rotate large sections of morphs and create poses, then you can use the micro controls and add more detail to them, to give the subtlety that is so important in animation.

If you want to bring your expressions to the limit, most of the time you will want to mix a few morphs together driven by the controllers. This will create problems in the mesh, intersection, pinches...etc. This lead us to create a third morph to fixes the problem. This third morph is what I call a Binomial morph; it launches itself without having to be animated and can react to the values of two or more controllers. A complex rig will have a lot of binomials but thanks to its auto-launching nature, animators concentrate on creating good poses with no interruption.

For the modelers or Character TD working with face rigs, a naming convention was created for the morphs, which allowed us to connect them directly to the UI.

The UI is driven by connections; you can connect each area separately. This allows us to focus on certain areas specifically, and add morphs depending on each characters needs. Fully developing a complex facial rig for each character would mean a lot of time spent on something that can change at any minute, so scalability is the key to the efficiency of our UI.


In todayís CG industry where production schedules keep getting shorter. How important was the efficiency of the pipeline and choice of team mates for this production?

Luis: This partcular job was set on a tight schedule, so we had to plan it very carefully. The total time frame was around 12 weeks, from planning and design to the complete movie. I was quite involved in the setup of the pipeline, it was setup in a way where models and characters where XREF objects, so an artist could change a model in one file only and it would get updated in each scene that used the character. This kind of time saving was essential. The pipeline was included the following tools: Zbrush, 3ds max, Vray, Morph-O-Matic, Photoshop, After Effects and Adobe Premiere.

For this job we needed a team of all rounders, two character modellers, two lighters, two animators, two environment modellers and texture artists, two comp'ers, 2 riggers including me and another rigger to help for a few days, at the peek of the job.

I was fortunate enough to work with some truly amazing artists including David Fleet, Andrew Hickinbottom, Michal Firkowski, Patrick Kraft, Nico Domerego, Jose Maria Andres Martin, Melanie Climent, James Wilson and Eoin Coughlan.

How many characters did you rig?

Luis: Well, there where 6 main characters and 12 background characters with less resolution as the crowds and to interact with the backgrounds. Apart from that there where also animals like bison, camels, birds, and vehicles to rig!

   

Each of them went through different versions. We started with an initial rig, a quick skin and proxy mesh for the initial animation; we updated each of them to a better version with a good skinning and skin morph to achieve a nice deformation. Later we got more versions with facial animation masks and we kept updating them with more face controls or new morph as the shots will needed.

So the main characters went through at least 4 revisions each, give or take one or two more depending on changes by the animators.


What role did Morph-O-Matic play in your production?

Luis: At Nexus we systematically use Morph-O-Matic for productions requiring facial animations such as several campaigns for Coca-cola and Electronic Arts: The Sims 3. Morph-O-Matic allowed us to achieve the quality we needed for the facial animations while focusing on the artistic part of it. We used it because of all its advantages over morpher. It is always important to be able to customize your tools to match different productions. Its connection with maxscript enables us to do that in spades.


I have also used Hercules on other jobs for Nexus Productions, probably one of the most important, was a title  sequence for  the  Pink Panther movie  staring Steve Martin  which features Pink Panther in 3D for the first time.

The difficulty with that particular project was that we needed to keep the volume and have jiggle on the muscles in a few shots.


Animated Pink Panther title sequence

The reason why I used Morph-O-Matic is because it allowed us to focus on the artistic side of the job and not worry about the technical aspect of the job. Morph-O-Matic has the advantage of higher speed for the animators, and for the riggers it has all the option you would normally need plus the ones you always wished morpher had.

It can extract all the morphs back to the scene, even the progressive ones. This gives you the freedom to delete targets and recover them only when needed, which keeps the setup scenes very light. This lets you to come back to edit a specific Morph Target if needed.

Morph-O-Matic can have progressive morphs in positive and negative values. That is very helpful, imagine a morph that can control the jaw moving up and down, to achieve this in morpher you have to use two morphs and build expressions in the wiring. In Morph-O-Matic you have this by default.

Apart from other features, the access to Maxscript is much more powerful and allows you to create custom tools more efficiently. As a TD I always want to have total control of automated tasks.

I want to use Morph-O-Matic on every job with a complex facial animation and I have recommended it to every company I have worked for.

Many Technical Directors like to have control over the plug-ins they implement in the pipeline, and a lot of them want to develop codes to implement the tools they need. Most of them donít rely on 3rd parties. I am always proactive in the development of new solutions, but I firstly look for commercial software that can do the job and evaluate their strength and weaknesses. I prefer to develop tools that are not available but are important to the pipeline. Normally if I choose a 3rd party software for my pipeline, I make sure they have great technical support and are keen to changes, being part of the beta testing always helps.

In the case of Di-O-Maticís Morph-O-Matic; it is simply a great tool with everything I need †and more, creating my own one would take weeks and I would rather spend my time making other tools we need instead.


What can you tell us about the implementation of Morph-O-Matic in your pipeline?

Luis: There is almost no learning curve in Morph-O-Matic, I watched the tutorials videos and had a quick chat with another freelancer whom had used it before and that was enough to understand it. Most of the freelancers and animators I have worked with got really comfortable with it the first day they used it.

The help file for maxscript is well documented and allowed us to fit Morph-O-Matic in our pipeline very easily as we always have to customize our tools for different jobs. Apart from that, I have to say the staff at Di-O-Matic, are always great with support, they listened to what we needed and delivered it.

Di-O-Matic products are really efficient tools that allow us to focus on the artistic side and not the technical side. Morph-O-Matic has all the option you would expect from a morph-based solution but allows a lot more freedom. Every job I work with complex facial animation I use Morph-O-Matic and I would recommend it to any company.


Di-O-Matic would like to thank Nexus Productions for granting permission to do this interview and consenting to share so much behind-the-scene information! For more information on Nexus Productions please contact jobs@nexusproductions.com


   
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