Rigging: character animation is in the bones of rigging software

A key early step in skeletal animation, rigging applies a set of “bones” to a 2D or 3D character model. When animated, the bones move with each other in a hierarchy of realistic motion.

An example of character rigging, or skeletal animation, shown on a computer screen.

Model and image by Jonas Thornqvist

What is rigging?

Rigging in animation is the technique of applying a skeletal framework of “bones” to the underpinnings of either a 2D character or a 3D model. Each bone can be animated and affects its connected pieces in a hierarchy of movement.

A game character is created using rigging, or skeletal animation.

Image courtesy of Santa Monica Studio

How does rigging work?

A rigging artist adds a skeleton-like structure of connected bones to the inner workings of a 2D or 3D model using model rigging software. For a character, there may be arm and finger bones, a spine, and so on, but non-character models such as vehicles, trees, and other objects can be rigged too.


Animators can use keyframing to move the rigged bones’ position, rotation, etc., thus animating the rigged model. The connected bones of a rigging are in a hierarchal relationship to each other, which helps simplify the work of animation. For example, the rotation of a shoulder joint will affect the movement of the upper arm, elbow, forearm, etc.  


When working with 2D rigging animation software, the rigged bone structure and movements will be simpler for a 2D character, but the concept is essentially the same as when rigging more complicated and flexible 3D characters in 3D rigging software.


Rigging is one of the first steps in skeletal animation. There are other types of animation, but 3D skeletal animation has become ubiquitous in every medium using animation, such as movies, TV, video games, and advertising.


Rigging artists may create hundreds of control points for a complex model based on how they want the character to move. However, taking additional steps in character rigging software will ensure more realistic animations. The technique of weight painting interprets how vertices within the larger 3D mesh of a character model will respond to the movements of discrete bones in a rig. Model rigging software can apply weight painting automatically, but riggers should fine-tune the automated weight scale for best results.


Character rigs also often need inverse kinematics, which is a tool in rigging software that keeps jointed bone clusters like arms and legs pointed correctly when a character, for example, walks or throws something. Finally, realistic movement requires that the artist applies some constraints or restrictions to some of a character rig’s bones, so that, for instance, a certain bone can only move in one direction.


With all the work required just to set up a character model for animation, it’s nice to know that rigging software can save and copy entire riggings to be reused or modified for similar characters, the same way that animations can be reused or modified to save time.

Benefits of character rigging software

With character rigging software, VFX artists and animators can set up hierarchal control systems over the 3D model’s movements, making animation easier.

Animate through bones

Character rigging allows animation through the “bone” movements of a skeletal structure, rather than defining a polygonal mesh’s animation by movements of individual vertices. 


Bone connectivity

When set up well in 3D rigging software, a character model’s connected skeletal parts will move together, according to a programmed bone hierarchy.


Further realism through limitation

Whether it’s a character, object, or another kind of 3D model, rigging software can set specific constraints to individual bones in a rig for more realistic movement.


Weight painting

Rigging software includes weight painting, which assigns weight information that determines how much influence a bone in a rig has on a vertex of a 3D mesh and contributes to more realistic character movement.


Unburden animators

Character rigging software sets up a 3D model to move according to a hierarchy of bone structure, freeing animators from detailing every tiny character movement so they can focus on the bigger picture.


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Frequently asked questions (FAQs) on rigging

What’s the difference between animation and rigging?

Rigging sets up a skeletal structure for a 3D model, which creates a hierarchy of movement for the 3D model’s animation. Rigging makes up only a part of the animation workflow. With a character’s skeletal rig set up in model rigging software, animators then use keyframing to apply movements to the model’s “bones,” such as programming their position, rotation, and so on. The rigging’s hierarchical structure helps determine how some bones react when other bones move.

What is skeletal animation?

Artists use the term “skeletal animation” interchangeably with the term “rigging.”


Skeletal animation is a 3D animation technique that endows the 3D model of a character or an object with a set of interconnected “bones,” which are then animated. Bones in the skeleton can have weight assigned to them to determine how much influence they have over a 3D model's vertices, and one bone’s movement will determine how other connected bones move as well, making animation more realistic and less laborious.


Skeletal animation is a technique used by artists working on your favorite films, TV series, and games.

Do animators do rigging?

Visual artists may learn all or most 3D animation techniques, but whether the same person works on both rigging and animation depends on the individual job.


Big-budget productions like feature-length 3D animated movies tend to use specialists in each area, such as rigging, animating, modeling, compositing, texturing, etc. For more generalist jobs, a single 3D artist will need to do more than one thing, such as both rigging and animating.


Some rigging software also includes the option to perform automatic rigging. However, most professional productions would want to tweak the automated rigging for best results.

What is the purpose of rigging in 3D animation?

In 3D animation, rigging serves to make a 3D model easier to animate with realistic movement. Rigging refers to the creation of a skeleton-like series of “bones” within a 3D model using rigging software.


With the rig in place, the rigging artist can use inverse kinematics to tie the movement of one bone to the successive movements of connected bones. Weight painting is also used to ensure that when the rigging’s bones move, the outer mesh of a 3D model also moves and deforms in realistic ways.


These techniques have helped make rigging an essential part of most contemporary 3D animated productions.

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