Career Advice: Working as a Global Head of Rigging in VFX and Feature Animation

Career Advice: Working as a Global Head of Rigging in VFX and Feature Animation

Vincent Touache is the Global Head of Rigging at ReDefine Studio, part of the DNEG family of companies. He sits down with us to share his journey and advice to aspiring technical artists looking for an exciting and challenging career like his own.

Image Courtesy of ReDefine Studios

Feature image courtesy of ReDefine Studio

Vincent Touache first studied illustration and graphic design, before joining Rookies Certified School, RUBIKA, in 2010 to learn 3D direction and computer graphics. After graduating in 2013 and a brief stint in Paris in lighting-compositing, he joined Studio 352 in Luxembourg as a technical supervisor.

Once his project was completed, he left to work in the UK (Aardman, then Framestore), where he started to focus exclusively on rigs. Vince then moved to Canada in 2016, where he lives and works, as head of the rigging department at Redefine studio, part of the DNEG family of companies.

In this article, Vincent shares his journey and advice to aspiring technical directors looking for an exciting and challenging career like his own.

The Journey

What's your current role and what does it involve?

I am currently working as Global Head of Rigging. This role covers a wide range of tasks, such as mentoring the team, coordinating all countries to work together, keeping an eye on new technologies, handling the hiring process, the bidding process, etc… In a nutshell, I make sure the rigging department runs smoothly!

Where do you work, and what type of projects are they involved with?

I’m currently working for a studio called ReDefine, which is a sister company of another studio called DNEG. We’re working on VFX and Feature Animation projects, sometimes TV series, so we do a bit of everything, really, with a strong focus on feature films.

Rock Dog 2. Image Courtesy of ReDefine Studio

When did you first realise you wanted to work in this industry?

You know, all kids like to draw. Then, they just stop. But some don’t, and that was the case for me! In parallel to my growing interest in Illustration (because at some point I realised I could actually make a living out of it!), I had a passion for computers and tech in general.

One day, my brother (who is an Illustrator) did a collaboration with RUBIKA (back then it was Supinfocom) and told me about this school where I could combine my love for illustration with my growing interest in computer science. I applied, and before the end of the first week, I knew I wanted to work in 3D!

Why did you choose to study at RUBIKA?

As mentioned, I wasn’t even aware of 3D schools, but my brother found out about RUBIKA through “Le Laboratoire d’Images”, a collaboration between artists and students, and knowing me better than anyone, he knew it was meant for me!

RUBIKA was already super famous back then, and they had this philosophy of creating storytellers more than technicians. It may sound a bit snooty, but I still think it’s a great approach and makes a significant difference once in an actual job.

How did you get your first big break?

Kind of randomly, I was working in Luxembourg as a technical supervisor, and got contacted by a studio in Bristol called Aardman Animation for a rigging position. I knew them and loved their work, and I was enjoying rigging more and more, so I gave it a try.

It turned out to be amazing, not only because of the project but also because of the insanely inspiring team.

Describe the journey you took into your current role?

I’m getting old, so I guess I’ll have to summarise that part! After 9 years of studies (illustration + CG studies at RUBIKA), I started working as a freelancer in lighting and nuke/flame compositing. Although it was very rewarding, I was missing something; the knowledge didn’t feel tangible enough, if that makes sense.

In parallel, I was already passionated by teaching, so when I got an offer from Studio352 in Luxembourg, to give a 2 week training for their teams (coming from a 2d background, with Ernest and Celestine or Song of the Sea), I put my lighting/compo activity on hold.

After those 2 weeks, they offered me a permanent position as a technical supervisor for 2 long films (Mullewapp: Eine Schone Schweinerei and Little bird Big Adventures), which was an incredible experience, and motivated me to change my path to something more technical!

Hence the next gig at Aardman, as a rigger exclusively, this time. Then, Aardman sent my contact to Framestore London, a VFX studio, where I also learnt a lot due to an incredible pool of talents, some of them being my friends now.

I then moved to Vancouver, at Method Studios, for a short amount of time, before joining Digital Domain in RnD. My girlfriend and I then decided to move to the brand new Dneg branch which opened in Montreal.

Then, Mikros Animation started the production of a Spongebob movie, which I could not miss, so I joined them, and it was a blast!

I finally moved back to DNEG, as HOD rigging for their ReDefine Branch.

Day in the life

Describe a typical day for you and your team?

I’m glad to say there is no typical day, really! Usually, my day involves a lot of meetings, one might say “too many”! Sometimes about a specific show, sometimes about our hiring strategy, we may have follow-up calls with the team, masterclasses, etc…

Usually, after 5:30/6:00pm, when things settle down, I get to do some rigging, prototype things, test new workflows to assess their efficiency for our needs, etc…

As for the team, it’s pretty straight-forward, they will get a specific task with a brief, and start working on it. Our department coordinators are here to assist them with the schedule and their deadlines, and if they feel stuck, or simply if there is an opportunity to take a bit more time to learn something cool, a lead would do some teaching!

What third-party and proprietary tools do you use on a daily basis?

As part of the DNEG family, most of our pipeline is actually made of proprietary tools, to such an extent that it would be hard to describe all of them even if I would be allowed to.

Autodesk Maya is just the bottom layer on top of which we build all our tools. Sometimes, we also use other smaller tools for specific needs, such as Ziva, or recently the excellent and very promising Ragdoll.

Those solutions have the great advantage of giving us an API to interact with, which is a must have if we want to integrate them seamlessly in our pipeline.

What does your workflow look like?

As a HOD, I don’t really deliver assets anymore, not from scratch at least. As a freelance rigger, however, this is still something I do. I usually try to get a proper brief. It sounds obvious, but it happens too often that the brief is not clear, and people don’t want to ask questions, which leads to the worst situation: we do RnD in rigging, which is slow and lacks reactivity.

What is more effective, is sitting with the client (whether it’s the director, the animator, or anyone else...) with a pen and paper, to agree on what we want, which usually gives much quicker results. It doesn’t have to be the final result, but at least we know where we’re going, and we don’t work for nothing.

Once the direction is set, the back / forth with modeling can start, to get what we need in rigging! Too often, modelers are just not aware of the rigging requirements (just like riggers are too often not aware of the anim requirements! ), so it is up to us, in rigging, to do some education with them.

On the technical side of things, I work with my own auto rigging system as well as my own toolbox. Like most autorigs, it is a modular system that allows me to build bipeds, quadrupeds, snakes, cars and whatnot. Sometimes I can deploy custom c++ deformers and nodes on the client server, but this is extremely rare.

Which departments and key people do you work closely with?

Of course, the first department that comes to mind is animation. Animators are our clients, and as such, we have to collaborate with them. The best scenario is when we have direct access to the Animation Director, who can tell us exactly what they will need and how. These requests might not fit every single animator’s needs, but serves a bigger purpose; for instance, the Animation Director can, on purpose, limit some deformations, in order to prevent more junior artists from going too easily off-model (that is, deforming a character so much that we don’t recognise it).

Besides the animation team, we also work hand in hand with modelers, usually to request some technical meshes or pieces, to straighten limbs of a character, etc… There is a gap between how an asset looks on screen and how it should look in order to be rigged. Oftentimes, clients approve a model that is not technically ready to be rigged, so we have to change it enough to be able to work whilst making sure it’s clear for the production the final result will look like what’s been approved by the client.

Yes and no! There are many emerging technologies out there drastically changing the way we work, from Unreal Engine making its way to VFX to all the AI technologies. As a head of department, it is my role to keep an eye on those technologies, via websites, networking or even conventions (such as, last month's, Siggraph Vancouver 2022).

No matter which tools or software we use, at the end of the day, the mathematics behind deforming objects is always the same.

One thing you’d never change about your job?

Having problems and having to solve them. It’s a never ending (and so rewarding) task!

But one thing you wouldn’t mind seeing changed is?

Sometimes it can get frustrating to operate in such a massive structure, spread across the globe. I guess it would be great to have a bit less inertia when trying to change things, but at the same time, it is because of our size that we can deliver such ambitious projects, so it’s a trade-off.

Career Advice

Is formal education essential for someone aspiring to do your job?

If you don’t plan on traveling, not necessarily, provided you have the discipline and passion to learn by yourself, without the emulation of classmates. If you do plan to travel, however, immigration can be a real pain if you don’t have any diploma, regardless of your actual level. Same goes with teaching: get a diploma if you want to teach.

Why would you recommend your school to others?

I guess the main reason would be that unlike other 3D schools, RUBIKA didn’t put too much emphasis on the technical side, instead they forced us to be creative, to sharpen our artistic eye.

Technique can be learnt, especially if you have someone above to teach you. But training your artistic sense can be a little bit more difficult in the context of an actual production.

How does your education complement your work?

On a personal level, I feel a lot of riggers are too focused on the technical aspect, and miss an artistic eye.

What I learnt in the Illustration school, and later at RUBIKA, is the idea of saving effort for what really matters, suggesting things instead of showing them, being creative about how you tell a story, how the final image looks like and how much impact it will have.

It may sound miles away from the reality of a film production, but I still try to have this approach of stepping back and thinking about what we want to show, and how we show it this way. It usually gives some good insights on how to achieve the task.

What do you wish you knew about the industry before you started?

It can be tricky to pick your first studio, for some reason you think it’s going to define what you will do for the next 20 years. This is completely wrong, and there are lots of bridges between studios, fields, departments, and so on. A good example is the famous “should I start in a big VFX studio as a super junior, or in a small studio but with more responsibilities?” There is no right answer, and both are totally valid, so do what you prefer!

Big studios have a (not always deserved) tendency to look shinier on your resumé, but it’s definitely not a problem to move from a small to a big company. Instead, pick whatever will make you learn faster, that is, what will pull you out of your comfort zone more easily! Small studios are usually better at this, in my opinion.

What tasks would you be typically asked to do as a junior artist?

Model updates, some skinning, etc… Those tasks share the same property of being technically easy to do, but depending on your level of implication, the result will be totally different. If you get some skinning to do, do it well. Don’t watch a video while doing it, instead try to understand exactly how skinning works, be serious about it, aim for perfection! Even if it’s not visible on screen, at least you practice and you show your lead you are reliable. Of course, it doesn’t mean you should take 3 months to deliver a skinned character, but you get the idea, take the task seriously! You may think you’re able to handle complex assets, but looking at someone doing it, and taking full ownership of it, are two different things!

What skills do you look for when hiring an artist?

Beside soft skills (like humility), I’m looking for a good balance between technicality and an artistic eye.

Too often, especially with juniors, I see a lot of fancy tech for no reason, without taking into account the speed of the rig or the need for animators.

Instead, I want to see how technique can improve the user experience for animation, how it can let animation produce super appealing poses with minimum manipulation. At the end of the day, it’s all about animators’ UX, kind of the famous Steve Jobs’ “You’ve got to start from the customer experience and work backwards to the technology”.

100% Wolf Official Trailer. Work by ReDefine done in conjunction with Flying Bark Productions and De-Fi Media.

What skills seem to be missing all too often?

Unfortunately, skinning is too often skipped.

What mistakes do you see artists making when applying for jobs?

Unfortunately, they sometimes forget what rigging is about. Ultimately, it is about producing appealing deformation made available to animators via smart and intuitive controls. Having 1 control per vertex doesn’t help! Likewise, having a super fancy puppet system, with a poor deformation, is missing the point. Another pretty common mistake is that juniors tend to show every single controller in their reel. As a consequence, they end up with a 10min showreel and/or crank up the speed, so you don’t see anything. If you demonstrate that you know how to create an ik setup with soft IK, snap to pole vector, etc, don’t spend half of your reel showing that you know how to do an FK chain.

Describe a project brief that you’d recommend artists create for their portfolio?

One simple asset! Could be a character, a cat if you prefer, but something simple. Then, make it as close as you can from perfection!!! Spend time on the deformation, think about the controllers you do, why, and how!

Describe your attitude towards your job?

My job is my passion. I work 10 hours/day when things are quiet, and continue working on personal projects in the evening and weekends. From time to time, I teach remotely, during the night, and work during the day. In a nutshell, I love what I’m doing.

Where do you get your inspiration from and how do you implement it into your work?

I’m not much into rigging resources or tutorials anymore, but more pure mathematics. Past a certain point, you realise all we do is math, regardless of the DCC we use, so if you make your way around those mathematical concepts, it becomes incredibly powerful to apply them into Maya, Houdini or whatnot. E.g. why use a motionPath to attach joints on a curve, when you realise a curve is nothing but a bunch of chained linear interpolations - you can bypass it to get directly to the result!

Furthermore, I’m lucky enough to have access to many amazing books via Montreal's public library, from real time collision detection to machine learning with python or mathematics for computer graphics.

Finally, I also keep an eye on Siggraph papers and implement some of them from time to time, just like I keep an eye on LinkedIn and see what other people are up to, even if nowadays LinkedIn tends to be flooded by recruiters posting animal rescue videos and other off-topic/political content...

If you could give one piece of advice to artists starting out, what would it be?

Be humble. As a junior, no one is asking you to change the 3D industry. Instead, people expect you to acknowledge your weaknesses, to show motivation to become better. Watch and learn.

Secondly, keep your showreel short! A first reel should not be more than 1 min, show me that you are critical about your own work!

If you could go back in time to when you first started out, what advice would you give yourself?

Don’t stress out about your professional path, just do whatever you want to do whenever you want to do it! If you are passionate about it, it will work out!

You can learn more about the projects Vincent has worked on at IMDB and LinkedIn, and join him on Discord (French only).