Tea Time Animation Club at the Academy of Art University invited Joey Gilbreath, an alumni of the school and currently a fix animator at Pixar, to come and talk about his time as a student and about character modding with the Norman rig. There can be said to be two types of students. One is those that go through the program focusing on their thesis and develops a great animated short at the end and can go on to win awards. The other type are those who focus solely on their demo reels and their focus is purely on finding a job. Neither of them are a bad direction, just different. Joey falls into the second category. As Joey talked about his time as a student he passes on a lot of good advice. As many have said, grades do not matter, only your work does, make sure to focus on one things instead of spreading out too thin. Pick one class per semester to focus on to put out quality to work. Do things for yourself and let your learning process be organic for the school doesn't just hand everything over on a platter. Most importantly is to make friends as other students are the most valuable resource. Not only can you learn from them but they are also the best critics and people to brainstorm with.
Modding a rig can be very beneficial to a demo reel. Recruiters watch reel after reel of the same character rigs and those rigs have gotten bland. Sparking interest is very important in a reel as you have to catch someone's attention within the first 10 seconds or people may just move on. Having a modded rig gives you something different that no one has and lets others identify with your work as people tend to remember characters. Additionally, the modding process is pretty quick, Joey was able to do it within a weekend, and saves a lot of time of having to model and rig a completely new character. While there may be many models and rigs around on the internet, you may need something very specific that can't be found and this fast and easy way allows animators to be excited for an animation that they want to do and express themselves.
The modding of Norman was a very interesting process that works well and fast. Ideally the concept can be applied to any other rig. A separate body mesh is used, modeled to fit the body that the animator wants and then using a wrap deformer, wrapped onto the rig. To do any changes to the rig itself without breaking anything, a blend shape was used, particularly for the face and to fit the body of the rig to match the structure of the outer skin better. One thing to keep in mind though is to stay away from the eyes, mouth, and around the joints to not break anything as they tend to have a lot of sensitive controls around them. Another area to note is the feet when doing modifications are the feet; make them thinner or wider but keep the toe length and orientation the same as the controls on the foot such as the curls and pivots rotate off the top point.
Unfortunately this modding process is seemingly only fit for students who are working on animation solely and do not care about other areas of production. It is another one of those massive cheats, similar to using flat shaders on everything and rendering that along an occlusion pass, so that animation students can just work on focusing on animating individual shorts. Unless the modding is done very cleanly and very exact, there will be issues down the pipeline, in particular with lighting and rendering. Aside from Joey using a bunch of blinn shaders and applying textures directly onto faces, one such example of an issue would be the mustache and muttonchops that he demonstrated wrapping. From animation perspective it looks nice as the facial hair deforms along with the facial movements but the mustache on the upper lip is a separate piece of geometry from the muttonchops instead of being one mesh which will cause issues with shadows and the occlusion pass.