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Creating a Facial Gym: Rigging Exercise

Armen Pamokdjian talked about his recent Facial Gym project and shared basic rigging workflow to help you get started.


Hi, my name is Armen Pamokdjian, and I'm a Character Modeler and Rigger. I'm currently in my third and last year at Bellecour Ecole in Lyon, France. 

I specialize in character modeling/topology and facial rigging/blendshapes modeling. Presently, I'm working on a short animated movie with my 6 teammates and I'm in charge of modeling, topology and facial rigging of 2 out of 4 characters. This movie is a real challenge for us and it's quite unusual because the main goal of the movie is to make the viewer feel uncomfortable, but we're working really hard and trying our best to succeed.

This short movie will mark the end of my studies and the beginning of my professional life in the industry. As a student, I've never really had the chance to participate in any professional projects yet.

I've always loved animation, and during my studies, I developed an interest in the world of character modeling and facial rigging thanks to my great instructor Felix Ferrand, who is currently a Lead Facial Modeler at Framestore. He taught us all the things he knows about character modeling and how to build a solid facial rig for productions. I would have never discovered this world without him. It's something that you can't really learn without a mentor, or at least someone with a huge amount of knowledge on the subject.

I love every aspect of giving life to characters starting from the basic 3D modeling and ending with expressions. I truly think that there is nothing more satisfying than this entire process. I think that the most important skill for a good facial rigger is to be able to convey the character's emotions as simply as possible, and honestly, it's not that simple!

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Facial Rigging Process

If you really want to bring your character to life, there is no other way than to sculpt it by yourself (or find a character modeler who can do that for you). A facial rig on a generic character is not really interesting. 

If you want to make a facial rig on your stylized character, the latter has to be in a "neutral" pose, without any expression, the eyes must be closed. 

Let's say that your sculpt is done, and you're satisfied with the result. Now you have to turn your high poly mesh into a low poly mesh. This is retopology, and it's quite easily the most important part of the process. It'll define the level of details and the starting point of your future shapes so make sure to spend your time on this part of the process!

The best way to do that is to import your sculpt in Maya. There are lots of ways to create a good retopology, but if you don't have the opportunity to get smart tips from professionals, you can start the process simply relying on the human facial muscles (or other if you're modeling an animal, for example) and think about the muscle movements you want to recreate. There is an excellent book that explains the human facial muscles very clearly called Anatomy of Facial Expression - I highly recommend it.

However, don't be ashamed to ask for some tips from professional artists whenever you have a chance!

When your topology is done, you can actually begin the facial rigging process.

Again, there are lots of different ways to rig a character, and each studio has its own ways. Here, I'll just give you some standard steps to understanding the facial rigging process.

Basically, I set up a base joint system (which is the artificial bone structure of our character) and use this base to sculpt the shapes.

For the Aviator's Facial Gym project, I set up the joint system by myself but it's usually an automatic process made with an auto-rig. In my other projects, I usually use the auto-rig tool created by my friend and classmate Niels Dervieux. It's faster and much more effective. Here is an example of how it works:

With these basic steps, you can already build a good facial rig.

Facial Gym Project: Idea

The main goal of this project was to train myself and improve my skills in character modeling and facial rigging and this was the perfect opportunity! 

The idea was mainly to spot the mistakes I could make due to the lack of experience and fix them. To sharpen the facial rigging skills you just have to work hard, embrace the fails and correct them. 

I was also preparing myself for the production of the short movie I mentioned before, so I started a couple of facial rigs to be ready for that, too.

Facial Gym Animation

For this project, I didn't have a "real" animation workflow. The animation you can see is called "facial gym" and it's basically used to briefly outline the possibilities of the facial rig, the range and the kind of expressions you can do. In fact, I just keyed some interesting expressions and altered some animation curves to have a smooth animation.

Here're some other great examples of the facial gym:

Rig Setup

For the rig setup, I used the model showed us by our instructor - it was a model used in some big animation studios in the industry.

It's a three-base system (or more based on your needs) and each base has its own joint system with its own "head rig".

The first step is skinning of the base 1, in this particular case, the jaw and brows. Then comes the base 2 (the mouth, nose, cheek, and lids) and finally, the base 3 (the ears, plus I also added the eyes' micro details as they allow you to have much more control over your eyes' shapes).

After all that, I made a blendshape of the head rig on a new head mesh called "head result", and basically, this mesh is the result of all the deformations resulted from the rig. Even without a joint system, this head has all the blensdhapes in the system, and that's simply wonderful!

Now, you can finally begin to sculpt your blendhsapes!

Stylized Animation Peculiarities

The range of possible stylized characters is just amazing. In stylized animation, you just need to push the limits to give the animator a chance to go nuts on the expressions without any restrictions. Here is a comparison of a stylized/cartoon blendshape and a realistic one:

It's important to work with an animator who can constantly give you some advice and feedback on your shapes.


For the Facial Gym project, I used some references most of which were actually just pictures found on Pinterest. I also referred to works by Felix Ferrand and Jordan Soler which really helped a lot. For the modeling part, I only used some anatomic references and nothing else. Again, the goal was mainly the rig and shapes.

Felix Ferrand and Jordan Soler’s projects:

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I always try to stay humble and learn as much as possible from each project. You need to keep in mind that everything you learn is helpful, especially in this field. Every feedback you get matters, good or bad!

Always be curious. As I said earlier, don't hesitate to ask other artists questions, it's really important! 

Be tenacious! Sometimes you will not succeed the first time you try, but don't give up! You have to be stubborn: the more you struggle, the more you'll learn and level up. Get out of your comfort zone!

Try to keep in mind the feedback you get and be careful not to make the same mistakes again.

And finally, be proud of yourself. 

Armen Pamokdjian, Character Artist & Rigger

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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