The Internet is an odd thing, you can head of on a journey and end up looking at a something completely different. In my case I was looking for a film when I came across a very comprehensive list of free online rigs. Of course if your after something specific then this can be a huge frustration, but in this case it lead to an afternoon of downloading and playing with new toys.
I know many students find all the character set up stuff in 3D quite daunting. If that's you then you should pay close attention to the fine print on your assessment, all you have to do is prove that you understand and can apply those earlier parts of the process (Modeling, Skinning, Rigging, etc) this can be achieved with a very simple character (say a ball with legs or something). I don't stipulate that you have to use the character you build in class in your animation. As long as you credit your source and don't under any circumstances take credit for someone else's model then its usually fine to use one of these free rigs on your reel. My understanding however is that local games companies (you most likely 3D employer) do prefer that you have your head around the whole process.
So here are some of the more interesting free rigs I found this afternoon.
The Andy rig takes the cake for versatility and stability. It can be morphed into a boy, girl, man or woman. The controls are simple to use and quite intuitive. This would be great for those of you wanting to animate for TV and Film.
Moom is so simple, download the one file, open in Maya and start animating. Its that simple. Love It! The sight where you can download him is Highend3d.com and you need to sign up before you can download from the forum, but I have been a member for a while and have received very little junk mail.Finally here are a whole bunch of game style rigs from a guy named Michael Kiessling. There is everything you could want here, soldiers, monsters, sorcerers, comic book and karate hero's. The rigs are low polly and set up for physical action, perfect for a games reel. They come with a fancy User interface script thingy, but I don't think its compatible with the new version of Maya (something to do with the internal web browser that the good people at Autodesk have seen fit to screw with). I would suggest that you don't install them because now that I have tried I get a bunch of annoying error messages every time I open the scene. Apart from that these are fine rigs for free.
All of these rigs have controls that you access through the Channel Editor. That's the thinner of the three menus that you get down the right hand side of the screen that you open by clicking this icon in the top right hand corner of the screen. What displays in the channel editor depends what you have selected in the scene, in the case of the first two rigs listed here if you select the circle around the feet of the character you will see options to hide or unhide different controllers for the character. Get used to checking the list of animatable attributes in the channel editor when you have different objects selected in the scene. You will find similar controls for fingers, and so on.
Hope you enjoy playing with the toys as I have :)
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