Blender just got loads easier to do armature rigging and animation deformations. These features have been in Blender SVN for some time now with me just playing with it in the 13593 build this morning. Info for them can be found here:
http://www.blender.org/development/curr ... /skinning/
http://www.blender.org/development/curr ... modifiers/
First, the skinning. The new feature will do a good job of weight painting a mesh when parenting it to an armature. Selecting "Bone Heat Weight" when asked will result in an even weight painting of the mesh. One note to remember when you use this is the closer to the mesh joint you can get the bone tips, the better the result without modifications it becomes. I did find that it does need some tweaking when you don't have the bones correctly positioned but that is minor compared to what it used to be.
The modifiers allows you to make a mesh outline of where you want deformations to affect the mesh. The tighter you make your surrounding mesh, the more control you have over deformations in your character mesh. There is a sample blend file (4 MB) on that blender.org page above. I'm still experimenting with this feature and will likely post more on it here.
Expect a test blend later today as I continue to experiment with these two. It is a boon to ludites like me that just can't get rigging right.