Quick Tips for Interesting CG Lighting

Easy Ways to Improve the Lighting in Your 3D Images and Animations

I've been looking at a lot of reference that deals with lighting recently, and had an opportunity to watch the Gnomon Masterclass lecture on Efficient Cinematic Lighting with Jeremy Vickery (who currently works as a lighting technical director at Pixar).

I've been following Jeremy's art for years. He's got a really whimsical, imaginative style, and he was one of the first artists I followed on DeviantArt (probably four or five years ago).

I've also been taking a more in depth look at James Gurney's second book, Color and Light.

Even though they work in different mediums, James and Jeremy seem to share a relatively similar philosophy about light—namely, that scene illumination must be approached analytically, but that the artist must also know where rules and theories can be broken or exaggerated to add flourish and interest.

Jeremy's masterclass and Gurney's book both offer a lot of good advice for creating effective lighting in a composition.

I tried to break down some of their major points to pass on to you for use with 3D imagery.

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Understand Effective 3 Point Lighting

3D image
Oliver Burston/Getty Images

Three point lighting is the most commonly used technique for portrait and cinematic lighting, and it's something you really need to understand to create successful CG images.

I won't go into too many specifics here, but a basic 3 point lighting configuration would typically resemble the following:

  1. Key Light - The primary light source, often placed 45 degrees in front and above the subject.
  2. Fill Light - A fill (or kick) light is a softer secondary light source used to lighten up the composition's shadow areas. The fill is typically placed opposite the key.
  3. Rim Light - A rim light is a strong, bright light source shining on the subject from behind, used to separate the subject from it's background by creating a thin frame of light along the subject's silhouette.
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Pools of Light


When Jeremy Vickery first mentioned this technique in his masterclass, I almost didn't think twice about it, but as I began looking at more and more digital artwork with lighting in mind, it occurred to me just how ubiquitous (and effective) this technique is, especially in landscapes.

Digital landscape artists use “pools of light” almost compulsively to add drama and interest to a scene. Check out this beautiful illustration by Victor Hugo, and pay attention to how he uses a concentrated pool of bright illumination to add drama to the image.

Many of the Hudson River School painters used the same techniques.

Light in nature is rarely constant and uniform, and it never hurts to exaggerate. In Jeremy's lecture, he says that his goal as an artist isn't to re-create reality, it's to make something better.” I agree wholeheartedly.

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Atmospheric Perspective


This is another technique that's incredibly useful for environment artists who need to create a sense of depth in their images.

A lot of beginners make the mistake of using consistent illumination and color intensity throughout the entirety of their scene. In reality, as objects get further away from the camera, they should fade and recede into the background.

Objects in the foreground should typically have some of the darkest values in the scene. The mid-ground should contain the focal point, illuminated accordingly, and objects in the background should be desaturated and shifted toward the color of the sky. The further away the object, the less distinguishable it should be from its background.

Here's a fantastic painting that emphasizes atmospheric perspective (and pooled light) to enhance depth.

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Play Warm Against Cool

This is a classic painterly technique, where objects in illumination tend to have warm hues, while shadow areas are often rendered with a blue cast.

 

Master fantasy illustrator Dave Rapoza uses this technique quite frequently in his paintings.

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Use Implied Lighting


This is a technique that both Gurney and Jeremy touch on. Implied lighting

It's a useful strategy because it gives the viewer the impression that there is a world beyond the edges of the frame. A shadow from an unseen tree or window not only adds are you adding interesting shapes to your image, it also helps pull your audience in and immerse them in the world you're trying to create.

Using an implied light source that's obstructed from the view of the audience is also a classic strategy for cultivating a sense of mystery or wonder. This technique was famously used in both Pulp Fiction and Repo Man

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Split Second Composition

Split second composition is especially important when you're lighting for animation or visual effects. Paraphrased very loosely, Vickery essentially makes the following statement in his Gnomon lecture:

 

“Film isn't like fine art, in the sense that audiences won't have the opportunity to stand in a gallery and view each individual image for five minutes. Most shots don't last for more than two seconds, so make sure you use your lighting to create a strong focal point that jumps off the screen immediately.”

Again, most of that quote is paraphrased in my own words, but the basic point he's trying to make is that in film and animation you don't have a whole lot of time for your image to make an impression.

Related: Pioneers in 3D Computer Graphics