Course overview Course overview
Understanding light for digital environments
The Art of Lighting for Games WHAT YOU’LL LEARN
The more you know, the better.
Your journey starts here
Omar Gatica is currently a Sr. Lighting Artist at Infinity Ward studios. He has been working in the video game industry since 2005. Working professionally at AAA studios including NC-Soft, Activision, Naughty Dog and Neversoft. Over the last decade, he has shipped such titles as Guild Wars, Uncharted 1, 2, 3 and Call of Duty - Ghosts. Most recently, he shipped the latest installment of Call of Duty - Infinite Warfare.
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Lighting for Video Games
Interview with Adam Alexander
Hello! I’m Adam Alexander, and I am a lighting artist at Hardsuit Labs. This year I made the switch from environment artist to a lighting artist, and have been working to develop a stronger understanding of what makes good lighting. Titles I have contributed to as an environment artist include Blacklight: Retribution and Tacoma. I recently completed CGMA’s “The Art of Lighting for Games” with instructor Omar Gatica to push my skill set in lighting further. Omar did a great job of laying out a curriculum that stressed lighting theory and techniques that were agnostic of any one game engine and focused on theory and composition. The weekly lectures built upon each other in a way that was both accessible and deep. Each week we were tasked with taking a scene developed by Epic and re-lighting it.
Lighting in games
Lighting plays a critical role in setting the mood for any given level and showing off the work of all the other art disciplines. Different studios have different approaches to how and when lighting is introduced into the pipeline. At Hardsuit Labs, I generally will do an initial lighting pass at the grey box stage. This pass will include setting up global lights and skydomes and sketching out some early compositions. This early lighting pass can be really useful! Working with environment art and design, I can help define what the focus or mood of any level should be. Lighting is an important tool for directing player attention, so getting this in early helps the whole team. I try to work broadly and quickly; a lot of stuff can still change at this point.
Once environment art and level design have moved on, I usually begin a 2nd lighting pass. The focus here is on polishing the work I roughed in earlier. Meshes now should be unwrapped for lightmap UVs, so I can start dialing in my light bakes. I focus on making sure spaces are readable and interesting. When lighting for games, it is important to remember that gameplay always comes first! There have been several times I will light a high contrast map that I think looks great, only to find that my areas of shadow are too dark to clearly see enemies in combat. It’s important to constantly test your lighting set up as a player would approach it. I usually end my 2nd pass by creating a color grade and setting my post process effects for the map. After this, I’m almost done! I may still be asked to revisit sections to polish or fix certain areas as a response to feedback from QA or design.
There have been some very impressive advances in real-time lighting in the last few years. Established PBR material standards and light parameters that have real-world analogies allow artists to have a common foundation to build from. When working on a game that leans towards realism, it is important to adhere to these standards as much as possible. Unreal and other game engines allow you to use a captured HDR image to plug into your sky to replicate real light intensity levels. This, combined with tweaking your bake settings to allow for a good amount of bounce light and good lightmap UV’s can create some stunning lighting alone!
Additionally, knowing when to tweak your piece can actually help sell the realism of a scene. Adding lens imperfections and filmic color grading can make your piece feel more believable, even if they technically aren’t “realistic.” A lot of us are so used to seeing photos or movies that we often feel that games that evoke that imagery feels correct.
Lighting can initially feel overwhelming when presented with so many parameters to tweak! There are a couple of points I make for myself to help simplify the process:
1. Start Broad, Work Down: This may be obvious to many artists, but starting with your broad strokes and nailing those is really important before digging into details or polish work. I spend a lot of time establishing my global lights and key light in any given scene since this will be the most important lighting contribution to the composition and will form the backbone of my work.
2. Less is More: I think in lighting especially, it is important to try to push a small number of lights as far as you can rather than adding a ton of lights right off the bat. It is easier to adjust just a few lights and can help you focus on allowing for spaces of interest and rest in your composition.
3. Use Reference: This is another possibly obvious-yet-important tip I have to remind myself! It is critical to study real life examples of lighting. Keep these open, and not just at the beginning of your project. If I am ever unsure of a particular space I am lighting, I always turn to my reference to study how light would react in a similar scenario.
Things like volumetric fog, sun rays, or atmospheric particle effects can be a ton of fun, but I try to treat them like icing on the cake; they can really help punch up a well-lit composition, but can’t cover up or fix a bad one. I always try to add these last to keep them from being too distracting during my initial lighting pass. Take this with a grain of salt as well depending on the type of game you are making, but I’d caution to use these effects subtly. A lot of times artists (myself included!) can get pretty carried away with these effects at times.
Being able to iterate on your scene quickly is really important, especially if you are using baked/static lighting. This is really where the “Less is More” approach to lighting can help you. If you are adjusting just a handful of lights with each bake, you can move a lot faster than trying to adjust a ton or figuring out which light is contributing what. When working in Unreal, I usually stick to just a preview bake to get a quick idea of what values/hues my bounce lighting will have, with an occasional “medium” quality build to see if there are any shadow errors I should try to fix. When I’m done for the day, I’ll let a production build go overnight.
When working with dynamic lights, it is always good to keep an eye on performance. Dynamic shadow-casting lights can get expensive quickly. Unreal has useful view modes to monitor things like light complexity and overlapping stationary-lights.
Getting good shadows is a joy in lighting! When setting up my initial key lighting, I am always looking for interesting cast shadows. Shadows can help your lighting and composition in a lot of ways. Allowing light sources to dip into shadow between each other is a great way to add depth and contrast to your level. Additionally, shadows can say a lot about the type of light environment in your scene; soft, diffused shadows can sell an overcast sky or distant light source, whereas sharp shadows are better suited for a clear sky or very close source of light. Do remember that your game should still be readable even when the player is in shadow though.
I think there is a lot of value in having a lighting artist do an early pass on a level, as I mentioned before. When beginning on a new map, my first step is to always gather reference and put together a mood board. I look at sources like cinematography, photography, and concept art to start brainstorming composition and palette ideas, while also gathering photos to serve as a reference for details like how light will look from this fixture, or what sort of exposure will be used for this interior, etc. Once I have a good collection of reference material, I will start blocking in my global and key lights. My advice would be to try to spend as much time on these initial steps as you can to ensure that you have a compelling lighting composition with good contrast before diving into polishing out details.
As for additional lighting resources, I highly recommend Omar Gatica’s CGMA class on lighting if that is an option available to you! I also recommend Tilmann Milde’s “Unreal Lighting Academy,” an in-depth video series that covers a lot of the lighting process. Finally, I’d recommend CG Society’s live session with Boon Cotter on “The Art of Lighting for Games”
Unreal Lighting Academy:
Boon Cotter’s CG Society Lecture:
The Art of Lighting & Self-Education
Interview with Artem Filippov
Artyom Filippov shared his experience of attending the CGMA course The Art of Lighting and profound knowledge learned about self-development & self-education and working in the industry.
Hi! My name is Artyom Filippov. For the last 2.5 years, I have been working as a Lead Level Designer and a Lighting Artist. Right now, at work, we are making a mobile game focusing on high-quality graphics. Consequently, the requirements for the art team are high, that is why I am always keen to learn new things and level-up.
I realized that the more experience I accumulate, the less interesting educational content I can find. It’s getting harder to obtain new information from articles or videos. What’s curious, it relates both to free and paid content.
It inspired me to enter the CGMA course The Art of Lighting under the guidance of Omar Gatica. I supposed that it would be a reasonable next step, given that I had never studied with a mentor.
As it happens with many other CG artists, my journey into 3D is based on self-education only, from the beginning to the moment of obtaining a real job. As a result of such informal education, I got used to relying on intuition.
Previously, when I had been working as a Level Designer people asked me why I built a location in this or that way. I couldn’t give a clear answer just because I trusted intuition more than the rules.
Here’s another good example: when I deal with lighting, I usually pick colors and shadows intensity by eye. I take into consideration the location, time of the day, context, and adjust shadows following my own preferences.
One of the first lessons we were taught in The Art of Lighting was that by its nature, a shadow is a skylight intensity. Of course, reflected lights from the light sources and a moon influence shadows too, but the sky plays the most important role. If you want to make shadows brighter or darker, at the same time keeping the lighting physically correct, you should adjust skybox HDR intensity instead of tweaking sliders in the engine.
On the one hand, it is obvious, on the other hand, you will continue to rely on intuition and do things as you are used to. When you are a middle artist, it is quite fine. But sooner or later, this approach may lead to a creative deadlock.
Ways of Self-Development
I found two ways of self-development that work for me: analysis and formal education.
An analysis is a continual search for convincing explanations of your decisions. Also, it is an urge to study artworks of other artists and to define why these artworks are good or bad. The ability to analyze becomes crucial on the middle and senior levels when one of your responsibilities is to explain to your subordinates why they should do their task in this or that way.
For any person, it is a great piece of luck to find a team with a strong Lead Artist or Art Director. If you get reasonable feedback, you will develop your analytical skills and be able to look at your artwork from the context of analysis, not only intuition. That is why I always recommend people to become freelancers only after some months spent in the office.
Then, a question arises: “If you are already getting proper regular feedback at the studio, why do you need one more mentor from the outside?” Working together with your colleagues day by day, you get used to each other, and get locked inside a smooth workflow, which becomes too rigid over time. This is when the value of the opinion from the outside increases. You’ll have a chance to get entirely new feedback that differs from what you hear every day. It is important to treat your mentor as an expert, otherwise, your ego will block incoming information.
One more interesting moment is the subjectivity of taste. We are different, there always will be something that one Art Director likes but another doesn’t. That is why collaboration with a mentor helps to explore new horizons, find a new take on the old methods and artistic solutions.
All of that leads us to the second way of development – formal education. I don’t mean college or university, I’m talking about treating art as an academic discipline.
The Art of Lighting is designed for those who are new to the lighting in games, so initially, I had doubts that I would learn something new. But in fact, the chance to repeat basic lessons under the guidance of a good mentor turned out to be very useful. Lighting artists can repeat the basics to find something new and cover some gaps, just like 2D artists do.
I was surprised by the skill of our mentor to adapt to the level of each student. So, if your level is higher or lower, you will benefit and learn something new anyway. And that’s cool!
The Art of Lighting
Being a Lead Artist, I have understood that it is not difficult to teach someone technical aspects (be it Level Design or Lighting). They can easily be explained logically, there are no vague terms. Often, online tutorials are an ideal way to learn such things. Add here practical experience and you are on a roll!
A sense of taste, aesthetics, harmony and a visual library are a different story. In comparison with a technical side where knowledge can be easily transferred to a student, the creative side requires to invest personal effort and eagerness to self-education.
It is no coincidence that there is a word “art” in the term “Lighting Artist”. I like that the course focuses on art instead of playing with technical parameters and settings optimization. Teaching art is much harder, and it is great to be taught by a skilled mentor.
For sure, thorough technical knowledge is very important, but I believe that it is secondary. As a Lead Artist, I pay more attention to the artistic skills of the employee. As for the technical gaps, we will close them together later. What is more, technical difficulties and ways of implementation differ from project to project. That is why sometimes you’ll have to retrain even a quite experienced person.
One of the unexpected bonuses of communication with a mentor was his knowledge about the industry. Even if you are a professional, there will be questions you have nobody to ask. For example, you might not be sure if your approach to a certain problem is right, or there are some weaknesses in your pipeline and no one can advise you on how to fix them. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether the course is for professionals or juniors, you’ll have a chance to discuss any important questions.
You Reap What You Sow
In conclusion, I want to share one more lesson I have learned, small but extremely important. The more effort you put into the course, the more profit you’ll gain.
For instance, every week you get homework. You may do it half-heartedly or properly. Or you can push the limits of your potential. But how does it differ from “properly”?
When you do it properly, a mentor gives you the feedback you already expect. You see the weak points yourself, understand how you could avoid them or fix. In case of pushing your limits and think you can’t improve your artwork any further, you’ll get the advice on how to make it even better. That’s exactly what you need for a professional level-up.