In the fields of visual effects and digital animation, as with live-action, lighting is an important element that creates mood, depth, and realism in a scene. Whether producing a fully animated film or enhancing a filmed sequence with the use of computer-generated imagery, lighting artists put some of the last finishing touches on the project.
The lighting artist working as a member of a visual effects or digital animation team is responsible for applying all lighting effects to a scene. He or she takes into consideration the light sources of the live-action plate (the filmed scene over which VFX features are placed) and applies virtual lighting to mimic the existing illumination within the environment. He or she may also add secondary virtual light to visually enhance the objects or characters in the scene, such as adding eye glint or rim lighting. The goal is to ensure that the VFX and live-action elements blend seamlessly, as though both exist in the same environment.
In animation without live-action sequences, the lighting artist is concerned with providing the evidence of light sources depicted in the scene; that may be light cast from lamps, street lights, or natural outdoor lighting. To create sequences that are realistic to the world of the film or television show, the lighting artist uses a discerning eye to creatively manipulate qualities like light color, intensity, and angle. In relation to the characters and objects in the scene, the lighting artist uses the shader settings implemented by the shading and texture artists to properly integrate the result of qualities like object reflectivity, light scatter, and the appearance of wet surfaces.
When the lighting artist is satisfied with the look sequence, he or she completes a rough composite (for visual effects with live-action scenes) to test that the computer-generated objects appear realistic in the scene. Upon approval of the light or visual effects supervisor, the lighting artist renders the images and passes the sequence through the pipeline for final compositing.
Skills & Education
Lighting artists must be artistically trained and fluent in the technology of computer animation. A solid background in 2-D and 3-D art should include a thorough understanding of color theory, perspective, and other basic principles of design theory. Study must also include the mastery of software tools such as Maya, Photoshop, After Effects, and similar digital art and animation applications. Additional experience in film and television production with a specific concentration in cinematography and production lighting is also valuable. A college degree in computer animation or similar program is recommended for this career.
What to Expect
Lighting is just one phase of the larger production pipeline. It is the lighting artist’s job to build upon the work of the other artists, while enhancing and supporting their work. It takes a careful eye for detail to produce a beautifully lit sequence that feels natural and exudes the intended mood and atmosphere of the scene. This is a skill that can be built upon knowledge and experience but requires an individual with great instincts for storytelling and characterization.
Employment opportunities for lighting artists exist within visual effects studios and digital animation production companies. This field is closely related to shading, texturing, and look development, as well as lighting for video games. Graduates with a relevant degree and strong portfolio of independent or amateur work may find entry-level opportunities as a junior member of the lighting department. Others often rise to the position through an internship with the studio or role as a render wrangler or compositor.
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