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Advice for Aspiring Lighters from Professional Lighters!

Want to work as a Lighter but not sure where to start? We often get questions asking what software and courses we would recommend for aspiring Lighters. We put the question to our staff and wanted to share their advice on the resources available to help get you on your way!

Jacek Tuminski (Lighter): A good idea is to observe the light in nature, use a real camera and take pictures and analyse. I believe analysing others' work and trying to copy that is helpful. There are plenty of tutorials available to help you. I found this tutorial very useful for me in the past:

There are many books as well, but if you are just starting you may want to try Digital Lighting & Rendering:

It's by Pixar's Jeremy Birn, who worked on Cars and Academy Award-winning The Incredibles, and it explains lighting techniques, advanced rendering techniques and details the production pipelines in an effects or animation studio.

As for the software, in my opinion it doesn't matter too much what software you start on, I would suggest Blender is good to start with as it's free and has a great renderer.

Redshift renderer is very artist friendly as well, so you can focus more on the artistic side rather than the technical!

Maria Diez (Lighter): Well, as Jacek said, when you're starting out to becoming a Lighter in the VFX industry, I cannot recommend enough the importance of spending time on observing and trying to understand how light works and behaves in nature. You can also watch documentaries and read books on this subject. Only once you've started to understand the principles of real light, can you “fake” it as you wish!

To translate this to the computer, using the various software applications you will find in the industry, you will have to learn how to use at least one of them!, (you can try the demos like Maya, Nuke… and see which one(s) suit you better), and find the necessary tools to achieve the desired look you want.

You can find a lot of good tutorials and documents on the internet. It might be a good idea to start with a workshop as well. I did this Nuke one from Steve Wright a few years ago:

Ashish Jain (Lead Lighter): From the technical and software side of things, we mostly use Maya here in the studio and for rendering there are several renderers that each have their pros and cons.

Some creative lighting tutorials I would suggest are -
1. Pictorial Composition by Nathan Fowkes

2. Painting with Light and Color by Dice Tsutsumi and Robert Kondo

Ronak Modi (Lighter): As Lighters, we have to take a lot of reference from real life and by observing real world lights, how they react on real life objects and how different colour lights create all different kinds of moods. As per my experience, photography is the best way to observe and study lights. I also recommend watching plenty of animated movies as they can convey something really magical which we don't always see in real life; that often helps us be more creative when we work on different shots in movies ourselves.

A good Lighter also tries to understand how colours react with other colours, so I would also suggest watching some tutorials on understanding colour theories which are available online. We also practice digital painting in Photoshop to understand the mixing of colour and shading in more detail.

In terms of 3D Software, here in the studio we use Maya and there are plugins available for lighting like Mental Ray, Arnold, Vray and Renderman to name a few.

Also, there are different software applications used in production level for lighting like 3DsMax, Blender, Redshift which are some of the popular examples. To help understand how these plugins work you'll need to watch as many tutorials as you can, as there are often new updates released.

For lighting, I find Digital Tutors and Gnomon provide some of the best tutorials.

Oscar Mata (Lead Lighter): Try to understand light/shadow in your everyday life. How the light/shadows of the sun, lamps or any light source affects various surfaces; how the shadows behave in different situations, how hard or soft they are, how the tops of some buildings look so “pink” some evenings…

Our environment is a great teacher, you just have to “look” at it, and build a foundation of how things are/look, maybe even why they are/look like that. Do you enjoy what you see? Why? How does it feel like? Take note of these!

Remember the unique lighting situations that you find and try to add them to your “visual library”, or just… take a photo :)

Paintings are a great source of knowledge too, (neoclassicism, for example). Try to understand concepts like hue/saturation/value, contrast and composition. Start with learning the basics!

For any starter, as with beginning anything, always keep a “strong will”, believe in yourself and have your mind open to learning from all the experienced artists that you will encounter throughout your career.

Watch animation/VFX movies and learn from the art of others.

Apply to different studios, do not be shy about this! Set realistic expectations and don't give up because you didn't land your dream studio on your first try. But also, don't think that your chances of getting a job in your dream studio will come without any experience/effort on your part!

The internet is full of tutorials! I would advise to get familiar with Maya/Arnold (get an educational license if possible) and Blender/Cycles (which is open source/free) has great support from the online community and is an overall great piece of software.

Aldo Alabrese (Lighter): My life in the 3D world started with a Masters at the University of Rome 'way back' in 2010 and another Masters in the Rainbow Academy in 2011. After that I worked in Italy, UK, Austria and now Ireland, so my advice is if you have the possibility of getting experience in a different country, just do it, because this way you can learn a different culture and approach to the work.

The internet is full of of free tutorials and online workshops and an aspiring Lighter could start with these:

Here are also a few really important books to take a look at:
- Illuminated Pixels: The Why, What, and How of Digital Lighting
- Lighting for Animation: The Art of Visual Storytelling
- Digital Lighting & Rendering (second edition) (as mentioned by Jacek).

With respect to software programs and render engines, I would say it depends on what a Lighter would like to study or work on (VFX, animation, games and so on), but I started with Autodesk Maya (one of the most used 3D packages) and Mental Ray. In the 2017 version, a student can now start with Autodesk Maya 2017 and the Arnold Renderer (my favourite render engine).

My main three tips for any aspiring Lighter are:
1. Have passion and be ready to spend many nights in front of the PC.
2. Never stop learning because the technology changes every day and the competition grows up every day.
3. Reference… I love photography and this helps me understand how light works in nature. In my opinion for every job or personal project you are going to start you should always keep references from reality, using the most powerful and free tools that we have: our eyes and the environment around us.

Alan McCabe (Lead Lighter): I started working in Post-Production in April 2005 at MPC London, working as a render wrangler. This gave me access to what Lighters would get up to on a day-to-day basis. While in render support, I got cozy with some of the Lighters who started to give me small bits of work to do. Production saw what I could do so they gave me a full-time position as a lighter on The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. After that I worked on many cool features like Harry Potter, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Jungle Book.

For an aspiring Lighter I would suggest doing a good 3D computer animation course that does a bit of every discipline. Use the internet, YouTube and learn everything possible about lighting, shading and rendering.

Get a showreel together of your best work and apply for jobs. If you get no reply, maybe do what I did and apply for other junior roles (matchmove, rotoscoping, runner etc.), that can help get your foot in the door and then onto your goal of being a lighting samurai.

A lot of the software out there these days is similar but definitely get a handle on Maya 2017 which now comes with the Arnold renderer (as Aldo mentioned) :)

As for tutorials, the internet is full of stuff but something like Arvid Schneider's Maya… this Arnold 101 course are a great start!

Ricky Linton (Lead Lighter): I start everything with passion and as a hobby. Passion helps us survive and idealism keeps us motivated!

As a Lighting artist, we are required to be good generalists. Knowing A to Z is preferable but you may have just mastered one or two things by the end. For newcomers, you may opt for a good formal animation school or college if you can afford it as it can help you acquire good knowledge and meet people from the industry that may help you in the future for a job reference. If you can't afford it, don't be discouraged, as there are so many great resources available online from the generous community. And they are free for you to use!

Once you build up your skills, start to build your own portfolio as best as you can. Keep in mind that quality over quantity is preferred. If you're applying for a Lighting artist position, don't go crazy or spend too much time with the modelling or other unrelated tasks. You can use free models from popular online forums, such as's Lighting Challenge and CG Society's Lighting Challenge forum, so you can focus on the shading and the lighting tasks.

Lighting is not only about placing lights in your scenes. In the end, it's about producing correct colour in a pixel. Having a general knowledge like colour theory and basic composition will definitely improve your work. Taking a photography class can be a plus.

Regarding software, it's really people's preference as to what tools to use. As a newcomer, I suggest learning software that is being used in the industry in general. I believe that every software application has its own right market. I would prefer not to spend too much time on mastering too many software applications, but instead expanding the necessary skillset to apply the fundamentals of lighting within any software application. Many of the good software applications share the same common principles for how they function, so it's a mere matter of adapting to the change of the user interface.

Once you get into the industry, learn the real experience from the seniors and fellow colleagues with a good attitude as it will bring you to the right place and really, it's a small world industry ;)

Sumesh Kumar (Lighting TD): Lighting is an integral part of storytelling in any medium. I learnt most of what I know working with some really cool artists in all the CG animation studios that I have worked in so far in my career. What I have understood is there are multiple factors to keep in mind while working on a particular show. I have tried to put a list of “general suggestions” for anyone wanting to become a Lighting artist, which you can see below:

Master 3 point Lighting:
3 point Lighting is by far the most used technique in Lighting Subjects (Characters, Props etc..). The idea is to make sure the audience is looking where the Director or the DOP wants them to look. This is a great tool to separate the subject from the not too important parts of the image. The video below is one of the simple executions for it. The concept will remain the same in all lighting scenarios.

It is vital to understand Cinematography. Lighting plays a crucial role in storytelling. Why do you need to place the light where it is and how intense does it have to be?
CG lighting is a bit more forgiving in this aspect since there is always room for cheating with tools like Light Linking and Render Layers. Try to look into live action sets to get an overview on the constraints that they have to function within. This will change your perspective on how you look at a CG Scene within Maya.

Some of my favourite Cinematographers:

Emmanuel Lubezki
Roger Deakins
Harris Savides
Jeff Cronenweth
Satyajit Ray

Nature / Physics / Math:
Everything is based on these common elements. Having a thorough understanding of these elements makes for a really strong Lighter. Software is becoming more and more physically accurate and it has become vital to clearly understand the laws of energy conservation to be able to make something look realistic.

Learning at least one Scripting language will come in super handy, especially Python. Almost all CG software has Python support built in. It will help automate the things you do repeatedly and save loads of time in robotic boring tasks. Just the basics would do and this link is a free Online Python Course, where you can get started:

Software Applications:
Learn as many as you can. They all pretty much follow the same principles but have different terminologies and methods to compute. Maya is probably the most widely used 3D Package. Whilst using Maya, you could pick a render weapon of your choice (Redshift being my favourite).
Learning Compositing is equally important, “Nuke” from The Foundry would probably be the industry leader at this point.

Keep an eye on the ever changing technology. It was CPUs yesterday, today its GPUs. Understanding how these things work will give you an upper hand. Ask as many tech questions as you possibly can and also don’t stop until you find the answers to them.
What is a Mesh? How does it work? How does the renderer know what to render? Stay curious.

File format is another area to invest time into. Compositing being an important part of the Lighting workflow, you might want to push some things into Post. Look into the different file formats that exist which could make your goal a bit easier in compositing.

Budget and Production deadlines:
Always have a deadline while practicing. On a job or contract there will always be a ton of pressure on every artist to deliver. The faster you can function at the expected quality, the better. You should be able to adapt between formats of media like TV , Feature, Photography, etc.. No project or show comes without a deadline so try to be as nimble as possible.

Start for Free:
Start practicing on Free Software. Blender, Gimp, Cycles, Bakery Relight/Comp, Digital-Fusion, Unreal, etc… just to name a few. You can find loads and loads of tutorials on YouTube or Vimeo for all of these software applications. Blender Guru is a great channel for a beginner and advanced Blender user.

There you have it! Got any questions on Lighting for us? Pop them in the comments below!

Anahita Tabarsi

Anahita is Brown Bag Films' Marketing Director, Digital & Social and drinks more than five coffees a day...

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