Recently, Andy provided a meticulous tutorial on lighting Sprite Fright's protagonist, Ellie, stuffed with step-by-step tips. Here, he provides the big picture on creating beautiful pictures: where to find inspiration, who to study.
Disclaimer: Andy is keen to note that the following points aren't rules, but simply an explanation of his personal approach.
Thanks to render engines like Blender's Cycles, there's little difference between a set in 3D and a set in IRL. Which is why a real world set can be an excellent classroom for students of animation lighting.
Andy: “Over the years I've worked on many productions and lit a lot of scenes. But the first big learning moment came when I worked with Colin Levy on Agent 327. Colin is practically minded and hands-on. He studied film directing and worked on a number of live-action shorts. So he’d worked with real life directors of photography, and he learned a lot from them. He’d study a director of photography on set and how they would arrange the practical lights, for example. That's how he learned about the types of light and how they’d mimic certain lighting situations, like day and night cycles or windows.”
No movie sets next door? Andy suggests an alternative...
Andy: “Colin Levy and I talked a lot about natural light on film sets. Naturally Roger Deakins came up. He's a brilliant director of photography, with so many great films under his belt. Skyfall, for example. Obviously, it's James Bond spy movie, so it fit into the Agent 327 universe. Still, Roger Deakins is a great reference, whatever you're working on. He uses a lot of practical lights and a lot of indirect light sources, like big windows, in order to light characters. Some of what he does is totally fake, though. For example, a wall of spots with a diffuser. But even when the effect is a little fake, what it does in the film frame is amazing. By using big diffuse light sources, Deakins adds so much extra dimension to the characters. Also, he’s not afraid of bold choices, of having a character sit completely in the dark with just their face illuminated. That kind of stuff is great."
And once you've studied moving pictures, travel back a few centuries to the paintings that inspired them.
Andy: “What I'm trying to do is a little like the approach of the Old Masters, who’d create these paintings with big diffuse light sources on the subject's face, which meant the work would just jump from the canvas."
Andy: “My other big inspiration is Andrew Lesnie, the director of photography for a lot of Peter Jackson's films, including Lord of the Rings. He had just a huge influence on me when I started in 3D. The cool thing was that Lesnie oversaw the model lighting and the miniature lighting and the practical lighting on set for Lord of the Rings."
"His philosophy was that lighting is like the music in a film. In other words, that it doesn’t have to be realistic, but that it does have to convey an emotion. Also, he felt that lighting was like this ethereal thing that floats around and sculpts the characters.” Andy grins. “By the way, these are not entirely his words; this is more my interpretation of his thinking."
Andy: “These are the kinds of ideas I’m trying to follow when I'm lighting something. I’m always asking myself, ‘How do I get real world ideas about lighting into Blender?’ I watch a lot of films with this in mind, studying how certain scenes are filmed. But a shot only tells you so much, so it’s great when you’ve got a behind-the-scenes clip. You can actually see how the lights and gels are arranged.”
“Recently, I’ve become more interested in production design, so I also pay attention to that. Sometimes, I’m watching a film and I’ll note certain props used in a scene, and note how densely a set is scattered with props, or what the props say about the story. It’s fascinating.”
“There’s a certain translation process bringing these ideas back to Blender. You have to make choices. That being said, Cycles is pretty accurate in terms of representing what real light does. It’s a path tracer, after all. So lighting with diffuse light sources and that kind of stuff works well. And EEVEE is quite advanced these days, but there of course you have to cut some settings down a little. You have to compensate with, for example, extra light sources in the back of your shot, or on the floor, or whatever. You have to fake some stuff, but it works, it’s cool.
For more lighting with Andy, combine the ideas above with this nitty-gritty tutorial.
For more Colin Levy, take a look at this thoughtful critique of Sprite Fright’s production process so far (though those with spoiler allergies might want to skip).
And drop by the production logs every week to absorb more of Andy’s lighting excellence.