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.
The Art of Lighting for Games Student gallery
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Oct 21, 2019 - Feb 3, 2020
Omar is a superb artist and teacher. His lectures and feedback were easy to follow and helped to highlight areas of weakness in a submission. Omar showed us multiple ways to tackle lighting in different environments, the maths behind it, and tools to achieve results. It is a great course for anyone who wants to find their feet in the area but also pushes them to try new workflows and experiment.
Omar is a super nice guy and a brilliant teacher. I enjoyed our interactions across the course and in general I learnt a lot.
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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.
A Look into Lighting for Games
Interview with Bruno Fontan
Ubisoft Senior Level Artist Bruno Fontan dissects his experience in taking Omar Gatica's Art of Lighting for Games course, discussing the structure of the course, the tasks, lighting workflow, and more.
I started my professional career back in 2006 as a 3D artist in the archviz field and slowly but surely carved my path toward my original goal which was to work on games like the ones I liked as a kid. To reach this goal I relocated from France to Canada about 10 years ago and had to accept a wide range of roles in order to get my foot into the door. At first, I did some high profile games QA testing (Starwars Force Unleashed 2, Castlevania Lord of Shadows and more) and also worked as a developer on some browser-based games for Disney while working on an indie game project during my spare time (Legacy Of The Yods).
After that, I finally managed to get a full-time 3D artist position at Gameloft where I worked on Asphalt 9 and Gangstar New Orleans. I then joined a small indie studio called Riposte Games & Co. (now Kabam Montreal) where I contributed to two more titles as a Lead 3D artist (Miniguns and Shopkeeper Quest). Since October 2018 I’ve been working on an unannounced AAA title for Ubisoft.
As hinted above, I’ve been playing games since I was 6 years old. Even if as a kid I didn’t realize I could make a living out of that (the industry was not really there at that time either) I always have been super into games. When I reached university there were not that many options to study games development yet (only 1-2 schools in France) so I enrolled in a more general degree (multimedia creation) and taught myself 3D on the side. Even if it was tough to go that way, in the long run, it allowed me to have a lot more versatility and adaptation skills due to some knowledge/experience in other specialties like programming, scripting, marketing, networking, management, etc.
When I decided to join the class Art of Lighting for Games I already had quite a lot of experience in lighting games. Still, I wanted to hear from an experienced industry specialist about the best practices and how he was approaching lighting, especially for AAA titles. I was mostly self-taught and I was not sure whether my approach was the best. It was also a great way to push myself by having some deliverables (one scene to light per week for ten weeks) and rapidly improve my skills.
Even though what we are taught in the class can work in every engine, it was a great chance for me to also get my hands on Unreal Engine which I had not used in a very long time.
Organization of the Class
Every week we were given a scene in which all the lights had been removed and we had to light it from scratch while following some very broad guidelines like “do a night scene”. The subjects were varied (interior, exterior, RTS game, multiplayer game, cinematic cutscene, etc.) so we got prepared to a wide range of challenges and their specific constraints – the same thing we could get in a real game production environment. While having a broad direction (and being shown one approach to it during the class), we still had a lot of liberty in the ways to work on our scenes. It resembles a game production scenario where the lighting artists are usually entrusted with their work and have some leeway in how to make the best out of it. Omar (the instructor) encouraged us to take risks and to try / suggest different approaches.
A good starting point is always a solid collection of references for what you want to achieve. These references could come from concepts, movies, photographs, paintings or even other games as long as they give you a direction and an idea about how the light would affect your scene. Having a good moodboard also helps to sell your ideas to other people who you would work with during real production.
Once you have an idea about what you would like to achieve it’s important to start broad and get solid foundations rather than immediately focus on small details. A typical workflow would be to start with the sky which provides the overall mood for your scene and fill everything with some basic light values. I usually use HDR sky captures for that (more details will come later) and do not hesitate to edit the HDRI in photo image editing software if needed. Once I’m happy with the global light, it’s time to add a directional main light source (the sun for the exterior or your main light for the interior – which could come from the windows, for example) and to tweak its intensity and position until you get interesting highlights and shadows. At this point, if your HDRI sky has a strong evident light source it’s always wise to rotate it until it matches your main directional light source.
These two light sources are the most important things to nail when doing exterior lighting. In almost every case, if your initial setup is off there is no point in tweaking other things. Also, with just these two things done right, you can already have a very appealing image.
At this point, if your scene is supposed to be a part of any kind of foggy environment, it would be a good idea to add some fog as it will help set the overall mood. It’s quite often an easy and beneficial addition to make a scene more visually interesting.
Set up some basic reflection probes, so that the reflective material is rendered properly. Once you are happy with what you have you can start to add more secondary and fill lights. For video games, it’s important to keep in mind the gameplay and make sure the environment is easy to read and the light is leading the player toward the right things. If you have a bright spot outside of the golden path (where you want the player to go) it could distract the player and lead him toward an uninteresting area (which would be a false call). Take time to refine your reflections by adding more localized probes when needed.
Now it’s time for the cherry on top of the cake: the post effects. There’s plenty of them and it’s important not to add them too early as they could make you lose focus on solid foundations. However, they are very helpful in setting the right mood. A big part of post effects is directly related to the lighting artist work. The most useful ones for your scene mood would be Tone Mapping, Exposure, Depth of Field, and Bloom.
Building Up Your Visual Library
I don’t have any readily created library of values as any scene is different and the values can greatly change depending on the setup of the scene. There’s a lot of cheating involved in environment lighting in order to achieve good results while maintaining smooth performances and there’s not just one right way to approach a scene lighting.
However, having a good library of HDRI skies is very helpful in getting the right mood for a scene. They really help to give that first pass on a scene lighting and the more you have the more options are available to you. There’s quite a lot of them available for free online, so it’s just a good habit to keep an eye for new good things and save them when you find some. Otherwise, there are some libraries you can buy online or you could even capture HDR skies by yourself with any decent camera and a tripod.
With practice and experience, you get a good sense of what a correct value is and you tweak everything as you go from your main light source to all the small filling ones. It’s more of a repeating and time-proven process which guides you toward the final lighting – the same way a painter starts with broad strokes and finishes with small details. During the class, we were provided with the example scenes from the lecturer so in case of a problem we could always have a look at how he approached them.
Stylized Game Environment Task
Stylized environments offer more creative liberty and it was very welcomed to have it for a change during the class. The setup of a stylized scene was very different from what we worked on before. For this specific exercise, there was a strong gameplay constraint as the scene is used for a Tower Defense like environment. The path must remain the central focus of attention, but at the same time, the units walking on it during gameplay must remain very visible.
The original scene was lit with lava (red / orange color scheme), but I decided to try something else. In that specific case, I didn’t really use photo references (acid lava pits are not that common!) but rather used my judgment to determine how to light this environment. I decided that the main light source would be the lava pit with glowy fumes coming out of it. The light beams coming through the ceiling of the cave were used to brighten the path and the top of the rocks. The key here was to make sure all the colors worked well together and to create some light pools along the gameplay path. If evenly lit, the path would have not caught the player’s attention that much and this alternation of bright and darker spots was key in getting interesting lighting. A useful technique I used here is to temporarily remove any saturation on the render (you can use tonemapping for that or just take a screenshot and bring it to your favorite photo editing software) and check my brightness values on the overall image. Balancing lighting is not just about colors saturation, it’s also about brightness/darkness. These values are very important to check whether the image is well-balanced.
The lava pits are lit with omni lights surrounded by fog. By increasing the amount of light scattering through the fog it creates these thick pools of light which give the toxic feel to the lava and help to sell the diffuse and spreading light effect.
The same principle has been used for the level entrance and exit gates. I used a super strong spotlight coupled with some fog to create those cones of foggy light getting out of the gates and put the emphasis on those important gameplay elements. The lack of color saturation helps them stand out from the rest as well.
Interior Lighting Task
This scene was a bit tricky to tackle as the light volumes were quite big compared to the amount of light I managed to get through the windows naturally. It required the use of quite a few fake lights to simulate bouncing light rays and keep the area easy to navigate (once again, we were doing a video game scene and gameplay had to come first).
In the corridor, I took the liberty to open the ceiling arch which was originally closed in order to bring a complementary color (blueish light source) and make the scene more visually appealing. That’s the kind of calls lighting artists should go for and discuss with other artists on a regular project. As the amount of light naturally coming from the outside was not that intense, I added a spotlight right outside of the newly created window and cranked its value. In order to reinforce its visual impact, I also added some light ray billboards and dust particles floating in the corridor. In the end, they help a lot breaking the symmetry in the corridor layout and catch the player’s attention.
Like in the previous scene (and all the lighting I do), one of the key things to keep your focus on is the alternation of bright and dark areas. It brings some rhythm in your light composition and makes things a lot more interesting in the end. You should never feel restricted by the light sources visible in your scene and feel free to add more if it helps increasing visual quality. The same is done in movies: if the movie makers were only using the real light sources visible, the lighting would not be interesting in their scenes. There’s always a lot of reflecting panels and light sources hidden outside of the camera frame. And it’s exactly the same in video games. If (for example) an area is too dark, feel free to add a soft light to brighten it. Completely black and white spots are something you usually need avoid.
I really enjoyed the Art of Lighting Games class. The personal feedback videos we got on every completed exercise were really helpful in pushing our skills to the next level. The exercises were varied enough to make me confident that I could tackle a wide range of different games as a lighter. The class also assured me that the approaches I was using to make my lighting were correct and the pieces of advice on key things given by a specialist will be very valuable in the future of my career.
I also really enjoyed the fact that we have access to other students’ works and video reviews. Every person in the class had their own take on the same subject and it was very instructive to see how it worked out. It also highlights the fact that there’s not just one right solution on how to properly light a scene.
To finish, here is a video from one of the course’s most challenging exercises. The lighting of a cutscene: