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Lighting Artist/Technical Director
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Together with Texture Artist and Modelling Artist, this job forms part of a CGI/3D Generalist (Also called a Generalist Technical Director) skill set.
Lighting Artists/Technical Directors (TDs) or Lighters as they are referred as, work in both cg animation, games and VFX. Their job is to adjust the colour, placement and intensity of CGI lights to create atmosphere, add realism, tone and depth to a scene; visually balancing individual elements to enable a Compositing Artist to produce a convincing and consistent full cg animation or VFX shot. In VFX, Lighting Artists/TDs will work in lighting teams with Look Development Artists, Shader Development TDs, Texture Artists and Compositing Artists as the digital/CGI equivalent of a live action Director Of Photography (DOP).
In VFX, it is easy to at first perceive the Lighting Artist/TDs’ job as purely technical, especially as the initial, almost taken for granted, task is to use photographic lighting reference or HDRI environment maps (increasingly the VFX department has ‘Data Wranglers’ on–set, to capture HDRI maps and lighting/colour references) to replicate the on set lighting that was used to photograph the live action plates that any cgi asset, building or creature is to be composited into.
Often a cgi lighting set up, ‘rig’ or HDRI environment map is set up for a scene, but the Lighter needs to be skilled in adding accents or enhancements as required with extra lights or shader adjustments, on a shot by shot basis. This is an iterative process with the Lighting TD attending review sessions called ‘dailies’ where a basic composite that the Lighting Artist/TD will do themselves lets the lighting supervisor, VFX Supervisor (on smaller projects – sometimes the client themselves) give feedback. Through this process, shot lighting may be tweaked again and again until the desired effect is achieved.
This work is artistic and nuanced because as well as ‘matching the plate’, the Lighting Artist/TD needs to maintain the look of the on-set production/costume design and cinematography. Complex and often emotive things like mood, period, season and time of day can and should be conveyed with CGI lighting in the same way as they would using practical on-set lighting in principal photography.
What is it like?
Most VFX lighting, rendering and compositing pipelines have now moved from gamma encoded 8 bit to floating point linear and the buzz phrase of the moment is ‘physically plausible lighting’, meaning that digital lighting respects the laws of physics evident in the real world.
Lighting is actually a constantly changing and dynamic area of VFX, but it is clear that good Lighting Artists/TDs must have, not only a finely honed technical understanding of VFX lighting technology, but also a keen artistic sense to enable them to match the aesthetic style developed by production design and the DOP. A good foundation in art theory and practice can help a Lighting Artist gain and improve this visual literacy: the ability to understand what effects the DOP is seeking to create through lighting and the facility to produce sympathetic lighting within the digital realm.
On some projects, a Lighting Artist/TD, may be involved in the research and development of different ‘looks’ for the Production Designer, VFX Supervisor or Lighting Supervisor. An experienced Lighting TD may work as a ‘Look Development Artist’ with the art department, Concept Artist or Production Designer to develop the look of a CGI creature, object or vehicle, creating a set-up with a hero shot to get the ‘look development’ (often just called ‘look dev’) right, then designing a set-up or rig based on this shot to ensure the look is correctly applied to different instances of the creature, object or vehicle in different shots. How far the look is reliant on lights or shaders will depend on how the Lighting TD standardises the look and how flexible it has to be.
It is likely that there will be an established design theme for a sequence or a project which the Lighting TD needs to respect. They refer to the relevant production designs and apply that visual style as faithfully as possible, taking care to maintain continuity.
In a large company or on a larger project, Lighting Artists/TDs are often part of a team, but they need to be able to work with a minimum of supervision, understand the tools available and know how to utilise them to create the desired effects. In some VFX companies, the role of Lighting Artist/TD may be combined with that of Modeling Artist and Texture Artist and in this case, working as a 3D/CGI Generalist, the lighting job would involve applying a pre existing set–up to a new shot, before passing on the scene to a more senior/experienced Lighting Artist/TD, who would do all the necessary tweaking on a shot by shot basis before rendering out the necessary passes for the compositor to put it all together, further tweak, attend further ‘comp’ dailies and eventually get the shot ‘finalled’.
There is also often what, at best, can be described a symbiotic relationship between Lighting Artists/TDs and Compositing Artists who are often work in a kind of partnership at larger VFX companies. At crunch time the ‘render new cgi’ versus. ‘fix it in comp’ approaches to getting a shot to dailies, can develop into a regular tug of war between the disciplines.
In terms of skill set, Lighting Artists/TDs now need to understand compositing (and Compositors now need to understand CGI lighting and rendering). In some companies, particularly in the US, the division between comp and lighting no longer exists and the new role of ‘VFX Finishing Artist’ has been created.
• Understand practical lighting design, colour theory, image composition, staging and basic film grammar
• Good understanding of colour space
• Knowledge of CGI lighting techniques
• Familiarity with VFX pipeline issues and problem solving
• Knowledge of other disciplines within VFX, including modelling and UV mapping, texturing, matchmoving is desirable
• Knowledge of relevant software (see below)
• Ability to communicate with colleagues and work as part of a team
• Ability to take direction and willingness to address feedback
• Ability to manage priorities and bring multiple tasks to completion within a deadline.
• Enthusiasm to learn and develop professionally
In VFX, Lighting Artists/TDs need extensive knowledge of Maya as well as a number of renderers (depending on the companies pipeline – some renders are very bespoke and coded in-house, this is happening less often now though) including Mental Ray, Arnold, V-Ray and Renderman. Arnold is now widely used in feature film CGI rendering for VFX. Nuke is used for test compositing. A knowledge of Python and basic shell navigation with a Unix/Linux based operating system is also expected. In Games, 3DS Max is the most widely used 3D application.
Applying pre-existing rigs to other shots or completing basic lighting tasks forms part of the basic skillset of a 3D/CGI Generalist. Learn how to matchmove, model, texture, as well as light. Looser, more impressionistic or stylised CGI and animation work, will get you into full CGI work. There are a number of good VFX courses in the UK and Europe now.
Find a school/course with a decent reputation in the industry where you’ll be surrounded by like minded people with a common goal. Guidance and mentoring in producing an industry standard entry level showreel with shots that show matchmoving, lighting and good generalist CGI skills is crucial. Ask questions of any potential course. Have the instructors/tutors worked in the industry rather than just in academia? What are the course graduate employment rates like? Is showreel/demo shot mentoring in place from instructors/tutors who understand the industry reference standards for VFX as well as animation?
Some Lighting TDs have come from more maths and computer science backgrounds but with some interest and engagement with art, photography and cinema either through additional learning or as a keen hobby.
The job is a fair share of both technical and artistic skills and some Lighting TDs with experience or training in optics (physics), mathematics/computer science may want to work in Shader Development whilst others who are from more artistic backgrounds can build careers as Look Development Artists who work closely with production design and ensure that practical art direction/production design is translated or mirrored in the look of the CGI.
Senior Lighting Artists/TDs will have built up experience and a track record over a number of years of consistent work. They will be setting up the main lighting rigs on shows, and giving guidance to more junior artists. You’ll need to work as a Lighter for upwards of seven years to become a Senior Lighting Artist/TD. At this point you will just be specialising in CG lighting and it’s likely you will be leading on lighting and the mentoring of junior artists. From here it is possible to become a CGI or VFX Supervisor.