Chapter 4: Light Categories


I would like to present you my universal method to design a light rig. It actually took me several years and a lot of studios to come up with. It will hopefully cover ALL of your needs and help you build your light rigs.

The day I understood the different categories of lights I was having a religious epiphany. It was like I was finally connecting all the dots together.

This proper methodology mainly comes from Animal Logic : our lightrig in the outliner was organized this way. But it is only thanks to Sandip Kalsy and Matthias Menz that I was able to write it down. It changed me as an artist and has never left me since.

There are three categories :

  • Natural lights : Lights that are not manufactured.
  • Practical lights : Lights present on set and possibly visible to camera.
  • Dramatic lights : Lights that are unjustified which main purpose is storytelling (also called studio lights).

Natural lights

Natural lights are not manufactured. There are three main ones :

Actually most of black bodies, like lava, lightning and fireflies, can also be considered natural lights.

In computer graphics, we will generally use an Env Light and a Directional (or Distant) Light. Some softwares have merged them into one Physical Sun and Sky Light. It allows you to tweak the elevation, turbidity and the radius easily. These natural lights have one thing in common : they are both infinite.

Most advanced models are analytical which take in account the sun emission spectrum, spectral absorption in the atmosphere (ozone) and atmospheric scattering. Also fine particles (Raleygh) and large particles (Mie) are evaluated.

Corona, Indigo, Octane, Frostbite and Unreal Skylights are quite advanced.

In this video (I worked on the last eight shots), you have two main lights :

  • An Env Light with an HDRI for the sky.
  • A warm Distant Light for the sun.

We have also added a couple of Area Lights to fill the characters. But we’ll come back to this later.

Let’s focus on Natural Lights first.



I generally start with the Sun :

  • Work your sun individually to know what it is exactly doing. It is really important to spend time on it. A nice sun will give shape to your shot. It is really about modelling your frame.
  • Is it cloudy ? Playing with some clouds will definitely help for the composition and give depth.
  • What time of the day is it ? This is one of the most important factor in the sun look.

In the real world the sun actually never changes color : its temperature is 5800k.

During sunrise and sunset, the sun is more saturated and has softer shadows. Why is that ?

  • Change of color : As the sun gets lower in the sky, its light is passing through more of the atmosphere to reach you. Even more of the blue light is scattered, allowing the reds and yellows to pass straight through to your eyes.
  • Change of shadow softness : The amount of particles of air makes the source bigger, resulting in softer shadows.
  • Sun goes even green right before disappearing at sunset !
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If you work in Unreal Engine or Unity, you probably work in Lumen which is great since you can find some real measures. Most of the time lighting artists do not put enough energy in the Sun. Do not hesitate to put values such as 6 stops or 64 in intensity for interior scenes to get a nice bounce in ACES.

I have even heard about 300 in intensity (more than 8 stops) using an Arri Alexa config with a dynamic range at 55 !

Are Sunrise and Sunset different ?

Nice article about this topic. It says that there is no natural cause of a major optical difference between them. However, two human factors break their symmetry :

  • Our eyes. We perceive more colors at dawn than at dusk because the night’s darkness has left us with very acute night vision. Remember the rods we talked about earlier ?
  • Pollution. The sunset’s atmosphere is full of car and factories’ particles. The dawn is clearer than any other time of day.

At dawn, clearer skies enable more brilliant reds and oranges […], whereas thicker atmospheres at dusk tend to dull these colors, leading to more washed-out sunsets. […], more dust and smog (at sunset) can have the effect of scattering light across a greater region of the sky, […], whereas sunrise colors tend to be more focused around the sun.

Sun : Directional or Spotlight ?

I like directional lights because they are easy to manipulate. You only have to rotate them. BUT they light everything equally. I would never use them without a GOBO (Goes Before Optics) or blocker.

In the next shots from The Secret Life of Pets (Director : Chris Renaud), we used a directional light and added blockers and fake clouds to alternate light and shadow areas.

Using a physical SkyLight and a couple of clouds should be enough to start on an exterior scene. You can play with the density/transparency of the clouds and their animation as well to bring life. You should alternate areas of shadow and light to create more depth.

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Guerilla also has some procedural features like scattering and fur.

Spotlight on Planet 51

We did NOT use a single directional light on Planet 51 (Director : Jorge Blanco). We used spotlights all the time. Back then, it was not clear for me why we would do such a thing. Of course, biggest difference between a distant and a spot light is the deformation of perspective. We did put our spot lights quite far so no one notices the trick. There was no decay back then.

It is only ten years later that it struck me : using spot lights allowed us to focus more on certain areas very easily. I remember that I used the cone angle on every single shot of this movie. It became an automatism. You don’t want to light everything equally. Even if it is the sun. Otherwise, what’s the point ?

Distant light on The Star

Contrast issue

You want to direct the eye and light certain areas more than others. If you use a directional, put some clouds or use a blocker. It will make your image much more interesting. Here is an example where the image is not clearly readable. At the end of the shot, where is your eye going ? The hunter or the yellow dude ?

I actually lit the shot above. The highest contrast point is not on the hunter. That’s clearly a mistake. Every time I look at it, my eye goes to the yellow dude.

Sharon Calahan : What you do not see is as important as what you do see. The light is there to direct the viewer’s attention, the darkness to stimulate his imagination.

Spotlight on The Star

Two suns

It is on the movie ‘The Star’ that I started to think about Spotlights for Exterior Daylight Scenes. I did a sequence on a market where the main character, Bo the donkey, was confused, lost and desperately looking for his owner, Mary. The Color Key was done by Sean Eckols. Here is the establishing shot. Can you spot the cheat ?

We started the sequence with an establishing shot where you could clearly see that two suns were present, in almost opposite directions. With a couple of blockers, we could fade them in without anyone noticing the trick. We needed to have several shots against the sun to confuse the spectator as well. It was an interesting challenge to do !

I am using this example to show you how far we can go even with natural lights. Two different sun directions are not mistake, it is an artistic choice.

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Concept was done by George Taylor

Sean Eckols : The intention was to create tension through the raking light and shadow play and the dust/haze as this was a tense moment in the story. Creating tension and confusion as Bo looked into the light and can only see silhouettes against the harsh light. We were just cheating the light to fit the story.

It was a difficult choice to be approved by the supervisor and other artists. One of the reactions I got was : “Isn’t it going to confuse the artists to have two spotlights for the suns ?” Yes ! That is the whole point of the sequence ! We want to confuse the viewer with two suns to fully identify with the main character.

Finally I want to state clearly that there was no crossed shadows on the floor. It would have killed the sequence. I worked hard to get this naturalist look so no one could notice the “double sun” trick. So except if your are lighting a football stadium, you should never render hard crossed shadows.

Spotlight definition

What is a spotlight? It is the association of a point light with a cone. The spot in itself is not a type of light, like an area light. The cone is basically a light filter and we should be able to use on any lights, like in Guerilla Render.

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You can mix a cone (light filter) with a distant light in Guerilla to get the best of each element.

Another advantage of using a spotlight is for interiors. It will create a bigger impact since the source is closer, due to the deformation of perspective.

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Really, both options are available for the sun : spot or distant.

It would be stupid to say that spot lights are better than distant lights. We use distant most of the time, but spot can be interesting as well. It really depends on the look you want to achieve : whatever makes it more interesting. It could be a blocker, a GOBO or even a plane with a cloud mapped on it.



Follow with your SKY. Three things to pay attention to :

  • Rotate it properly to match your key direction. Otherwise you could get some weird mismatch. I’ll show a proper example in the next chapter.
  • Which map are you using ? A good solution is to use a HDRI published by matte-painting. Be careful with its resolution and its exposure. 2k and a range of 10 stops should be good. Otherwise, you renders could be expensive and noisy.

It is at Animal Logic that I realized this. The matte-painting department would work on these beautiful panoramic HDRIs in 16k or even 32k. And we would have to create a smaller version in Nuke (2k or 4k) of these files for our Env Lights. Otherwise mipmapping process and sampling would be very long. The exposure of about ten stops is similar to the Clamp Pre Filter we have discussed in Chapter 1.

  • I generally try to have my Sky visible in Primary Visibility. So there is a coherency between the Sky rendered and the Sky illuminating the scene. That’s a personal choice though. I like when they both match

In a series of articles on the Lion King (Director : Jon Favreau, DP : Caleb Deschanel), you clearly see that MPC chose a different path on the sky. Same thing on Moana (Director : Ron Clements and John Musker, Cinematography : Adolph Lusinsky).

It is totally possible to separate both skies if you want to.

Physical Sky or HDRI ?


In some cases, you can use a physical sky. The Solid Angle website explains the concept very clearly : Arnold Physical Sky. SkyLight is a good starting point but it is generally not enough to give depth and interest to a shot. Clouds and haze would definitely help in that case.

On Playmobil (Director : Lino DiSalvo, PD : Rémi Salmon) we rendered many sequences with the SkyLight from Guerilla. It was more than enough for the look we wanted. And there is no risk to have a mismatch between the Sun Direction and the Sky since they are linked.

In Arnold and Guerilla Render, the shadow softness is (unfortunately) not driven by the elevation. Skylights are not 100% automatic and you’ll still have to play with the Sun Radius to get a convincing look for your shadows.

That is really important, especially for sunset/sunrise setups.
We used the SkyLight from Guerilla Render in this sequence. Clouds were added in 2D.

Why is the sky blue ? Sunlight reaches Earth’s atmosphere and is scattered in all directions by all the particles in the air. Blue is scattered more than other colors because it travels as shorter, smaller waves.

This is why we see a blue sky most of the time.

Lego Batman

In the following example from Lego Batman (Director : Chris McKay, PD : Grant Freckelton), the Joker has taken over Gotham City. Check the sky out : It is very cloudy, with some hints of green, orange an purple. There is no way a SkyLight could match that.

I could not have used a Physical Sky for this shot. Sky is way too insane ! Instead I used the HDRI provided by the Matte-Painting Department.

Should we have the Sun in the HDRI or not ? I have seen both setups. Some artists actually remove the Sun from the environment map to avoid any double sun issue.

I personally think that having the Sun in the HDRI can add some shaping and some extra reflections to the characters. You have to pay attention to its orientation though : just make sure your Sky is aligned with the Sun.

From Cinematic Color : When scene textures […] contain emissive specular areas that substantially contribute to the scene illumination (RGB>>1.0), care must be taken in terms of sampling or noise is likely. […] Even still, it is common to paint out very compact and/or bright sources (such as the sun) from skydomes, and then add them back into the scene as native renderer lights to allow for both lower-noise sampling and often greater artistic control.

War for the planet of the apes

With an exterior cloudy day, I would personally try to use only one Env Light with an HDR. It is a good way to test the solidity of a proper PBR workflow. Not very challenging in terms of lighting but damn accurate !

War for the planet of the Apes (Director : Matt Reeves, DP : Michael Seresin) is very good example of doing things right.

Sky limitation

One issue we face quite often in CG is that the sky flattens everything. Like it lacks directionality. But it does not always have to be the case ! Let’s have a look at this amazing cloudy lighting from The Witch (Director : Robert Eggers, DP : Jarin Blaschke). I am a huge fan of this movie and I think the photography is as good as The Revenant.

Jarin Blaschke : “Once we waited for the gloom, the grip department would just give it a little shape. The light tends to come from one direction and I’d just further take down from the other direction. The base light had to be real overcast weather and we’d just put some nets and solids on the side to strengthen what the light was already doing.”

They also used some Negative fill on set, it is like a blocker to us. So there are definitely several possibilities of shaping the characters like Jarin Blaschke did.

You can even support your sky with a top light with soft shadows. It can help to give more shape. We will come back to that later.


I do NOT want to paraphrase Craig Welsh but the moon does not light in blue ! It is NOT cold ! The moon is a reflector of the Sun. It is actually warmer than the Sun since It is temperature is 4000K.

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Mark Gee is an amazing night photographer.


Here is a quite unique example of a warm moon in a full CG feature film. It is my personal favorite and probably the most beautiful night in CG History. Emotion, storytelling and framing at their best levels ! Please take a couple of minutes to enjoy this clip from Rango (Director : Gore Verbinski, DP : Roger Deakins) :

Roger Deakins, one of the most famous cinematographer, has been hired as a DP on Rango, Wall-e and How to train your dragon. It is the proof that cinematography between live-action and PBR cartoon have things in common. I’ll use many examples from him in my book.

Day for night

If the Moon is warmer than the Sun in the real world, then why most nights in movies are blue ? One possible reason would be purely scientific : humans have poor night vision. We have seen in the first chapter about the retina, which is composed of rods and cones :

  • Cones are active at higher light levels, are capable of color vision and are responsible for high spatial acuity.
  • Rods are only active when light is low. At night we use them for our vision. However, they are not sensitive to color. This is why we are colorblind at night. The rod sensitivity is shifted toward shorter wavelengths (the bluer ones) compared to daylight vision, as explained in this article.

This phenomena is called the Purkinje Effect. How cinematographers have approached this issue ? It is called Day for night or “Nuit américaine” in French. Wikipedia explains it much better that I do ! Basically it is a technique where the scene would be shot underexposed with a blue tint added in post. It has been done with more or less success over the years.

Night lighting in live-action

Mad Max : Fury Road

One of my less favorite example would be from Mad Max : Fury Road (Director : George Miller, DP : John Seale).

The image has been twisted so much in post-production that it breaks any plausibility of the light. Especially when you get close to the characters : skin tones just look like The Smurfs.

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Some shots work better than others.

Here is what John Seale says about the look of the movie :

George did not want a standard post-apocalyptic film to be gray, blue, black colors. He didn’t want to follow that pattern. Because we don’t really know what the apocalyptic event might have been. […] George is used to the computer at the end of the film. He knew what he could do in post.[…] Don’t worry John, I’ll fix it in post. It wasn’t until post that he started to lock down what he felt was good. It took eight months.

“We do not know where the apocalypse came from. End of oil ? Global warming ?” I found weirdly interesting to justify the look by some scientific explanation. Does the end of the world has a consequence on the saturation of the movie ?

I thought that the extreme color was actually used to get some graphic and punchy images. Here is an interview with Eric Whipp which gives some explanation on the matter. A great post and this article give some insight as well.

It looks like that a still photographer on set, Jasin Boland, tried to go for a desaturated look and George Miller did not want to go down this road.

I can confirm it was kinda the same on Happy Feet 2.

Cast away

This Day for night is much more subtle (Director : Robert Zemeckis, DP : Don Burgess).

There is still something fundamentally wrong in terms of exposure. But I think they get away with it as this sequence looks like our mental image.

Night lighting in CG

But what about full CG feature films ? I have done blue nights on every single movie I have worked. Except Lego Batman. This is why this movie holds a special place for me.

I am not against blue nights but I think it has become a cliché in feature animation. We just got used to the equation blue equals night when there are other possibilities to explore in animation.

Monsters University

Probably the movie that has pushed the Purkinje Effect to its maximum. So bold ! (Director : Dan Scanlon, DP : Jean-Claude Kalache)

I am fascinated by the desaturated look of this sequence. But this is actually very clever as it makes the headlights from the police and the characters (especially the monsters) pop more easily.

The good dinosaur

This is an interesting example as well : the moon is warm but the image is overall cold and desaturated (Director : Peter Sohn, DP : Sharon Calahan). Not as bold as Monsters University but still very effective.

Despicable Me 2

This is quite a good example of a cartoon Day for night. Just push the saturation ! (Director : Pierre Coffin/ChrisRenaud, DA : Yarrow Cheney)


Night has turned greener and is overexposed in Minions the movie. Volumetric brings a perfect read on the characters (Director : Pierre Coffin, DA : Olivier Adam).

So how we should approach Night Lighting ? I would say that it depends on your story and the emotion you want to convey. Obviously the look of the movie (realistic/illustrative) will influence a great deal.

I have asked my friend Alfonso Caparrini about night lighting at Pixar : each shot can be handled differently but I can assure you there is no night version nor day version of the shaders. It is the same shader for both lighting conditions. We generally desaturate in compositing or directly on the light itself. It depends on the artist, there is no general rule.

Don’t get me wrong : blue nights are a nice and soft type of illumination. But it has been done so much that it has become kind of boring. For cartoon and comedies, it is the easiest way to light for the audience though. There is no risk at all in a blue night : it is safe, colorful and not scary. There is a great article from James Gurney on the subject.

Naturalist lighting

Can we only stick to natural lights ? Is it possible to only render with a Sky and a Sun for example ? Well, yes and no. We have seen earlier about my shots from War for the planet of the Apes but that is quite an exception in my career.

I thought a great example of this would be The Last of Us (Director : Neil Druckmann, Concept : John Sweeney). In this example I am really only talking about daylight scenes.

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Funny how this non-PBR video game still looks good.

What I really want to emphasize here is this : it visually looks like there are only two natural light sources (Sky and Sun) but there are probably lots of extra lights to support the action, give clarity to the shots and shape to the characters. This is at the heart of naturalist lighting : the art of making several sources appear as one.

In the version 2.0 of this book (release in September 2021), I will detail Lightning and Lava. We are now done with the first category. Let’s move on to Practical Lighting !

Practical lights


Light sources that are physically present in the scene and are part of the set : lamps, screens, candles, street lights, neon lamps…

Why are candles and fire not considered natural lights ? Because they have been placed on purpose ! They are practical lights.

In the version 2.0 of this book (release in September 2021), I will put examples of a light, a lamp post and a candle in Guerilla. Stay tuned !

Practical lights in CG

How to train your dragon

Here is an example from How to train your dragon (Directors : Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, DP : Roger Deakins).

It is really interesting to read Roger Deakins opinion about lighting in feature animation and especially on this scene :

The scene is lit by just a couple of candles and so much of the frame is cast into shadow. And […] for animation in general, the feeling is that if you’re creating all these props, you want to see them. As a result, animated films are notoriously over lit and Roger’s approach is to actually take away lights. So we ended up with just a couple of local light sources and deep rich shadows on screen.

Most animation feature films are comedies for children and their parents. This is why our movies are filled with light : not to scare children and to read properly the action and the characters.

Candle lighting has been studied a lot through Art History. La Madeleine au miroir by Georges de la Tour is one of its most famous examples. In a way I feel like Roger Deakins is perpetuating this long tradition.

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We’ll also see some amazing candle lighting in the next examples.

Practical lights in live-action

Barry Lindon

Practicals are not often the main source of light. But they can be. It is an artistic choice. The most famous example being from Barry Lyndon (Director : Stanley Kubrick, DP : John Alcott). It was shot in 1973. Back then it was a technical tour-de-force to light only with candles. Kubrick used Zeiss super-fast 50mm lenses from NASA to achieve this result ! Wikipedia explains it very well !

Kubrick is a director who used practical lighting a lot : lights that are justified and present on set where it is easy to identify the source. He really liked to explore things and push the boundaries. This video explains it pretty well.

Wait a second… Why did Kubrick need NASA lenses to shoot a candle sequence ? Can’t you just use a normal lens ? Well, back in 1973, it was not possible. The technology was not there. For this reason, practicals are a bit of a special case.

Before we move on to our next example, I thought I would give you a bit of context. Two lighting TDs, Sandip Kalsy and Matthias Menz, have done a three hours master class on cinematography. It is probably the best course I have ever seen ! And they have realized something pretty unusual about practicals. Let’s have a look !


The shots below from Munich (Director : Steven Spielberg, DP : Janusz Kaminski) is one of the frames that really astounded them. The practical light does NOT affect the characters. There is no rim. But without this lamp, it would just be black behind them. It also justifies, unconsciously and illogically, the light coming from the right.

In CG, I can assure you 100%, we would have a rim on these characters. That’s the obvious choice. But in most cases, practical lights only illuminate the set. They are not strong enough to light actors. Therefore their main purpose is to break background homogeneity and to justify other lights. Indeed, a visible source on screen like a lamp, helps the brain to accept the lighting more easily. Practical lights can help for composition, create depth, improve the set dressing, even in daylight.

Please pay attention to the light between the characters. It ties the characters together, but we will come back to that later.


An other example to illustrate the role of practical lights : Se7en (DP : Darius Khondji).

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Thanks to Aymeric Montouchet for the pictures.

In 2013, when Jarin Blaschke wants to shoot a “candle sequence” for The Witch, he does not need NASA lenses. He’ll just use an Arri Alexa. What has happened between Barry Lindon and The Witch ? The digital revolution.

Interesting quote from Roger Deakins about practicals : “I find myself lighting more and more with practical light sources and very few ‘film’ lights. […] Choice of and the placement of practical light sources is an increasingly important aspect of lighting. Digital capture and the increased dynamic range that it offers makes lighting this way even more exciting.

The Witch

To mimic a fire is one of the hardest things you can do. Nowadays thanks to digital cameras and their increase exposure range, it is much easier to capture this data. If you have not watched The Witch, just do it.

Jarin Blaschke : “As far as the interiors and all the candlelit stuff, I don’t know. In a way it’s kind of freeing, actually, because you don’t have to emulate anything. It’s like, “Well, they have candles so let’s use candles.” It gets to the point and then you’re just concerned with the basics of lighting, of how to build the shot in depth and how to use these different tools. I mean the candles burn down quickly and you have to replace them but other than that, you know, you’re not worried about how to make something try to look like something else. You’re just going for the real thing.

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So many great references. It is overwhelming.

Roger Deakins

Thanks to the digital revolution we see more practical lighting nowadays. I actually think that is a good thing because it is a lot easier to shoot a movie today than in 1960. But the main risk would be if the lighting relies ONLY on practical. Cinematography looks more real and natural but it misses out on a huge part of lighting !

I actually wrote to Roger Deakins to ask him if the digital camera had changed his way of working. His answer is pretty interesting :

“Yes, I do find I use practical lights as the main source more often than I did when I was shooting film but I wouldn’t say that necessarily related to digital imaging rather than to the speed of capture. I mean, if there was an 800 ASA film stock the same would apply. There is a scene in ‘Prisoners’ that I think demonstrates what I am saying and that is when I was shooting with a key fob light as the only source. I would not have been able to do this had I been shooting on any available film stock but there is nothing to say that it couldn’t be done.

This scene from Prisoners will be uploaded here for the version 2.0 of this book (release in September 2021). Meanwhile you can check this article.

I also think that the practice of shooting by the light of practical sources is, in a more general way, just a natural development of my work although, I must say, I shot a few films early on with little or no ‘film’ lighting.”

Spielberg actually relies mainly on another category of light : Dramatic (or studio) lights. It is probably because he is so used to shoot on film. Before digital cameras, you had to become very inventive in terms of lighting and how to force light on film.

This is actually a very tough challenge and it is at the heart of cinematography : How to enhance a shot to serve a story without making it look fake.

The invitation

Next example is from one of my favorite movie : The invitation (Director : Karyn Kusama, DP : Bobby Shore). I have chosen a couple of shots where you can clearly see practical and dramatic lights separately. So you can clearly see the difference between the two.

Check also Herbert Heinsche’s website, from Animal Logic, it is very interesting : practical lights. Practical lights can be a motivation for dramatic. Often, practical lights are not suitable for lighting a subject. You have to use another light category (dramatic) to mimic it.

Of course I have to mention the talk from Siggraph 2019 about Practical Lighting on Toy Story 4. It is just brilliant ! Setting some values directly in the asset and then playing with exposure in rendering. That’s bold.

We kinda had a similar approach with our Lights In Assets (LIA) on Lego Batman.

Dramatic lights


They are unjustified lights to enhance the shot and are 100% in service of storytelling. They do not necessarily have any coherence with the other lights from the scene.

If you only stick to natural and practical lights, you’ll get a documentary look, not a good-looking movie.

Steven Spielberg

This sentence blew me away. Just stop for two minutes and think about it. You can follow all the rules and do everything technically correct. But if there is not a strong art direction, there is no point :

  • We are here to serve the story.
  • Everything is valid as long as it is looking good, sampling friendly and easy to share.
  • Art direction and storytelling prevail.
  • Directors do not care about PBR and they are definitely right to do so !

Sharon Calahan : Purely natural or physically correct lighting is often not interesting enough to create drama and captivate the audience.

From Siggraph 1996. Impressive.

Dramatic lights in live-action


Check out this sequence from Munich (Director : Steven Spielberg, DP : Janusz Kaminski) :

Spielberg wanted a mysterious lighting for this sequence. How do you translate that visually ? The foreground practical lamp would have flattened everything and made it less interesting. Once again practical lighting is not used. Where’s the green bounce light coming from ? No one knows nor cares. But it’s dramatic. It creates visual tension. We do not need to justify it !

Why The Witch, only shot in natural lighting, does not look like a documentary ? Because there is an artistic bias. It is beautifully stylized in many ways : lenses, camera movement, grain, LUT…

The Hobbit 2

Interesting story for Smaug as well on The Hobbit 2 (Director : Peter Jackson, DP : Andrew Lesnie). The brief was : Smaug should look like the devil. Without any color key, how do you accomplish that ? The lighter used bounce lighting (monster lighting) as main source.

In every day’s life we are NOT used to see light coming from the floor. It just looks unnatural. Perfect for any mysterious or devilish lighting. If the practical lights are logical, the dramatic lights are purely artistic.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

There is a night sequence in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Director : Coen Brothers, DP : Bruno Delbonnel) that caught my attention. It is a scene with three characters around a fire. Unlike the Witch, it has been shot with dramatic lights.

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I loved this short film ! So moving ! I’m just being picky on lighting.

It is apparently a nightmare to hide light sources on set, especially if they are in the camera frustum. Even Roger Deakins mentions this issue for Blade Runner 2049 (Director : Denis Villeneuve, DP : Roger Deakins) :

“The water was lit with 10K Fresnel lamps. There were two per side making eight in all. It was a very tricky rig because it had to be quite high, so as to not be in shot, and the lamps had to have the right angle to reflect and spill across the wall as they do. I was originally expecting that I could do this effect without lighting the water so much.”

This is one of the big advantage of CG : you do not have to put an object between the camera and the light to hide a source. However this technical constraint forces DPs to think differently, very often for the best.

Roger Deakins

There is an interesting post on his forum about unmotivated lighting. Here are the examples used in the post (I have put Roger’s explanations in the descriptions) :

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Is there such thing as unmotivated lighting ?

Roger Deakins seems to acknowledge the fact that in his lighting style, there is no pure unmotivated light. Very interesting !

I am trying to think when I have used an entirely unmotivated source. It is true that most of my work could be considered as always motivated by the way natural light works but the divide between the altogether natural and completely stylized is pretty vague.

Dramatic lights in CG

Kung-Fu Panda

I love this sequence in Kung-Fu Panda (Director : Mark Osborne and John Stevenson, Cinematography : Yong Duk Jhun) where Tai Lung escapes from the Chorh-Gom prison. Some red torches are located next to the doors at the beginning of the sequence : Practical Lighting. The use of red is then exaggerated to serve the story : Dramatic Lighting.

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Sequence still holds pretty well more than ten years later.

It seems like in animation, for some reason, that we need to over-justify our lighting. Is it due to the medium ? Or the youth of our industry ? Why can’t we light like the Munich shot ? Part of the answer has been given to me by a lighting artist :

In CG we are always worried that it may look fake. And CG by nature is kinda ugly.

I definitely encourage anyone working in the industry to use dramatic lights ! Thanks to digital cameras, it is easier to light movies nowadays than forty years ago. But I am afraid that dramatic lighting could disappear. If we do not need to cheat anymore, some very important knowledge may be lost to the next generation of cinematographers.

Animation is not a genre ! There is a confusion on what Animation is. It is a medium. We should be able to do animated action movies, animated horror movies and animated dramas. There are a few movies out there. But the majority of cartoons from Hollywood are comedies.

Lego Batman

We used plenty of Dramatic Lights on Lego Batman (Director : Chris McKay, PD : Grant Freckelton). Let’s have a look and try to guess which light is dramatic in the sequence below.

Look at the Joker. See how he is lit by a white light that comes from nowhere ? That’s the dramatic light. It makes the joker’s face very readable. He really pops ! This movie is one of the project I am most proud of. Grant’s vision is just unique.

The incredibles 2

My next example comes from the Khan Academy where we get a proper breakdown of lights from Incredibles 2 (Director : Brad Bird, Cinematography : Erik Smitt).

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It’s really cool to analyze light roles at Pixar.

In most articles about lighting, light roles is generally the first topic to be addressed. We all have seen lists or examples with the famous light names : Key, Fill, Rim, Bounce… But something I have never read in any of these articles is that these light roles are purely dramatic. Except in the following document :

Sharon Calahan : Lighting vocabulary is based on studio lighting.

I think it is pretty important to mention it. A good use of vocabulary can bring a lot of clarity. Here is my personal analysis :

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I don’t agree with every light role description. It’s really personal.

Here is a list of the most famous Dramatic Light Roles (or Light Functions according to Sharon Calahan) :

  • Key : Main shaping light in the scene.
  • Fill : Avoids any black areas and reduces contrast. Soft source.
  • Rim : Gives shape by outlining and generally faces the camera.
  • Kicker : Helps separate subject from background.
  • Top : Comes from above the scene, to give more directionality to the sky.
  • Bounce : Comes from a surface, generally the floor or a wall.
  • Shatner : A bar of light across the face or eyes of a character.

Sharon Calahan : A light’s function is particularly meaningful for describing how it is used on a subject.

We will come back to these roles in Chapter 8.5 : Character Lighting.

There is actually a fourth category : Technical. The surfacing light rigs used for turntables would fit in this category.


Each category of lights has its utility. It is the ultimate method to analyze and plan a sequence. It changed my way of working. The idea as well is to develop a common vocabulary. So we can communicate better between each other.