Chapter 6: Lighting Principles


We are going to review here some universal principles that can be applied on any CG movie. These principles have been developed by artists through centuries and have been adapted to our medium. Are directors of photography the new painters ?

I could not come with a better list of objectives of lighting than the one presented in the book Matters of Light and Depth by Ross Lowell. Here it is :

  1. Directing the viewer’s eye
  2. Enhancing mood, atmosphere and drama
  3. Creating depth
  4. Conveying time of day and season
  5. Revealing character personality and situation
  6. Complementing composition

This list looks pretty much complete to me ! I cannot think of more objectives than these ones. Nonetheless, I have tried to come with my own rules and see how they would fit in this list.

In the version 2.0 of this book (release in Q4 2020), I’ll do a proper paragraph per objective.

This chapter will be much more complete. Meanwhile you can check this amazing link.


Continuity is the maintenance of continuous action and self-consistent detail in the various scenes of a film. For readability and not confusing the viewer, shots from a sequence must look similar and have a visual coherence. Until we realized there was a certain flexibility with this rule. The whole question is there : how far can you go without disturbing the average spectator ?

It is one of the biggest topic in animation studios nowadays. There are like two different ways of seeing this : the purists of continuity who think all the shots must perfectly match. And those who think we have a certain leeway between shots. Each studio has its way of doing things : one may say that it is cultural.

From what I have experienced, it really depends on the supervisor you work with. You may get a very different response between studios. Ilion and Illumination really pay attention to continuity. Maybe too much. Craig and Grant have a complete different take on the subject. They really changed me. Let’s have a look at some examples.

CG examples

Lego Batman

First one comes from Lego Batman. I have set the Master Lighting for this sequence and lit a couple of shots. Can you spot the continuity break ?

Here is the answer. This is a perfect example of what we are allowed to do on an animated feature film. Be prepared !

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Camera angle is so different that you get away with it.

It is a direct cut ! Bane is in complete shadow. Cut. He is in light. Has it bothered anyone ? Not that I know of. Continuity is important but shots do NOT have to match 100%.

Craig Welsh used to tell us : We would rather break continuity than having an ugly shot in the movie. We prefer you to make a bold statement rather than being shy artistically.

This statement empowers you as an artist.

Storytelling on Lego Batman

What is important in the example above ? Storytelling. In the first shot, the bad guys come out of the woods as an element of surprise. They come from the shadows. In the second shot, they explain their motivation : Why did they come ? We need to shed some light on them.

From Dave Walvoord : “Audiences are incredibly forgiving with light direction inconsistency.”

And I think Craig and Dave are right ! My advice is as long as the shots belong to the same world, we’re good. At the end of the day, it is more important to respect a global feel about the shots rather than commenting on a slight change of rim on a background character.

If I recall correctly, it has been demonstrated that the human mind focuses more easily on details rather than the big picture (it may have something to do with left and right brain). And I think we should fight that.

A note to all supervisors : pixel f#cking makes artists miserable. Please focus on the big picture.

Here is another example from the same sequence. Breaking continuity everywhere !

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A radical change of color on Killer Croc. Let’s not underestimate shot lighting !

Live-action examples

Continuity has been a hot topic on every show I did. I found the next example on this blog : Gurney Journey. It is an amazing blog that I really encourage you to consult.


Let’s have a look at this clip from Hugo (Director : Martin Scorsese, DP : Robert Richardson) where the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) interrogates Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Hugo (Asa Butterfield) on their whereabouts.

Has anything disturbed you ? It looked pretty good, right ? Well, let’s have a closer look, at the shots.

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Robert Richardson did a very good job in this dialogue sequence.

Actors are always backlit ! The lighting setup has been adjusted on every shot. Did you notice it ? Has it bothered you ? It does not bother me because the shots are still part of the same world.

The strong rim on Sacha Baron Cohen looks visually similar between shots. It ties them together. Yes it is adapted. But it looks good. I really like James Gurney’s blog but I completely disagree with him on this one :

James Gurney, commenting on Hugo Cabret : “a lighting continuity issue that was so distracting to me that it took me out of the film. When shooting the dialog coverage, director Martin Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson reset the lights for all the closeups so that the actors were always backlit.”

Speed Racer

I would never hesitate to adjust my lights to make your shots look as good as you can. How far can you go ? I personally have rotated lights, tweaked their intensities and even their temperatures between shots !

But does it mean you can do anything ? Let’s have a look at an example that does not really work. From the introduction sequence of Speed Racer (Directors : The Wachowski Brothers, DP : David Tattersall).

I think we should have had a strong rim on the teacher in all the shots. To be honest, I found it so distracting that it took me out of the film. But it does not mean the average viewer will notice it. In the end, it is all very personal.

The Lion King

I cannot resist the urge to share with you this article on the Lion King. “Deschanel : When starting work on a scene, Sam Maniscalco, [lead lighting artist from visual-effects studio Moving Picture Company (MPC)] would look at it, and based on where we were in the story, begin to light it — considering the time of day, the location and so forth. He would also pick the sky to go with the scene; we needed to consider the mood, and we had 350 skies we could choose from. We would find the right clouds and sky color, and then adjust the sun to wherever we wanted it to be. You might think we would just put the sun where we wanted it and leave it there every day — but, in fact, that never happened. We moved the sun on virtually every shot.

Legato : That’s also something that makes the movie look like it was conventionally photographed. That so-called perfection of having the sun stay in one spot — besides the fact that it doesn’t look great shot-to-shot — is something you would only see in a computer-generated movie. That’s the ‘taste’ factor that makes this method transcend beyond a technical exercise. It might be mathematically correct to place the sun where it would actually be, but it’s not artistically correct — so you do something else to make the shot work. That’s why we brought you in, as well as other people who do these things in the real world.”

How to train your dragon

The following quote comes from Roger Deakins‘ website. Yes ! He is talking about How to train your dragon at the end of it.

Roger Deakins : Yes, in live action you can never shoot two shots with the sun exactly in the same place so, you scout your locations, work out your shots and shoot each with the sun in a different spot that best suits each particular camera angle. There is one film in particular that is totally back lit and that is Dick Lester’s ‘Robin and Marian’. It looks great but it doesn’t make sense if you really stop and think about the angle of the sun from shot to shot …. but you don’t. I was working on a recent animated film and we looked at the ‘real’ light in a forest as captured on a 360º dome and transferred onto our scene. Of course it was all green and mushy ! It was the real thing but it didn’t suit our scene.

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Interesting example from Roger Deakins.

Matthias Menz : Lighting continuity is utterly irrelevant. The worst thing I have come across in my career time and again is the idea of being religious about a sequence light rig. That idea just never worked visually in my experience and it’s often enforced by supervisors with little to no visual understanding. Running a static light rig in 25 different shots, because you can, will not give you cinematography. Every shot has to be lit for its own needs while honoring a visual idea not a light rig.

Directing the viewer’s eye


Contrast is the where the brightest and the darkest parts of an image meet. Your eye will always be attracted to the most contrasted area of an image. We have already seen in chapter 3 about contrast emphasis.


The example below from Hannibal (Director : Ridley Scott, DP : John Mathieson) has always fascinated me. Julianne Moore is poorly lit. But having a white sheet of paper behind her head helps direct the eye to her face. Sometimes you do not need a complex lighting but a great composition.

Notice the strong rim on her shoulders and soft light on her face. That is a very common technique for character lighting to avoid strong impact directly on the face. We will come back to that later.

Thanks to Maël François and Sharon Callahan from Pixar for the trick.

At first sight, it looks like a counter-example of good lighting since Julianne Moore is poorly lit and therefore does not pop. But by having a white sheet of paper behind her and with a good framing, we may direct the viewer’s eye instantly to her face. A complex lighting is not always useful if composition is well thought.


Next example comes from the movie Chocolat (Director : Lasse Hallström, Cinematography : Roger Pratt). A kick light gives an extra bit of contrast to the focus point.

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Another trick from Maël !

Both examples do have something in common : there is a foreground character in shadow. This technique known as Negative space is described in the next paragraph.

Negative space

Having darker objects in the foreground (a bit like a silhouette) and brighter ones in the far background will give depth to your shot.

This definition of the negative space is pretty much incomplete and will be improved in version 2.0 of the book in Q4 2020.


Negative space was used a lot at Animal. First example comes from a Ninjago short called The Master (Director : Jon Saunders, DP : Craig Welsh).

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First time I ever heard about negative space.


The amazing cinematography by Darius Khondji on the movie Se7en provides us plenty of examples of negative space.

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I’ll update the slides for Q4 2020.


Look at this shot from Akira (Director : Katsuhiro Otomo, DP : Katsuji Misawa). You can clearly read foreground, middle ground and background in terms of exposure and temperature.

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A clear read and distinction is pretty much desirable in a cartoon PBR movie.

Do you see the violet volumetric in the street ? We used this trick a lot on Lego Batman to separate planes. We will come back to that a bit below but also in Chapter 7.

Bright object between two characters

This is a technique commonly used in movies : having a bright object between two characters ties them together. It took me a bit of time to understand the concept. But it is actually pretty simple.

It was first described to me by Mathias Menz and Sandip Kalsy in their masterclass. At first I was suspicious : why a bright object ? Why not a yellow object or a dark one ? But a few months thinking about it, here is my personal explanation.

The viewer’s eye will generally be attracted by a light source. The contrast actually helps to keep the eye in the zone of interest. That’s a very powerful and interesting composition tool !

You can find really good examples of this trick in many movies such as Bridge of Spies (Director : Steven Spielberg, DP : Janusz Kamiński), Tron Legacy (Director : Joseph Kosinski, DP : Claudio Miranda) or even Inglorious Basterds (Director : Quentin Tarantino, DP : Robert Richardson).

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Most of these examples come from Matthias Menz and Sandip Kalsy.

Matrix Reloaded

Let’s follow with an example that doesn’t really work. Watching Matrix Reloaded (Director : Wachowski brothers, DP : Bill Pope), it really hit me.

Here is my personal analysis : place the lamp where you want to focus the attention ! Otherwise it can really disturb the composition and the viewer.

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Not a big fan of those Zion shots.

Usual Suspects

The following example, from Usual Supects (Director : Bryan Singer, DP : Newton Thomas Sigel), is about contrast and the bright object technique. Let’s watch !

The light impact on the door (screen right) really caught my eye in the shot above. It looks great but I was kinda wondering what was its purpose or justification. Until Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) sat on the stairs, his head being right in front of the impact ! Pure dramatic lighting.

In CG we would probably have tried a caustics light or a soft bounce. If we tried a similar impact on a PBR cartoon movie, it would probably look too fake and we would need a justification. We will see about this technique in the next chapter.


A silhouette is a dark shape or an outline of someone or something visible in restricted light against a brighter background.

It is a particular example of the negative space.

Strong silhouettes help to read the characters better. And guess what ? We always want to get a clear read on the characters. We really don’t want to be confused about a shot. When you light a shot you should pay attention to stuff like :

  • Is the character speaking ?
  • Where is the main center of interest ?
  • What is the story point ?
  • Where is my eye going ?

Lego Batman Silhouette

Silhouette is a great tool to direct the viewer’s eye. But I have not used it that often because most cartoon movies like to fill the shots with light. A shame. Lego Batman (Director : Chris McKay, PD : Grant Freckelton) is probably my best personal example. I clearly remember Grant saying :

Such an iconic silhouette as batman reads so well.

Silhouettes all over the place in this series of shots.

Herbert Heinsche from Animal Logic talks of a similar technique on his website.

Having silhouettes help directing the eyes and have a clear read of the action.

Third man Silhouette

Below is probably the most iconic silhouette in movie history : Third man (Director : Carol Reed, Cinematography : Robert Krasker). It is a classic ! If you haven’t watched it, just do it.

You’ll find below a complete analysis of the sequence. It was a very interesting exercise to do. What a tour-de-force !

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Craig Welsh would do similar analysis during our weekly meetings.

Road to perdition Silhouette

Another great use of silhouette in Road to perdition (Director : Sam Mendes, DP : Conrad L. Hall). A forecasting of what is going to happen : the silhouette of Tom Hanks (Sullivan) with a machine gun overlaying the character who is going to die.

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Many artists and supervisors consider this movie to be one of the best cinematography ever.

Cameo Lighting

The contrary of a silhouette is called Cameo Lighting : bright characters over dark background.

It actually comes from the Cameo Stone.
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I just love this vocabulary. It is easier to communicate when concepts have a name.


In photography and optics, vignetting is a reduction of an image’s brightness or saturation toward the periphery compared to the image center.

In CG, it is quite common to ask an artist to vignette his lighting. Using a blocker, we can adjust by fading one or several lights and guide the viewer’s eye.

Barry Lindon

Let’s have a look at these shots from Barry Lindon (Director : Stanley Kubrick, DP : John Alcott).

Where does your eye go ? Not to the window, right ? It goes directly to the characters. Thanks to the glow (lens effect), the contrast between the window and the curtain is washed out and does not attract the eye. The characters are side lit over a dark background, it works perfectly. There is not a single thing that stands out.

Why is this composition genius ? Because the light in the back window has been blocked. Once again, in CG, using a directional by default, it would blast everything equally. This is why using a spot or a GOBO can make a huge difference.

It follows

The movie It follows (Director : David Robert Mitchell, DP : Mike Gioulakis) is another great example of vignetting. Cinematography is just gorgeous. It took me a while to realize it but inspiration for this movie comes from Gregory Crewdson’s work. Warning : viewer discretion is advised.

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I just love the connection between those two artists. It is mind-blowing !

Complementing Composition

Something I would like to mention is that if layout does not look good, you will have a hard time making the lighting look good. The composition of the shot has to be properly done. Because sometimes you fight with a shot until you realize the composition is actually the issue.


Counterchange is the reversal of tonal relationships between a form and its background which occurs from one end of the form to another.

It sounds complicated written like this but really it is not.

Bridge of spies

I have actually used this technique for years without even knowing it. To put a name on the concept helped me to control it in a better way.

Every time I work on a shot I try to keep it in mind. It has been used in many movies and really helps to build the composition. Do you notice anything particular about this shot from Bridge of Spies (Director : Steven Spielberg, DP : Janusz Kaminski) ?

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This was a game changer for me.

Pay attention on how the DP alternated shadow and light areas to have a nice composition. The bright part of Tom Hank’s face contrasts with the dark part of the background and vice-versa. This gives an instant read of the character and a rhythm to the image.

Let’s have a look at this beautiful sequence as there are many things to comment about it.

Below is a cinematography analysis on this sequence about continuity, counterchange and a nice lighting trick by the end of it !

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This is pure old-school dramatic lighting. Love it !

Revolutionary road

Revolutionary Road (Director : Sam Mendes, DP : Roger Deakins) has some counterchange on many shots.

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Great cinematography by Roger Deakins.

Classical paintings

Counterchange is actually a technique developed in painting. Check the examples below from Caravaggio, Vermeer, Georges de la Tour and Gerard von Honthorst.

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Many DPs use classical paintings as a source of inspiration.

It does not mean we have to use counterchange on every shot. Of course not. But when it comes to composition and light, it is a tool you can use.

The secret life of pets

I have picked a couple of shots which could have been improved with some counterchange.

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These shots still look good though.


Balance is essential in cinematography. We need our lights to be in correct proportions. I hate when the rim has the same intensity as the key. It is all about finding the right balance.

Grant Freckelton on Lego Batman used to tell us : “You guys have too many light sources at the same intensity. You cannot pick one above the others.

Too often our lights cancel each other (as seen in Chapter 2).

The Star

Our next example comes from the movie The Star (Director : Timothy Reckart, Art Director : Sean Eckols). I have set the Master Lighting for this sequence and worked with a couple of artists to polish the shots.

Look at Bo the donkey on these shots. He is equally lit from the left and the right side. I find it very disturbing, it almost looks like a fake rim with incandescence.

I am not blaming the lighting artist here. This show has been very complicated in terms of quotas. This rim has been weirdly approved by people who did not know much about the sequence’s look.

Tron Legacy

It is generally recommended to avoid any symmetrical lighting. It (almost) never looks good. I guess that on the next example from Tron Legacy (Director : Joseph Kosinski, DP : Claudio Miranda), they did not have much of a choice because of the art direction. But it really does not help selling the CG character. It makes him boring and look even more CG.

All these comments on Tron Legacy come from Sandip and Matthias’ masterclass.

It was fascinating to see them commenting those shots.

Planet 51

First time I heard about balance was on Planet 51 (Director : Jorge Blanco). I had equally lit the character from left and right in one of my shots. Thanks to my lighting supervisor, Barbara Meyers, I reduced the intensity from the rim right screen. Here is the shot :

But it dos not mean that symmetrical lighting is not an option. There is actually a shot of mine where the character is equally lit from left and right side.

Lego Batman

On Lego Batman (Director : Chris McKay, PD : Grant Freckelton), we actually enhanced the rims from both sides. But there is actually an explanation for this. Let’s have a look at the shot :

Main difference between those two clips is the art direction. Planet 51 has more a natural look, compared to Lego Batman which is very stylized. Everything is symmetrical in the Lego Batman shot : the framing, the set dressing and the colors. So it makes only sense that the lighting reinforces that. Did we go a bit too far on the rim lighting ? Maybe…


We have seen in detail two objectives of lighting out of six. Therefore my list of lighting principles is clearly incomplete. But I have put the ones I use the most in production. The four remaining lighting objectives will be described in the next version.

In the version 2.0 of this book (release in Q4 2020), I’ll also add some principles such as High key ratio VS Low key ratio, Patterns of lights, Chiaroscuro and more examples from Gregory Crewdson and It follows. The vignetting section will be reinforced with a couple of CG examples.

Lighting principles are cultural. And they are a very important part of the job. So do not hesitate to ask during an interview what is the lighting process of the department. It may help you when it comes to take a decision.

During my interview at Animal, I asked Craig about his process. I loved his answer :

We want everyone to work at the best of his abilities. Each lighting artist, lead, senior or mid, should feel responsible for their shots.


This is actually the shortest chapter of my book when it should be one of the longest. So if you wish to read more on this topic, please do not hesitate to consult the following links.

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