Chapter 8.5: Character Lighting


If a Master lighting is correctly set, I can make the following assumption : a big part of shot lighting is about character lighting. There are actually some very good techniques on how to give shape to a face, how to get wetness in the eyes and make the character alive and believable.

I was lucky enough to learn most of these techniques at Ilion studios, on Planet 51. A great effort had been put on giving the characters’ faces a nice shape.

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Ilion has a great culture of character lighting.

Here are some recommendations when it comes to character or portrait lighting :

  • One should avoid any harsh shadow. Faces should look smooth and soft.
  • One should avoid any flat lighting. You want to give shape !
  • One should avoid any black areas. Don’t scare the children !
  • One should avoid multiple shadow directions. It never looks good.
  • One should avoid to cut the face in half. It looks artificial.

In the Version 2.0 of this book (release in Q4 2020), I will put more examples to illustrate these recommendations.

Lighting upstage and downstage

In Chapter 5 we have seen that Master Lighting should not be camera-dependent. It is pretty much the contrary for shot and/or character lighting. You really should make the best lighting according to the camera angle.

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I find these concepts very helpful.

I have learned about the terms “Lighting Upstage” and “Lighting Downstage” in this video. Maybe it is just me but I like when lighting concepts have a name. It makes my job easier.

It has been brought to my attention that the terms “Short Light” and “Broad Light” are also used. I also read about “Far-side key” and “Near-side key” in this very interesting pdf.

A very good example of character lighting, similar to the one we have seen in Hugo, would be the lunch sequence in Munich. (Director : Steven Spielberg, DP : Janusz Kamiński) It is amazing on how they turned the Sun on every shot to never be caught in a Lighting Downstage situation.

I also remember a desert sequence in Planet 51 where the sun would have a strong impact on Lem, the main character. It was probably a continuity choice but not very pleasant to the eye.

Natural Character Lighting

Yes you can totally use some natural lights for your character. If you have an exterior daylight scene, I encourage you to share the same natural lights for both your character and set. It will keep your light rig simple an tidy. It is also a very good way to know if your surfacing is correct. Let’s have a look.

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We start simple and then try to enhance reality.

Natural Lighting vocabulary

Most lighters use dramatic vocabulary for their light names : “Key”, “Rim”, “Bounce”… But we have seen in chapter 5 that there is a great advantage in naming based on light categories.

For natural and practical categories, naming lights by what they are rather than what they do makes a lot of sense. Their names will not depend on the camera angle. Here is an example :

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I find it way easier to name things as they really are.

This struck me while working on The Star. We had a daylight sequence and during dailies, we were asked to change the key in one shot and the rim in an other shot. When actually they were the same light : the sun.

It is a very rare to only stick to natural lights for a character. Even in a feature film, like Revolutionary Road (Director : Sam Mendes, DP : Roger Deakins), they would use some big studio lights in an exterior daylight sequence.

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Wrap lighting was also used on this movie.

Therefore we can now move on to Dramatic lighting for characters.

Dramatic Character lighting

I have to admit that I really liked Dave Walvoord’s paper. I never heard about edge lighting before reading it. Even if I had actually been practicing this technique since Planet 51 (2009).

From Dave Walvoord : Wrap Lighting is really the art of making multiple lights appear to be one light. The audience should not notice that two lights are being used to represent the sun. […] the overall effect is that there is one consistent light in the scene.

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It’s all about shaping and making it look natural.

We can see in this example that vocabulary is very important in lighting. We could argue all day if the edge is actually the sun or if the wrap lighting is a sun soft or a fill. Each studio has its culture and lighting is a religion. Everyone believes what they want.

Dave Walvoord has asked me to explain that the Wrap Lighting Technique has actually been introduced at Dreamworks by Roger Deakins.

Three point lighting

Three point lighting is just a sub-category of Dramatic Lighting that most students know about. There is a great article by Eduardo Martin on this topic. Character lighting will never be as easy as throwing three lights in the scene and hitting render. It requires time and attention.

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We need to think beyond three point lighting.

There are a few things I would like to specify about this article. It starts with this great introduction :

Most of the images we see in live action films, photography portraits or animated films have some kind of a three point lighting although in many cases those lights are so well balanced that it is quite difficult to differentiate them as they end up working together as a whole. This is specially true when it comes to key and fill lights where many times the transition from one to the other is so smooth that it seems that there is only just one source of light when in reality there are many fills that we don´t perceive. […] I will focus on character lighting as that´s where three point lighting usually happens, as lighting a set would use a very different approach.

This is very true and reminds me of the Wrap Lighting technique by Roger Deakins, described in Dave Walvoord‘s talk.

Character Light Roles

Edu‘s article then goes on with a pretty good description of Light Roles (or Light Functions as Sharon Calahan may call them). Do not hesitate to check them ! I have tried to add a bit of extra information.

Key light

In my opinion the best definition of a key light comes from Pixar :

Key is the main shaping light in the scene

From the Pixar Khan Academy.

The key is the most important light of your shot and it will often be the strongest. But not always. Like in the example below from Schindler’s list” (Director : Steven Spielberg, DP : Janusz Kamiński).

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Janusz Kamiński used German Expressionism and Italian neorealism as references.

Top light

We have seen in Chapter 7 that this technique is a must. I have used it for years and it has always given me good results. I love so much this trick ! We have probably used it on 80% of Planet 51’s shots. It was like a refrain at Ilion and was very much part of our culture there.

A big surprise from Mr Deakins

And I have always thought it was a must-do on every PBR cartoon movie… Until Siggraph 2019. My biggest surprise reading Dave Walvoord‘s article was the use of top light on “How to train you dragon“. They just removed it !

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They flagged the top light off !

This rule of avoiding top light on characters is primarily for humans. Dragons are different in that top and bottom light work very well on them. This has to do with the fact that dragons are horizontal creatures while humans are vertical. Top light can help group a dragon’s wings with its bodies as a later example will show.

Roger Deakins explanation

This is a very interesting topic as I did not expect that at all. Removing the top light from characters ? Bold. I actually wrote to Roger Deakins about it. Here is his answer :

There is top light and then there is top light. I understand that it is useful when you are creating a ‘real’ 360º environment light but to make it the primary source for a character is not always so great. I find that there is a tendency now in animation to try to mimic an environment lighting that may be realistic but is not necessarily the most complimentary to the shot. For instance, do you like the effect of the light on the face from the top light in the image you post ? In the end it is all subjective.

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Here is the image I posted. I could have chosen a better example.

I know this has confused some readers so I will try to explain better. My personal experience with Hollywood has been limited to saturated and High-Key lighting. In this context you kinda throw lights everywhere.

How to train your dragon is different from the typical Hollywood project. There is no arbitrary fill, dark shadows and contrast are allowed (Low-Key lighting). In this context Roger Deakins did not feel like using the Top Light.

Please note that he is talking about to make it (the top light) the primary source for a character. I agree with him and I would suggest to use it essentially to support or enhance the environment.

Like he said : In the end it is all subjective. It really depends on the look you want to achieve. And if you are not sure, try it. You may like it or not.

Bounce light

I love this paragraph from Edu’s article. It just sums the Bounce situation very well.

In Computer Graphics you may already get some GI bounced […] on your characters from the set but there is nothing wrong on cheating extra lights on top of those for artistic purposes. In fact set lights are most of the time insufficient to illuminate the characters properly and the Lighting TD/artist usually has to add extra lights to shape them.

Amen to that !
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It is very common to enhance the GI with some area lights.

Some supervisors or studios just hate it. They only want the real bouncing to happen. I personally think that creating lights to enhance the Global Illumination (GI) is a win-win. You get better shaping on the characters and your render will be less noisy.

Shatner light

A “Shatner” light […] is the nickname that our Art Director Grant Freckelton coined for a bar of light across the face or eyes of a character such as was somewhat over-used on the original Star Trek for Kirk closeups.

From Craig’s blog.
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You will find more examples on Craig’s blog.

Care is needed when using a Shatner light – it is easy to descend into cheesy cliche (and we did this deliberately on The Lego Movie). The bar of light can be more or less sharply defined, or even abstracted as a soft pool. The general rule is, the sharper the dramatic emphasis, the sharper the Shatner. Whether in the sharp or subtle form, this technique allows a clear read of a dramatic moment without resorting to a full frontal light, and coupled with rim lighting can be visually pleasing.

Great explanation from Craig.

Shatner light in Skyfall

There is a shot in Skyfall (Director : Sam Mendes, DP : Roger Deakins) where James Bond enters in a Shatner light. This is a very cool effect that you would have not obtained if you had constrained your lights.

Ambient lighting

Eduardo Martin uses in his article a little tool called Virtual Lighting Studio. If you want to play with some character lighting in real time without any 3D software, you should give it a try ! There is only one thing I would like to mention.

The Ambient used in the Virtual Lighting Studio should be used with care. Never never never never use Ambient lighting in a real shot. Most modern render engines do not allow it anyway.

We have all the features we need to make beautiful renders. We don’t need Ambient anymore. This is why I have replaced it by Sky (or Environment) in the following breakdown.

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Pay attention to the triangle on his cheek in the Key section. We will come back to that in the Rembrandt lighting paragraph.

Students have shown me a setup where the Sky does not cast any shadows to light an interior scene by day. I would never do that unless I am desperate.

It just fills everything equally.

Eyes lighting

Virtual Lighting Studio is fun to play with but it has its own limitations. Therefore it is quite difficult to get any reflection in the eyes (see previous image). In a shot you should pay extra attention to the eyes as it can bring so much life to a character.

From Sandip and Matthias : Unless you are lighting a dead or defeated character, you want an highlight in his eyes.

I did not think I would make a paragraph about eyes lighting but once again, Sandip Kalsy and Matthias Menz changed my mind. They really pushed the theorization on lighting to its climax.

Check ou these two videos about Cinematic Eye Close-Ups and its sequel Cinematic Eye Pairs.

Nice edits by Roman Holiday.

On most PBR movies, reflections in the eyes should come automatically from the light hitting the set or from an HDR. If there is a sun impact on a wall, I would expect to see it reflected in my character’s eyes.

I never create special lights for the eyes. Those times of CG are over. If you have lit your set and character correctly, reflection in the eyes should come naturally (if surfacing is correct).

Tron Legacy example

Sandip and Matthias used the following shot from Tron Legacy (Director : Joseph Kosinski, DP : Claudio Miranda) as a poor example of eye lighting.

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Nine years later, Digital Domain did a fascinating Thanos.

The lack of reflection makes the character look dead and CG-like. This actor is worth millions of dollars ! You better not f#ck up the way he looks.

Eyes and psychology

Now let’s go one step further. Buckle up because this theory from Sandip and Matthias just blew me away ! In most projects I have worked on we need the eyes to have shape and nice highlight. But what if you could reflect the character’s mood into his eyes ? Could we change the highlights based on his feelings or his thoughts ?

  • Is your character angry ? Highlights in his eyes would be sharp and strong.
  • Is he thinking ? Highlights would be bigger and dimmer.
I could have chosen way more shots. There are so many great examples in this movie.

Eyes and gender

Sandip and Matthias also had a crazy example where they would use Caesar’s face and by only changing the size of the specular in the eyes, it would turn Caesar into a female. Insane. Just changing the size of the highlight would make Caesar a male or a female.

I have tried to reproduce the example with beautiful model from Adam Sacco. Unfortunately I wasn’t as successful as Sandip and could not match perfectly his example. Anyhow it kinda makes the character look more open or vulnerable.

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Model and textures by Adam Sacco.

Since we are now talking about specular size, light angle and gender, we can move on to the next topic.

Gender lighting

Should we light differently males and females characters ? I actually never thought of this until I met Sandip Kalsy and Matthias Menz. Let’s have a look at The illusionist (Director : Neil Burger, DP : Dick Pope).

These two shots follow each other in the sequence : Jessica Biel is more front lit than Edward Norton. Softer lighting makes her face looks prettier. I have never seen anything like this on an animated movie though. But it is still interesting to observe.

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You kinda feel the use of black flags on Jessica Biel’s face.

When you think of it, softer lighting like a big area light actually gives a bigger spec. So you can definitely see a pattern between Caesar’s face and The illusionist. This theory is also being discussed in a book called Sight, Sound, Motion : applied media aesthetics by Herbert Zettl.

I am not saying here that all women should be lit with a soft lighting. NOT AT ALL. You can definitely play with these beauty standards by lighting a big tough guy with soft shadows and big highlights in the eyes if the story asks for it.

I cannot talk about portrait lighting without mentioning the famous Parisian studio Harcourt. Check their work, it’s really good !

Rembrandt lighting

I am not a big fan of recipes but I am going to quickly mention Rembrandt lighting since the concept is quite famous.

Rembrandt lighting is characterized by an illuminated triangle under the eye of the subject on the less illuminated side of the face. It is named for the Dutch painter Rembrandt, who often used this type of lighting.

From Wikipedia.
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Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (15 July 1606 – 4 October 1669)

I have tried to replicate some Rembrandt Lighting on the CG model Josie. It was surprisingly hard ! How many lights did I have to use ? A lot !

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I should have put a hat on her head to match better.

I rotated the head and the eyes a bit because the frontal setup was killing me. Eight lights were used in total !

Without a proper reference, it would have been much more difficult to do.

Psychology lighting

Should we light differently according to the character’s personality ? I have personally never experienced it on a PBR cartoon movie but I found it very interesting. It is kinda mentioned in the Pixar class from the Khan Academy. Let’s have a look :

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Round shapes are also more pleasing to the eye.

These are simple and efficient concepts. But I am not a huge fan of these ready-made recipes. They can kill your creativity. Let’s have a look at more complex approach. It comes from the Schindler’s list (Director : Steven Spielberg, DP : Janusz Kamiński).

The whole concept is about lighting differently the protagonist Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) and the antagonist, Amon Göth (Ralph Fiennes). Lighting based on character’s psychology… Really impressive !

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These frames are so expressive.

Of course frontal lighting will appear to a majority of viewers as friendly in a PBR cartoon movie. But is also interesting to explore different directions, like in the movie 127 hours (Director : Danny Boyle, DP : Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak).

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Front lighting to reinforce the heat sensation.

Intentional lighting

Color schemes and harmonies

We have seen a bit about this topic in Chapter 2 but I thought it would be interesting to illustrate it with a more graphic example.

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Graphic lighting and saturation go well together.

The complementary scheme, especially the Orange and Teal, is probably the most used in animation nowadays. It is simple and easy to read which fits our medium requirements.

Self-portrait by Clemence Vangout

In February 2020 I discovered the work of Clemence Vangout, a student from ESMA Montpellier. I instantly felt intrigued by it. Although there is a couple of technical issues (like a sRGB display for linear renders), I just loved the strong intention behind each portrait.

And this is something particularly important to me : I would always choose a strong art direction over something technically flawless (if there is such a thing). Of course, in a perfect world we would try to combine both.

I wrote to Clemence to know a little bit more about her process. Here are some answers I thought were interesting. I will not go too much over the technical process since it is not the topic of this book.

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Comments are from Clemence herself on her lighting process.

Mood board

As any good artist, Clemence carefully chose some references before starting her lighting work. Here are her references :

  • Peaky Blinders (especially Tommy Shelby’s face lighting in last season).
  • Edward Hopper‘s paintings (especially for the strong shadows).
  • Chiaroscuro technique by Caravaggio.
  • The Jazz Skeleton scene from Corpse Bride for the juxtaposed colors (director : Tim Burton, DP : Pete Kozachik).
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I love how eclectic all these references are.

She did not strictly follow these references and had to develop her own style. And this is perfectly normal ! References are always a good starting point but we eventually drift away from them at some point to end up with something quite different.

Clemence did not know the expressions Shatner light nor Counterchange. And it does not matter ! They are just words to help us communicate better. But what really is important here is the process : find some references but eventually come with your own style in the end.

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I am quite fond of these minimalist setups. So elegant.

Finally there was a very interesting point that came in our conversation :

I don’t know why but when I started my portrait I had in mind the scene from Psycho where Vera Miles screams in the shower. It is the first Hitchcock movie I ever saw and it had a huge impact on me. So I wanted to have an expression of fear and have a contrasted lighting. It’s funny because I saw the film afterwards and the scene is definitely not a chiaroscuro.

This is actually a very important point.

I could not explain it better than Rob Legato, so please just watch the video. But basically he explains that we should recreate the collective consciousness of certain events, rather than these events as they happen. Fascinating !

And this is exactly what Clemence did with Psycho (director : Alfred Hitchcock, DP: John L. Russell). She recreated the expressiveness from her memory rather than simply duplicating the scene itself. There is a huge difference in that !

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A test in Photoshop to illustrate our example.


In this chapter I have tried to describe the process of Character Lighting. Here are a few links if you want to dig a bit on the subject :