Chapter 8: Shot Lighting


We have seen in the previous chapters the key points of a solid light rig for a sequence. It should give you pretty good results IF the previous departments have worked correctly : shot’s locations are consistent, surfacing is solid and set dressing is reliable.

So you are maybe thinking that all these concepts are neat but what about shot lighting ? What should a lighting artist take care of when he opens his shot ?

Watch the full sequence

We have seen in Chapter 5 that many artists do not watch the sequence nor listen to dialogues before lighting. So as a shot artist, don’t make that mistake. It may give you an edge and help you in your work. Here is a non-exhaustive list of questions one should ask before opening a shot :

  • Which light rig will you use ?
  • Which master should you match ?
  • Has the light rig been explained to you ?
  • Have you read the wiki ?
  • Have you been briefed properly ?
  • Has any shot next to yours been lit already ?
  • What about continuity ?
  • How long is your shot ?
  • Is the camera moving ?
  • What’s the action of your shot ?
  • On which frame(s) should you work interactively ?

Do a first pass

How does the shot look like with the lights out of the box ? At Animal Logic, we were able to test the rig on as many shots as we wanted very easily. Some shots would work really well with the default rig and some would need improvement.

Before starting changing stuff, grab your lead :

  • Is there room for improvement ?
  • Which direction should we go ?
  • Rotate the key ?
  • Fake a bounce ?
  • Add a blocker ?

As a lead, I really want to put my energy where it is worth. If the shot is 15 frames long, how much time are you willing to spend on it ? On Lego Batman, Grant was really clever about that. You want to keep the spirit of your team high. Don’t bother them with some pixel f#ck that no one would ever notice.

Be proactive. Even if you are a junior and “just” copy/paste shots, you can make a difference by solving issues, asking questions and gathering information.


I generally start by analyzing and optimizing the shot since each artist is responsible for his own shot’s render time. Your lead (or the person in charge) should normally make sure that render times are not too expensive when the master lighter prepared the sequence. But you can still watch out for :

  1. Can you remove useless geometry ?
  2. Are there any lights you could turn off ?
  3. Has sampling been set correctly ?
  4. Can you disable SSS or displacement on background elements ?
  5. Is light culling an option ?

One thing that is important to notice with quadratic attenuation is that diffuse decays faster than reflection. This is a physically-based behavior. This is why you have to be extra careful if you turn off lights in your shots. You may think they are not influencing your shot but they could bring some extra reflections.

There are lots of advantages from having faster render times. You will get priority on the farm (Darwin system) and if something goes wrong and you have to render again, it is less of a big deal.

The Cars 3 example

I cannot think of a better example than the one provided in the Khan Academy about Shot Lighting at Pixar (from 0:10 to 1:40).

In this slide, I will compare successively Master Lighting and Shot Lighting on the same frames. Let’s have a look :

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Kim White was DP on Cars 3 (2011).

The slide above is a perfect example of what we can do in shot lighting. It really takes a great eye and a lot of experience to improve a shot with this level of complexity : huge camera movement, many vehicles and some effects.

I was really impressed by the improvements done on this shot. You must have a great sense of cinematography to come up with notes like that. I guess that practice makes you better. The rest is literature.

The How to train your dragon example

I got the following example from Dave Walvoord’s paper and I thought it would be interesting to have a look at. It is exactly the same pattern as the shots from Cars 3.

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Roger Deakins was Visual Consultant on How to train your dragon 3 (2019).

This example from How to train your dragon shows perfectly how to improve not only the characters but also the set in Shot Lighting. One may say : there is always room for improvement.

The Pets example

Paragraph coming in Q4 2020. Thanks for your patience !

The Lego Batman example

Before going to Animal Logic, I had a few rules when it came to Master and Shot lighting. I naively though that Master Lighting could be self-sufficient IF done properly. You could rotate the lights to adjust a bit in Shot Lighting and that was it. Until I worked on this sequence :

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Grant Freckelton was Production Designer on Lego Batman (2016).

How far can we go ? On Lego Batman, each shot was possibly a new master on its own : we could add blockers, create some new lights and even change their color. I have to say it took me a while to admit it. I was so sure that we should never change temperature between shots. When you actually can. In a way, it really opened my mind on the lighting possibilities of a shot.

The truth is that shot lighting is a cultural thing : it depends on the project, the art direction or your lead. Some supervisors are really conservative about the relationship between a master and a shot. And some are not. My advice would be that YOU should adapt to the project. Not the other way around. Grant gives so much freedom to the artists that it can be unsettling at first if you are not used to it.

Sometimes during the lighting process, you get emotionally attached to your Master Lighting but you have to accept that eventually it will get tweaked, changed and hopefully improved during Shot Lighting.

We have seen three great examples from real production about the differences between a Master lighting and a Shot lighting. We’ll now continue with a home-made example.

The Night Bar example

We have seen in Chapter 5 an example of Daylight Master Lighting. Daytime scenes are generally easier to illuminate than night scenes : one may used a SkyLight and almost get way with it. The sun generally brings much energy in the scene and bounces all around.

In the following example I have used the same scene to show an example of shot lighting by night. The requirements are almost the same : a mid gray shader (0.18) on the whole scene, except this time I have put a bit of specular and SSS where needed.

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A simple scene with four shots.

As you probably know, this is actually a quite difficult exercise but it makes me really concentrate on the quality of the light. I am using ACEScg as Rendering Space and Rec.709 (ACES) as an Output Display Transform.

The Mery Project is a free character for animators. José Manuel García Alvarez – Antonio Francisco Méndez Lora @ 2014. Todos los derechos reservados.

The scene is pretty simple but hopefully illustrates properly some lighting principles I believe in. I tried to gather in one example the following topics : continuity (can we tweak the lights between shots ?), differences between Master and Shot lighting, complementary schemes, volumetrics and depth-of-field.

The whole Night Bar example is described in this mini-master class I have given online.

Thanks Mercenaries !

First things first : references !

After lighting up this day scene without any references (which was really a bad idea), I was kinda confident that I could do the same with the night lighting. I was so wrong. After two days of struggling, I just put all my work to the trash and started to look for some references.

I was looking for a scene where two characters chat in a bar at night and the first scene of The Social Network (Director : David Fincher, DP : Jeff Cronenweth) immediately came to my mind. Let’s have a look :

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A perfect reference for my shots.

The lighting on their faces, especially in the wide shot, really helped me to focus on a visual goal. Unlike the sun and its parallel rays, you can really play with different directions in an artificial setup.

You can watch the whole sequence here :

You could almost tell there is a similar tension in both scenes. I got really lucky to find such a great reference.

Master lighting and its limits

First question I always ask myself is :

  • Where does the light come from ? The ceiling ?
  • Are we talking about a localized source ? Or extended throughout the ceiling ?
  • How many sources are we dealing with ?
  • What would be their temperature, exposure and size ?
  • Which light categories will I use ?

In a interior night scene like this, I would definitely skip the natural lights. The chance of getting the moon or the sky at night to actually light something are actually close to none in a realistic interior scene by night.

I could have gone for a day for night. But I have done this kind of setup so many times that I wanted to try something different, less blue and cartoon.

You’ll see later how I miserably failed.

The truth is that it is scary to start something complex like that. But you have to take the plunge and eventually fail. I do a lot of iterations when I work and I generally break my light rig two or three times a day by testing stuff that often doesn’t work the way I want.

But I can eliminate dead ends this way and refocus on the essentials. You have no idea how much I get lost in my rigs sometimes. But I have to go through this research phase to see it for myself. Lighting is really a mix of happy accidents and control.

Night Bar Master lighting

Here is the Master night lighting for the Bar scene :

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Everything rendered in one beauty pass. Even volumetrics !

A couple of things I would like to mention before detailing the lights :

  • These renders come straight from Guerilla Render.
  • No comp was done, depth-of-field was set directly in 3d.
  • It is the exact same rig on four shots.
  • No light-linking nor blockers were used in this Master light rig.
  • Volumetric was rendered with the Beauty pass.
  • Thirty lights were used in total.
  • It took me five days to complete this Master rig. I am generally quick at getting a first pass and then I would spend a lot of time on refining and breaking stuff.

Start with practical lights

Unlike the daylight setup, I was not able to cover the four shots satisfactorily without any tweaks per shot. Most of the time in production it is not possible anyway because shots are generally quite different from each other.

The daylight master example from chapter 5 is really a best-case scenario. In production I generally end up with one Master lighting per camera axis.

I will first show you the Master Rig as it is, without any modification per shot. So you can clearly see how far can we “push” the Master and what needs to be done in Shot Lighting. The general idea is always the same :

  • To get all the “ingredients” needed in the Master rig (the lights with their temperatures, exposure and size set globally).
  • The “recipe” would then be provided on a per-shot basis.

Let’s keep it simple

I ALWAYS start simple : in this particular scene I have started by lighting the set with practical lights. There is no lamp physically present but I will just put some area lights where I think these lamps should be. We have seen in chapter 5 that it is the best option for practical lighting.

A great way to make them interesting is the use of IES in your area lights. It allows you to create a nice pattern on walls and other large surfaces, like the floor. Large surfaces without any variation are always an issue in CG as seen in chapter 2.

I tried to shape the furniture as much as I could and give depth to the scene by alternating areas of light and shade. Please note that I didn’t use any light-linking since I was happy with the amount of light spilled on the characters :

  • On a live-action movie, this would be the exact same thing. Practical lighting generally barely affects the characters as seen in chapter 4.
  • These IES lights bounce on the characters and fill them a bit which helps to integrate them into the set.
  • This low-level of light leaves much space for dramatic lighting later on. This won’t be an issue.
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I have inverted the order of the slides above on purpose. It made more sense to work on practical lights in the wider shot.

Follow with dramatic lights

Once I was happy with my practical lighting, which is mainly affecting the set like in real life, I may pursue with some dramatic lighting on the characters. We have seen the Dramatic Light Roles in chapter 4.

Key lights

Key lights are the main shaping lights. I have used two area lights in this scene, one for each character. Lights affect everything (no light-linking) but focus more on the faces (using a light filter shaped as a cone).

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The use of SSS on their faces helped for the soft look.

You can really tell that the key lights should be fixed on the wide shot. They don’t have the same visual impact as the other shots.

Wrap lights

Wrap lights help to soften the transition between the key and the core. We generally use soft sources, like big area lights. This terminology comes from Dave Walvoord’s presentation (based on Roger Deakins’ vocabulary).

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Fill lights are quite similar as they avoid any black areas and reduce contrast.

I could have opened more the cone shader to illuminate the table on the wide shot.

Having a bright object between two characters ties them.

Rim lights

Rim lights give shape by outlining and generally faces the camera. There is one for each character in this scene.

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Notice the rim lights bouncing back on their faces. It is quite nice.

Rim lights are really camera dependent and you can really tell something is wrong on the two last shots.

They are not doing what they are supposed to do !

Top light

The top light comes from above the scene, to give more directionality from the ceiling. I just created one big disk light above the characters and that was pretty much it. We are very much used to light coming from above as it has been described in chapter 7.

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Top lights are generally soft and subtle.

My analysis is pretty simple : check the lights one by one and make sure they look consistent on each shot.

A truly powerful technique !

Volumetric lights

The volumetric lights are the only lights with light-linking : they only affect the volumetric box. These fog effects just work great : it is a very easy and cheap way to improve a composition, to create some depth and even cover some issues !

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These volumetric lights are the only one with light-linking.

I have spent more or less a week on this Master lighting, testing many, many, many different options. I am pretty much satisfied with the result and I don’t think that I would be able to improve these renders without tweaking the lights per shot. Which is what we are going to do next !

Shot lighting improvements

Thanks to my references, I kind of had a clear idea of what I wanted per shot. The idea was to :

  • Maximizing clarity.
  • Having a perfect read of the characters.
  • Shaping on each shot.
  • Without being a slave to continuity.

Close up lighting

Funnily enough this shot is the one I struggled most with. I did experiment a lot to get a soft lighting on Mery’s face. I was pretty happy with the amount of Bokeh in the shot.

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Her face kinda reminds me of the sfumato technique.

In lighting, we generally want to start with the widest shots and finish with close-ups as seen in Chapter 5.

But due to production constraints, it is not always possible.

Medium close up lighting

I am not super happy with the look of the street lights and may try something different next time. The Bokeh don’t look as good in this shot !

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We should never be afraid of placing lights behind the characters.

I have tweaked the asymmetry of the volumetric shader to get a more interesting light scatter inside it.

It really helps for the look.

Medium shot lighting

Unlike the daylight setup, I really did not want to keep the foreground in light. So I did the same exact trick as the movie Hugo seen in Chapter 6.

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The perspective guides the viewer’s eye to Mery’s face.

Don’t be afraid to break continuity. Shot lighting should be a great opportunity to improve cinematography.

As seen in Chapter 6.

Wide shot lighting

This shot has been a great challenge to me. It was particularly difficult to get a clear read on the characters while keeping the set interesting with strong impacts in it.

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I was very tempted on darkening the floor to improve the readability.

IES and volumetrics have been life savers in this shot. They’re both easy to use and improve greatly composition.

As seen in Chapter 7.

A slight change of plan

At this point, I had worked two weeks on these four shots and I was still not satisfied with the overall look of my pictures. The lack of textures and surfacing was clearly not helping. But I felt it was just missing something else. After many attempts of using more colors, I gave up and started to look at more references.

The final short film of Wild Tales (Director : Damián Szifron, DP : Javier Julia) gave me the final push I needed to finally bring some colors into my renders. If you haven’t watched it, just do it ! It is insanely good !

This look, commonly called Orange and Teal, works really well in this short film. I found it quite subtle and properly balanced. The movie Smoke & Mirrors (Director : Alberto Rodríguez, DP: Alex Catalán) is also a great example.

After watching these movies, I decided to go for a classic complementary scheme. Not the most original solution but after fifteen years working in the industry, I guess I kinda got formatted.

Final result

After seeing these Orange and Teal schemes, I played in Nuke with the Light Path Expression (LPE) to tweak the colors. It is a great way to test things in real-time without any noise. BUT once I am happy with the result, I ALWAYS copy back the values to Guerilla.

For a complementary scheme, the rule in lighting is pretty straight-forward : everything from a direction is in one color and everything from the opposite direction is in another color, so that the lights do not cancel each other.

As seen in Chapter 2.

I have also recently developed a true fascination for complementary colors in volumetrics. I just love this trick ! And it is actually used in many movies, as you may have read in Chapter 7.

Here are the final renders, straight from Guerilla :

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Mixing colors is still a challenge to me.

I always try to stay open to happy accidents. Actually you have to find the right balance between control and grace.

A good artist lets the medium and materials take over to some extent as well.

Volumetric asymmetry

Like any other elements in your scene, volumetrics can help you for composition and depth. We have seen in Chapter 7 the use of complementary colors for volumetrics and I wanted to experiment with that.

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The use of asymmetry allows you to achieve a better look.

Gradients of lighting are very important in an image. I know for a fact that some art directors use them a lot when working on a composition.

Anamorphic depth of field

Finally I’ll describe here the use of anamorphic depth of field in the final renders. I wanted to make the frames visually more interesting with a sophisticated depth of field. Here is a quick description :

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Beware of the tilt-shift effect if you use too much depth of field.

Do not hesitate to stylize the depth of field ! Ideally we would have a camera shader to generate more effects such as lens distortion, glow and lens-flare.

If I remember correctly, first time that anamorphic depth of field was used in a Full CG feature film was on Wall-E (Director : Andrew Stanton, DP : Danielle Feinberg). There is a pretty cool special feature about it :

Also available on Dailymotion.

Render settings

Even my book is not technically-oriented I will share with you my settings. Straight from Guerilla Render :

  • Resolution : 1920 x 1080
  • Samples : 2048
  • Adaptive Threshold : 0.03
  • Adaptive Min samples : 32
  • Max Bounces : 16
  • Render time : 3h40 on an ASUS laptop (i7-5500U)

The Biped Jelly example

An animated shot example will be coming to you in Q4 2020. Stay tuned !

Constrain of lights

A question that I have been asked several times : should I constrain my lights to the character ? I have seen both setups. So I would say : it depends.

Back in the day because of shadow maps we would constrain our lights to optimize their resolution. This is no longer necessary. The only reason to constrain a light would be if you want to maintain a certain lighting effect on a character as he is moving.

Constrain in The Star

Here is an example from The Star (Director : Timothy Reckart, Art DIrector : Sean Eckols). We were asked to maintain the bounce light on Mary (in the first shot) and Bo and Ruth (in the second shot).

We decided to constrain the bounce light (a disk area) to the character. Three main issues were :

  • Every time we received an alembic update, the constrain broke.
  • We had to be extra careful with lights penetrating the ground.
  • Choose carefully to which body part or locator you want to constrain.

No constrain in Ninjago

In the next example (I worked on the last eight shots) we chose a different solution.

We have seen in Chapter 4 that this sequence uses mainly natural lights. But I also added some area lights in strategic places to enhance the bouncing. They were not constrained to anything, so depending on the character position, they would have more or less effect.

There is a great advantage to this : spatiality. We have seen many examples in this book where I encouraged you to put practical lights in their physical location. It will ground your scene into some plausible environment. So we could almost come with this rule :

Practical lights should not be constrained since they belong to the environment but dramatic lights can be in order to maintain a certain effect (like a fill or a shatner light) on a character.

I hope that makes sense.


In this chapter we have seen that :

  • Shot lighting should be an opportunity to improve the look.
  • We should not be shy because of continuity.
  • Tweaking lights between shots is not an issue if done properly.
  • Balancing the lights one-by-one and altogether is a great process.
  • We must stay open to changes during the process.


In this chapter I have tried to describe the process of Shot Lighting. It is super important to come with a strong Master Lighting to anticipate any issues we may encounter on a sequence level. But it does not remove the need to polish and improve the lighting on a shot basis. If money and time allow it.


Here are a few links if you want to dig a bit more on the subject :

Free assets to practice lighting

It is not easy to find proper shots to light on the internet. Here is a non-exhaustive list of free scenes to practice :

Vegetation assets