CG Lighting Tutorial: 10 Tips

By: Manar Al Tawam

28 BEFORE AFTER LIGHTING CG Lighting Tutorial: 10 Tips

Today, Animation Mentor alumni and Student Showcase winnner – Manar Al Tawam – stops by the blog to share a workflow for lighting your shot. There are many ways to light your animation, each process is different, and each scene requires careful attention. This step by step tutorial is just one way.

To go deeper into lighting and rendering, check out our VFX Fundamentals course.

-The Animation Mentor Crew

I’ve been asked on multiple occasions about the methods I use when rendering my assignments at Animation Mentor. In this step by step tutorial I’ll explain my approach in lighting my last assignment ‘I speak Hun’, it is an exterior shot so this method works the best for similar shots, if your shot is an interior it will require a completely different scenario.

1.) DOWNLOAD:AM_LighingYourShot‘ file, unzip, then set your Maya default project to the downloaded folder.

2.) LOAD THE SCENE: Load the scene called ‘Start’ and right away, make a test render. The scene has no light setup yet, the lighting you see on the characters is Maya’s default lights, it’ll look like this:

01 MayaSoft CG Lighting Tutorial: 10 Tips

3.) RENDER SETTINGS: From the render settings window, change the rendering method from Maya Software to Mental Ray and make a test render, there will not be a noticeable difference. Before we start placing lights in a scene, I’d like to pump up the quality of the render, you can do that by going to the render settings, click on the Quality tab, and change the Quality Presets from ‘Draft’ to ‘Production’ then click on the ‘Jitter’ check box to turn it on:

02 LightingTutorial CG Lighting Tutorial: 10 Tips

4.) PHYSICAL SUN AND SKY: In the next few steps we’ll start adding lights to the scene. Most people like to use MR ‘Physical Sun and Sky’ for a quick nice results, I like to use it too but in a slightly different way, let me demonstrate.

To add Physical Sun to the scene go to the render settings window, click on the ‘Indirect Lighting’ tab then click the ‘Create’ button next to ‘Physical Sun and Sky’ then do a test render:

03 AddingSky CG Lighting Tutorial: 10 Tips

04 AddingSun CG Lighting Tutorial: 10 Tips

It doesn’t look bad for a sunny day, but I would like to go for a softer feel, so what I usually do, I select the light created by the Physical Sun & delete it to get something like this:

05 SoftLight CG Lighting Tutorial: 10 Tips

5.) ADD LIGHTS: After deleting the sun light, I’m only left with the virtual sky dome which adds a nice ambient blue cast to the scene, this will allow me to add my own lights for better manipulation. From the main menu, go to Create > Lights > Directional Light. This light will act as the key-light in the scene so name it ‘Key_Light’ and change its Angle, Color, Intensity and Shadow Attributes as follows:

06 DirectionalLight CG Lighting Tutorial: 10 Tips

To create a back light, duplicate the key-light and re-name it ‘Back_Light’ then rotate it so its hitting the characters slightly from the behind, & change its Color to light blue:

07 BackLight CG Lighting Tutorial: 10 Tips

Hit render, you should end up with something like this:

08 BlueLight CG Lighting Tutorial: 10 Tips

6.) LENS EXPOSURE: When a physical sun is created in a scene, a new node called ‘mia_exposure-simple’ is automatically created along with it & connected to the Camera, this node is responsible for grading the exposure & levels of the rendered images, just think of it as adjusting the contrast of the rendered image on Photoshop, but its done directly in 3D. Let’s tweak the parameters of this node to give more contrast to the image.

From the 3d viewport, change the camera from ‘presp’ to ‘Render_Camera’ then click on the camera icon in the corner of the viewport to select it, hit Control + A to open the Attribute Editor window, then click on the ‘mia_exposure_simple1′ tab, change the attributes as you see it in the snapshot then test render:

09 LensExposure CG Lighting Tutorial: 10 Tips

10 RenderCamera CG Lighting Tutorial: 10 Tips

Now that the rendered image has a better contrast, we can add a ground to the scene, it will give a nice bounce light on the characters & eliminate most of the dark spots. I already created a ground plain in the scene with a simple Lambert material, to make it visible just click on the V button in the Channel Box and test render:

11 ChannelBox CG Lighting Tutorial: 10 Tips

12 BetterContrast CG Lighting Tutorial: 10 Tips

7.) TWEAKING THE SHADERS: Now that we got the lighting looking fairly good, we need to work on the shaders, mainly for the eyes & skin. Select one of the eyes & open its shader attributes, change the shader type from ‘Phong’ to ‘Blinn’ then tweak the parameters as illustrated, take a quick render to see the changes:

13 Shaders CG Lighting Tutorial: 10 Tips

Now we need to add a highlight to the eyes to give it more life, for that we need to create a new light, disconnect it from all objects in the scene other than the eyes. Create a new Directional Light, rename it to ‘Eye_SpecLight’ and rotate it so its hitting the characters from the point of view of the camera. from the ‘Outliner’ window select all objects in the scene, Shift select the new light, and go to: Lighting/Shading > Break Light Links:

14 DirectionalLight CG Lighting Tutorial: 10 Tips

Then select the eyes on both characters, Shift select the light, and go to: Lighting/Shading>Make Light Links. Test render:

15 Shading CG Lighting Tutorial: 10 Tips

16 ShadingTechnique CG Lighting Tutorial: 10 Tips

Adding a little bit of specular to the character’s skin will make it look less plasticity. To do that, select Larry’s face and go to its shader attributes, change the shader type from ‘Lambert’ to ‘Blinn’ then do the following changes:

17 Specular CG Lighting Tutorial: 10 Tips

Repeat this step for all skin shaders in the scene, & test render:

18 SkinShaders CG Lighting Tutorial: 10 Tips

7.) PAINTING TEXTURES Hover the mouse over Larry’s face and right click, from the pop-up menu go to Paint>3D Paint. This cool tool will allow you to paint directly on the geometry, but before you start painting you’ll need to assign a new texture, to create a new texture click on Assign/Edit Textures, Size X/Y 1024 then click assign. Now you can paint directly on the face:

19 PaintingTextures CG Lighting Tutorial: 10 Tips

For more info about this great tool please refer to Maya documentation manual, but for now load up the textures that I’ve already painted for the shot, they are located in the ‘sourceimages’ folder: (Larry_Face.iff) and (Henry_Face.iff):

20 PaintedShot CG Lighting Tutorial: 10 Tips

8.) ADDING ENVIRONMENT: Environments & props will add production value your shot, it doesn’t have to be complicated, just simple objects will do, in my shot I had a pre-modeled mesh, to show it just click on the V button next to Environment to unhide it, then test render:

21 Environment CG Lighting Tutorial: 10 Tips

9.) SEPARATE LAYERS AND POST:: Now comes the beauty of Post Production. In post applications like: After Effects, Nuke, Digital Fusion, you could do lots things to enhance your final image, things like, DOF, color grading, glow, etc. To be able to do so we need to separate the rendered image into layers, usually we render everything in passes, Shadow Pass, Reflection Pass, Occlusion Pass, Z Depth Pass, Motion Vector Pass, & ID Pass, but for the sake of this demonstration, we’ll split the image into two passes only, Characters and Background.

From the Outliner window, select the ‘BG’ & ‘GroundPlane1′ meshes, then go to Edit > Select Hierarchy to select all the components:

22 ShadowPass CG Lighting Tutorial: 10 Tips

Then go to Window > Rendering Editors > Render Flags, and switch the ‘Primary Visibility’ from On to Off, this will hide the BG:

23 PrimaryVisibility CG Lighting Tutorial: 10 Tips

Now Open the Hypershade Window, Click on the Utility tab, then double click on ‘mia_physicalsky and tick the option box next to ‘Use Background’ to turn it on, this will hide the Sky dome, then test render:

24 Hypershade CG Lighting Tutorial: 10 Tips

25 SkyDome CG Lighting Tutorial: 10 Tips

Save the rendered image in (.iff) format to use it later in post. Now ‘undo’ the last few steps of this chapter, then hide ‘Larry’ & ‘Henry’ & do a test render, save the result image in (.iff) format as well:

26 RenderingTips CG Lighting Tutorial: 10 Tips

Now you can take the rendered images to your favorite compositing application to give it this extra push, Normally I like to use Fusion for post processing. Here is how my final comp looks like:

27 CompFusion CG Lighting Tutorial: 10 Tips

10.) FINISH: Here is a ‘before and after’ compression. Done!

28 BEFORE AFTER LIGHTING CG Lighting Tutorial: 10 Tips

  • Arnaud Boulanger

    Amazing! Thanks AM and Manar :)

  • Derek

    great stuff Manar

  • Danish Sharif

    very helpful, Thanks a lot for sharing and God Bless you ;)

  • Pablo Morales

    Awesome :) Thank you!

  • Sheena Sharma

    Love Manar’s work!

  • nilabh

    Thank you for the tutorial. Great work!

  • Ekaterina

    Very helpful! Thanks AM and Manar! It will be great if you would like to write one more about interior render:)

  • Rahul Rana

    Nice Tutorial but very hard to understand for me just because the quality of images are not good

  • Andrea

    Very Helpful, but it would be great if _all_ the images from the blog post were included in the download. I can’t see the settings in the Maya screen caps.

  • Scott Britton

    Great little insight but, the maya screen shots need to be zoomed in so the settings are legible.

  • Animation_Mentor

    Hey guys, here are the high resolution screen grabs:

  • Animation_Mentor


  • Animation_Mentor


  • Kelly Vawter

    Awesome stuff! So is it up to the animation student to also render their assignments? I see awesome work but was always curious as to if the students did the rendering and props as well or if Animation Mentor provided all that so the student could just focus on animation?

    • Animation_Mentor

      @kellyvawter:disqus – yes, it is up to the students – we don’t require our animation students to render their assignments as that is not required of animators in the industry. We have students submit playblasts and the mentors give feedback on the playblasts (just like directors do in studios). Some students have an additional interest in VFX like Manar, and go on the light and render. There are some props we provide, but students also add their own as well. Our animation program is laser-focused on animation, but we do offer VFX courses and workshops. Let me know if you’d like more details. Feel free to contact our admissions team as well :)

  • Shuga

    Very interesting post! :D !

  • James Roberts

    “Maya binary file parse error: : (6) corrupted file structure” I have downloaded the project files and cannot open the scene file. I am receiving this error message. I am using Maya 2011. Any suggestions?

  • Ambika

    Hey there! I’m really excited to incorporate this in the shot – I can’t quick extract from .rar files on a mac. Is there a .zip version?

  • Ambika

    This looks really exciting and can’t wait to use this in my shot! Thanks for the post. Is there a zip file of this? Macs can’t seem to open .rar files. Thanks!!