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Inspired by Boon Cotter the amazing Abigail Jameson did some fantastic lighting studies. Here’s the full breakdown of her setup done in UE4, created after the conversation with the 80 Level editor Kirill Tokarev.
Hi, my name is Abigail Jameson and I’m currently finishing my final year of a BA in Computer Games Art at Teesside University (UK). I began learning 3D 3 years ago, however recently I have become more passionate about lighting art, with the completion of my 1960’s Subway Car sparking my interest. This has led me to develop a series of small lighting study’s, looking to further my skills and technical understanding with the intention of getting a junior lighting/environment artist position in the games industry.
My main goal of these studies was to create something more manageable and enjoyable for me. I found that I had become bogged down in my final year project, having spent several weeks working relentlessly on a different project, I was unhappy with its direction and in hindsight, I was trying to create something too large and complex which in turn had left me de-motivated and uninspired.
Understanding that part of being an artist is to make mistakes, I made the conscious decision to change direction after watching the Live session with Boon Cotter where he discussed his lighting portfolio, and how he sets out his lighting studies with an emphasis on producing scenes that are “simple and quick to model and texture”. I took a huge amount of inspiration from this and my project focus adapted to producing a variety of smaller scale pieces, which in turn has been a much more rewarding experience.
By producing work this way, I have allowed myself the greater freedom to simply move onto another piece if it’s not going in the direction I want and setting myself individual goals for each study, such as focusing on more realistic textures, better composition or more interesting lighting.
Setting up lighting
Setting up lighting can be split into two distinct parts, there are some areas of formalities such as making sure you have a lighting propagation volume, post-processing volume etc. and then there is the creative side which is the lighting itself. This is influenced by various factors such as the weather, the time of day, the season, the mood/atmosphere and whether you’re working on an interior or exterior piece. Gathering a lot of references will help make these decisions and help your lighting be more accurate and thereby realistic.
I have created a flow diagram that should help explain my general process, it’s very general and doesn’t cover all the details and might not be applicable for all environments, but hopefully, it’s helpful!
The shadows I chose were based off a lot of experimentation and inspired by some reference I had gathered earlier, using some cameras I had set up earlier I rotated and positioned the directional light so that it enhanced the composition of the scene. A small rule I had learned from studying concept art is that the rule of thirds also applies to the amount of darkness and light in a scene, e.g. 2/3rds of the scene is dark and 1/3rd is light (this also works the other way around), and is used to draw the eye the focus point of the scene. This can be seen more clearly when I apply the mosaic filter to some of my screenshots, this tutorial by James Paick does a really good job of explaining composition further!
My initial idea for the ‘Inhotim’ piece was from an image a saw on Flicker. I proceeded to find the place on Google street view, which gave me an accurate idea of the scale as well as individual components of the scene. I also worked out what materials I needed across the scene, as good lighting can mean nothing without high-quality textures.
The main wall material was created in Substance Designer and was an edit of the poured concrete block used in my earlier corridor scene.
Having a good roughness map with a lot a variation in combination with a few spherical reflection captures can really break up a texture and add some extra ‘sparkles’ to the scene. Additionally, I find that the look of materials can vary across software, so it’s better to make sure you’re constantly re-importing in the engine as you go along, so you can get it just right.
Something I have learned from the lighting academy tutorials is less is more when it comes to lighting. The scene only uses a skylight and directional light, but it took a lot a tweaking to get right. I decided to try to replicate a bright mid-day style lighting, similar to that of my reference. I started by removing the auto exposure in the post-processing and set the bias to 0.5, added a skylight at 0.5, and placed a directional light in the scene at a brightness of 1.
My first bake came though flat, as there wasn’t enough contrast in the scene, so I increased the value of the directional light. I tend to work in small increments of around 0.5 to 1, and do quick preview bakes each time, yet the scene still looked too flat, so I decreased the intensity of the skylight to 0.2 and rotated the directional light into a position I was happier with. Something I stumbled upon whilst trying to brighten up the sky was using the atmospheric fog with a sun multiplier of 20, this added some extra blue light into the scene when baked and made it look much more natural.
I then made a couple of tweaks in the post-processing and created a LUT table that increased the contrast even further and very slightly added some very slight blue tones, leaving me happy with how it was looking.
After getting feedback from my tutor, we agreed that there were slightly too many increments in the handrails supports, and to add some in the wall lights to break up the walls even further, and to put some bluer into the sky. To get the inner wall lights to produce light they use an emissive material which used the ‘emissive for static lighting’ settings in the meshes lighting settings.
Different types of lighting
The idea behind the Harbour wall piece again came from a reference that I stumbled across online, looking closer at the subject there was a variety of images that showed the wall in different lighting conditions, which I thought was perfect to allow me to experiment.
Like that of my previous piece I started with a daytime pass, again I followed a similar process to earlier, this was adding and adjusting a skylight, placing in a directional light and experimenting with the direction. What I did differently this time was to spend more time adjusting the colors, changing the light color and lower hemisphere color of the skylight to create the illusion of much colder shadows, and changing the temperature of the directional light (to 5000) which created a contrast of much warmer light.
I then attempted my night pass, this was much harder than I had originally expected. I initially wanted to change the sky sphere to work off an HDRI, however, once I had set this up I was unhappy with how it looked, Instead, I simply edited the default sky sphere (following this tutorial) to match a night sky, and placed an HDRI (found here) into the skylight.
Creating the Illusion of artificial light was defiantly difficult, looking closely at my reference I broke down the aspects of light I needed to reproduce and these were:
- The placement and direction
- The brightness of the light
I established the placement and direction by working out from my reference that there were large flood lights on poles in place between every other arch, which would be best represented via spotlights.
To establish the direction these lights should face I jumped back and forth between cameras testing combinations of different angles and attenuation radiuses until it generally matched my reference. I set the color of the light to a bright yellow and started testing different brightness values, settling on a value of 300 (with inverse squared turned off). The falloff was my final adjustment, I ended up with an inner cone value (where the light is brightest) of 15 and outer cone value of 30 (softness of the falloff), and tried a few different IES lighting profiles, which affects the shape of the light.
I found that I was missing a few shapes of lighting coming in more from the top of the scene, to achieve these I duplicated the lights I had just created and moved their place and direction, and again tweaked the factors to match my reference.
A few adjustments in the saturation of the post-processing further boosted the yellow and got me the look I was going for. For the black and white variation, I simply set the saturation to 0.
I’ve found the best way to start playing with lighting is to keep things as simple as possible, even by using basic primitives you can get nice results, without the need for overly complex scenes. Starting by gathering and taking time to breakdown reference will help you make conscious decisions about the type of lighting you want to create, and the different aspects you need to reproduce. Unfortunately, there’s no magic button in UE4 that will create lighting in an instance, be patient, and build up lights slowly, be careful not to rush getting everything in the scene at once and thereby oversaturating the scene with light. Some further tweaks in the post-processing and a nice LUT table will always help make light prettier though!
Like I discussed earlier I’ve found the completion and creation of these smaller scenes to be much more rewarding, and I now have a large collection of possible potential scenes and dioramas that I cannot wait to get stuck into. I hope my breakdown has helpful and I would be more than happy to answer any further questions.
I would also like to thank Kirill Tokarev for giving me the opportunity to share my process, and for all the resources that 80 Level has provided.