Scott Warren shared some thoughts on building the amazing moody lighting for Call of Duty: World War II.
It’s been about two years, hasn’t it? It seems like it was only a few months ago! In that time, I worked at Raven Software where I was given the awesome opportunity to contribute to both Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered and Call of Duty: World War II.
On both projects, the lighting team at Raven used core photographic principles like exposure, tone mapping, and lighting ratios to approach the lighting art. It’s really cool to see just how interlinked photography and real-time rendering has become. Because of how advanced game engines are these days, if you can use a camera well, then you can understand how to create compelling virtual images. Photographic principles are constant across mediums.
Overall, I’d say I spent the last couple of years learning how to push the craft of game lighting even further, and I was fortunate enough to have learned new things with such an amazing team.
The brilliant minds at Sledgehammer Games established the core aesthetics of the film look you mentioned. The lighting team at Raven had leeway in interpreting our part of the contribution, but everything needed to be cohesive in the end. I certainly had a blast collaborating with them to make sure that happened!
I have to note that the shots on Artstation have been lightly tweaked from what appears in the shipped version of the game. There wasn’t much film grain visible during gameplay. So as a personal decision for the sake of presentation, I embellished the screenshots to make them feel more like stills from a movie.
For the two environments I worked on for WWII, my tasks were:
- world lighting and atmosphere
- post-processing like bloom and such
- exposure control and balancing
- the local lighting in the gameplay spaces to make interiors feel consistent with exteriors
- in-game cinematic lighting for brief character moments
- color grading to make it all cohesive
The same art director at Raven gave me direction for both environments, and after some initial discussions and tests, we agreed that it would be best to approach the mood with a naturalistic documentary feel (not to call too much attention to “pretty” lighting and to present it in a matter-of-fact way).
I can’t speak for other lighting artists on the project as we all had our own approach to how we pulled off a certain look, but I will say what helped me create the overcast styles was a heavy amount of contrast. Using the atmospheric fog systems created these natural zones of foreground, midground, and background planes that gave us both depth and silhouettes. It would be easy to go flat with an overcast setting, but introducing hints of contrast made the brights feel brighter and the darks feel darker.
Working with Radiant
The workflow for Radiant is surprisingly similar to most engines in that everything starts with a skybox. We would talk with art direction to pick a sky that fit the mood and theme we wanted. Since the sky art would actually light the world, it was important to find one that satisfied both artistic and technical considerations. Once the world lighting felt consistent with the sky, I’d do a base sunlight and atmospheric fog pass to connect the sky with the terrain appropriately. After that, I moved on to game space lighting for visibility/ leading the player.
Here’s a fun secret: None of the interior lighting was natural! It was all hand-placed. The interiors started as black voids and needed their own lighting to make them feel like the outside light was creeping in. It’s funny that you use the phrase “stage light” because one of the references for the interior tower lighting was a 1969 movie about the bridge. Movie lighting back then was a little more harsh with defined edges and sharp shadows, so some of that feel was incorporated. It felt a little more classical, certainly a little stage-like for dramatic effect of highlighting Pierson, but still naturalistic like it could be coming from a window somewhere.
Because I adjusted the exposure for the outside areas (where players spend most of their time on both the Rhine and the labor camp), the interior lighting needed to be authored to balance with the exterior light, which was intense compared to the interior light sources.
So the interiors were not naturally lit in the sense that it wasn’t the skybox art doing the lighting, but there was global illumination on the local lights. All of the bounce you see happening around amber lights is the engine calculating that for me, which was useful because I only had to consider what effect I wanted the light itself to have, and the engine would give me something realistic when it bounced.
For the labor camp barracks interior, it was a similar situation: The building started as black even with the skybox lighting the world, so the soft feel of glowing window light needed to be handcrafted to match.
To me, this is the core of lighting art. I don’t mind that every nook and cranny isn’t perfectly illuminated as it would be in reality because it gives me a chance to apply thought and craft in imagining how the light would behave in a given space. It’s the old debate of simulation versus artistry. I think you can certainly have a bit of both.
Finding the balance
This is where my art director and lighting director came in ? The art director illustrated an initial idea of the stark geometry of the towers silhouetted against a soggy, cloudy environment, and my job was to find a technical way to make that happen. It was the result of back and forth discussions and trial and error until we started to feel like it had a certain visual weight to it.
Photographs taken of the towers during that time were a huge resource as well. Typical cameras back then couldn’t quite register details in the dark stone material when it was photographed against the sky, so you ended up with dark towers that took on an ominous quality. We tried to re-create that behavior to get a similar effect. The two main elements that made it pop, however, were the thick atmospheric fog and its interaction with the gorgeous stone materials the environment team created.
Lighting & Materials
This would be the domain of the environment art teams at Raven! They made every surface behave exactly as it does in reality thanks to advancements in Physically Based Rendering (PBR). Because every surface accurately reflected light, I didn’t have to worry about what the environmental materials were doing because I knew they would just work. I placed lighting and the environment reacted as expected. Everyone on the environment teams is a genius. During development, ours was a symbiotic relationship because surfaces can only look as good as the lighting falling on them, and lighting can only look as good as the materials that reveal it. We worked closely together to make sure we maximized the end results of our disciplines.
Davinci Resolve is slowly becoming the go-to standard for color in games. The film, television and VFX industries have used it for many years, and in some ways, the game industry is still catching up as far as color goes. On WWII, it was the best choice to get us closer to the goal of cinematic color.
Just using the same software doesn’t mean it will magically look movie-like, so our lighting team studied modern color grading techniques to get a feel for how we could apply that knowledge to the game.
The question about influential lighting is a tough one. You can get as philosophical or as technical as you like. But from what I’ve learned during my time in the game industry so far, my takeaway for making images would be this: Study the principals of photography. Learn proper exposure techniques, learn how light meters work, learn how to use a camera in Manual mode to understand the relationship between the settings.
When you develop an understanding of how light works and how it’s recorded using cameras, you develop a deeper artistic sense of how to create it. Game engines, renderers, physically based materials… all of these things are tools, and tools will continue to change and evolve, and that’s a good thing! But tools are only as good as the person using them. So understanding core photographic principals and even diving into classical art history will all help your brain understand how to make more compelling images over time.
Scott Warren, Lighting Artist.
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev.