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Importance of Lighting and Visual Composition in a Video Game

Adriano Grasso has told us about work organization at Omeda Studios, shared some details behind Predecessor, the game the studio is currently working on, and talked about lighting techniques he's using in his projects.


My name is Adriano Grasso, originally I'm from Italy, although for about a decade, I have been living in Canada. I'm currently working as Principal Artist at Omeda Studios, I'm in charge of the overall Art in Engine for Predecessor.

I've started my studies initially at the Art Institute of Vancouver where I had the pleasure to be taught by great individuals and the top of the industry. I started my studies as a game designer which halfway through transformed into 3D art. I've always found myself spending every night after school drawing and modeling, game art was part of my studies but more as a learning basic tool. In my spare time, I wanted to learn more and improve myself.

I had the luck to start my career with a small internship in Burnaby for a subsidiary of Techland, on Dying Light, I had the pleasure to work as a Level Designer. I have worked from small indie studios such as Intergalactic Agency in Vancouver and 81 Monkeys in Port Moody to different AAA companies including outsourcing studios like MoGi Group. That allowed me to learn a lot over the years to produce a lot of work and interact with AAA studios, having to create endless props and environment assets in a short amount of time.

After short contract jobs which included Skins for games like Predator: Hunting Grounds, I decided to steer away from remote work and 3D modeling and take off my favorite discipline which is lighting. I had the pleasure to work on Dead by Daylight meeting incredible people there and then I joined Omeda Studios. 


I started working as a Lighting Artist just when I was at MoGi – more of a fun and experimental time considering I was working on modular environment props. I found myself interested in art direction and lighting as it is possibly a great path that allows you to trigger emotions and set the mood of a player influencing the gameplay experience drastically.

I usually do something that most instructors don't recommend, other than the regular technicalities such as color palette, mood boards, and gameplay cues. I use my own technique attached to my passion. I would play the right music at the right time while working which allows me to enhance my perception of what I experience when I work and playtest my work in the engine.

Below you can see my latest work in Unreal Engine 5 which is probably one of those personal projects that I did after watching a movie or listening to a specific song that triggered an idea. I do truly believe that visual art and Auditory must coexist in order to achieve the perfect balance to the game quality experience.

Unreal Engine – Spectre of the Fog is the result of an evening spent watching the Last Samurai.

One of the first things I do before starting to work is collecting references. I use Pure Ref (free-to-use software for reference gatherings). I gather around 30 references which I split into 3 sections: movement (action of the pose), color palette, weather/time.

After gathering all the references, my decision was to create an alerted soldier passing through a battled land right after the aftermath. I started by positioning my samurai model which I thankfully borrowed from Michael Weisheim and shot a few poses until I found the perfect match.

After posing the character I started positioning the first pass of character lights which is very important for me to do it on the first pass because the scene composition depends on the lighting of the character. I do try to give realistic lighting reasons anytime I light up a character without creating environments with lighting sources that don't make too much sense.

After doing the first pass of lighting I start with the basic background composition. I play around until I feel satisfied and then I’m going back to the lights and adding as many as I can to highlight everything I want your eye to catch. This was a real-time scene so I wanted the character to be the main focus and then the environment so the VFX on the fire is something I had to focus on after the main character.

After setting up all my lighting and scene, after polishing up everything I got to the final tweaking pass with post-processing. I generally decide here what to do and I wanted to go for an Akira Kurosawa style. It's always important to properly study the style you're trying to reproduce considering you're honoring the style of someone else. Red can represent love and passion, but it can also represent violence, danger, and power. Consider Akira Kurosawa’s Ran for example.

A discordant color palette draws attention to the importance of a character or moment. These deviations from a film’s color scheme are often used to refocus a viewer’s attention on specific thematic elements. However, Akira Kurosawa's movies do not shy away from the ambiguity these objects offer. Triadic colors are three evenly-spaced hues on the color wheel. Typically, one color is dominant while the others are accented. Often, Akira Kurosawa's films use a triadic color scheme to heighten the reality of a scene.

Take Kurosawa’s Dreams for instance.

Visual Composition

The visual composition is part of every process you make just applied to one static render/concept you're trying to recreate. The illustration of Grux that you can see below is an example of visual composition where you mix basic 2D fundamentals with 3D elements such as the main character.

The bashing technique is something that is commonly used to create concepts pretty quickly but allows you to understand art direction as well to an extent. For me, the visual composition comes from what I have in my mind and what I feel in my heart. It's more of a combination of the two which allows me to recreate what I am exactly looking for, numbers are not everything. Sometimes chaos can help you achieve things that you didn't think of before.

For instance, I wanted to create a visual composition of the Dark Knight. All I wanted was just a small render scene with the Joker and Batman in it. After countless iterations, I came down to a very simple scene with just the Joker sitting down staring in the reflection of the mirror obsessed with the thought of being part of Wayne's family mourning his brother after all these years (Bruce Wayne). I wanted to mix the original screenplay of Joker with the Dark Knight, it just naturally came out by itself and it just felt right.

Creating concepts of a scene allows you to pre-visualize the art in a game, in the end, what matters the most is the mood the vibe, and the architectural style (if we are focusing on the environment). I would recommend to any beginner in this field to look at the wider picture and not focus on the little details.

Tips for Beginners

The most important suggestion I would give for lighting is to watch countless movies, watch the best movies ever made and see what made them great. Some of them that can help out with visual art are Akira Kurosawa's Ran, Dark Knight, Blade Runner (1982), Gladiator, and Alien/Alien Covenant.

These are my favorite movies and yet there is so much you can learn from them: lighting/photography and especially camera shots and movement – once you understand how they work you will always try to experiment in your projects and learn how to reproduce them.

Adriano Grasso, Principal Artist at Omeda Studios

Interview conducted by Arti Burton

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