Ana Belen Hernandez Tornero from Ubisoft Sofia shared her experience of working on Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and discussed how she approached lighting in different game locations.
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My name is Ana Belen Hernandez. Since I was a kid, I always wanted to become an architect and to create my own designs. So, I went to college in Alicante, Spain. While studying architecture I discovered how fun it was for me working on 3D. Once I finished my architecture degree, I decided that I wanted to learn more about the 3D world and more specifics about real-time rendering.
With that in mind, it was time to check video games schools where I could learn what I was looking for. I moved to Madrid, Spain, to study post-graduate Art and Visual Design for video games at U-Tad. The final project was to create a video game with the students from the art, design, and programming post-graduate programs, in a professional context. It was that moment when I fell in love with that part of the production related to lighting and FX.
Once the project was finished, I started working on my portfolio for lighting. Three months later, I received an offer from Ubisoft Sofia to join the team as a lighting artist. So, I moved to Bulgaria to work on The Division 2 and, later, on Assassin's Creed Valhalla.
Working on Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
Ubisoft Sofia has always been a studio that makes a valuable contribution to the development of the Assassin's Creed games, so it was a matter of time before we started working on Assassin's Creed Valhalla once we finished with The Division 2.
There were four lighting artists working on the project on behalf of Ubisoft Sofia. The producer for our team was managing the tasks we had to cover and distributing them among us. We split the territory within the team and every lighting artist was in charge of the respective locations there, interiors, exteriors, mood, atmosphere, some particles, etc.
Understanding the Environment Before Lighting
The first step for me is always understanding the scene, what the needs in terms of lighting are, how the gameplay is going to work in the scene, what the key places for the gameplay are. I like to place myself in the shoes of the player and play through the location trying to imagine both the gameplay aspects and the emotion I would like to evoke. Then, once I know what is needed for the gameplay and the art intentions, I start preparing the references file according to all the information that I got previously. Sometimes the references can come given by the concept art team, but most of the time we need to prepare our own references following the art direction and the gameplay needs. Usually, the mood base is set by the gameplay, the story in that place, and the level art pass declaring intentions. A good connection between level design, level art, and lighting is key to getting things working.
The main sources for an exterior are usually the directional light acting as sun/moon and the global illumination. Then you can use local lights in specific places for extra details in some areas where such are needed. In order to work on exterior scenes, you need to first focus on a global perspective and then start working on a closer scale for details and an extra push for quality.
Once I have a clear idea about what's the mood necessary to be achieved, I start working on the skylight. It is very important to have a nice balance between the directional light, the sky, and the influence those have on the environment. Among the sky values to adjust, one with the biggest impact on the scene is the density and the amount of clouds that will cover the sky. The shadows coming from the clouds are a very nice touch that we could afford in this game, adding more contrast to the atmosphere. In order to give an extra push to the depth of the scene, I like to tweak the fog values according to the environment and the weather. They will have a big impact on the mood. Color grading is another aspect that needs to be adapted to get the results from a moodboard. Once you have the base setup, you have the post effects for extra control in the search for a nice atmosphere.
With the global mood of the scene set, you can go into more detail. With a closer look, you can work with local lights to give the final flavour with a nice composition to a specific area.
The first thing is to get the interiors dark and to make sure you do not have leaks of any kind inside. Then I would say that for me, contrast is the key. Highlight what needs to draw the attention and leave in darkness what is not so relevant, always looking for a nice composition. I like to imagine everything that is happening in a place, who has been there, what they are doing, how they behave, so I can justify how they would use the environment around them, and for instance, the lights/fires. Like, if they are fighting, they can knock some brazier over. Or, are they cooking there? Are they rich, poor, etc.?
In places like this, it is very important to control the attenuation of the light and the good direction, so we can get a nice natural feeling. Due to the amount of fire and humidity, the air thickness is an important ingredient that we can play with in the environments for this game. Adding the right amount of fog can help us add depth and definition to the scene for a nice ambient. But not too much, so you do not lose visibility. The amount depends on the needs of every specific case. Sometimes, some dust particles, ashes, or similar, flying around can help to bring life to the scene. Also, godrays can help you point the player's attention in the right direction or guide them to a special place.
For the specific case of cathedrals and churches, the lighting is always coming from candles, not from big fires. Those are places dedicated to God, to faith, for praying, for inner thoughts, a calm place.
The use of candles in churches and religious places started from the need of light for the night services. But after the 9th century, candles start getting a more mystical meaning. Candles became the representation of Christ. The beeswax used to craft them symbolizes his pure flesh which was given by his Virgin Mother. The wick of the candle means Christ's soul. The flame represents his divinity.
The light is very important in the Christian faith. This religion believes light is the first creation of God, making visible all his Creation (the world). That makes light the manifestation of God, and more in detail, candles as an expression of his love.
That said and coming back to the art of Valhalla, my intentions while working on Christian cathedrals and churches were clear: to symbolize faith. To get that atmosphere, I worked looking for big contrast with soft light coming from candles and highlighting altars, arches, and high columns to emphasize the greatness of God. As a final touch, adding the fog to the ambience brings in the smoke produced by all those candles.
Challenges and Advice
In such huge games like Valhalla, there are many artists working on different parts of the game. For me personally, the main challenge is to keep consistency throughout the whole project. Every artist has a personal style and sometimes it is very visible in projects like this one. That is why, I consider it is very important to have a very clear Art Direction, with concepts and references that we can follow to achieve similar results but keep space for those details that make a scene unique. In my opinion, under the great Art Direction we had in Valhalla, we managed to turn this weakness of having different artists that could lead to losing consistency into a strength. Collaborating, sharing, and learning from one another, we actually improved our results, our skills, and the quality of the whole game. In games with a scale like this, communication and teamwork are very important to get stunning results in the end.
My advice to beginners who are willing to be part of the AAA industry would be first to pick a role in which to develop their expertise (lighting, FX, environments, textures, props, concept, etc.). Of course, for me personally, it is important to have a general knowledge about how everything works in production and to have good artistic knowledge, but in big projects like this, you end up working on a very specialized area, so it can be important to be very good at that specific part. In order to do so, you need a good portfolio that can “talk” about your skills. One of the best tips I was given in the past was to keep scenes and scope manageable with a realistic goal for my portfolio. It is very easy to get lost inside many sources of inspiration and all the cool things you want to do. It is better to have something smaller but with the best quality. In the end, the portfolio is going to be your key to entering the industry. And if you work on that portfolio with motivation and enjoy what you do, that is something that later can be appreciated in the work you have created.