Jordan Jenkins did a breakdown of his lighting workflow for the recreation of the Marriage Story scene, discussed different lighting approaches and their purposes, and shared a few useful tips for artists.
My name is Jordan Jenkins, and I’m a student lighting artist for games. I’m currently in my third year studying animation at The University of Wolverhampton in the United Kingdom.
I would like to say I have always wanted to be a lighting artist or even work in games but that’s not true, I did not know what I wanted to do until 2018 when I was lost in my direction in life and
decided I wanted to try drawing, I realized I was decent at drawing and had an eye for seeing tones and values and replicating them, I then applied for animation at university and from there, I worked my way through every specialist from animating in 3d and 2d including some very innovative techniques like animating with sand, modeling, to and found that lighting is my favorite.
Below are some of my drawings.
The way I chose lighting was because I was noticing that I wanted to light my scene before even
finishing the animation, my teacher would tell me to just playblast the animation, it doesn’t need to be lighted, but I always ended up lighting the scene halfway through animating, I then realized I was only finishing these animations so I could show off the lighting.
So I started learning Arnold in Maya, and I was enjoying it but something was missing, I felt like I was spending just as long waiting around as I was lighting, so I tried my hand at Unreal Engine and fell in love, and then had a sit-down and realized that I would much rather create lighting for a game that someone will be running around and exploring rather than 5 seconds of a movie that no one cares about.
Marriage Story Train Re-Light
I had my eyes set on this project for about 6 weeks but had been advised to not tackle it because so many people had already tried and I would be compared to them, and I thought is that such a bad thing? I have a lot of confidence in my ability to light a scene and thought If I can match or do better than Brian Leleux’s version of this scene then I would be happy, if not then it would never see the light of day.
My references were these images from Marriage Story.
My goal was to match the scene as closely as possible using the City Subway Train - Modular Kit, after inspecting the reference, I realized there is a lot of lights in this scene, to create all those reflections I will have to place a lot of lights and bake them into lightmaps to keep performance high.
I then made a list of the main things that complete this movie scene, and they were the orange
chairs, some dark some light, the high reflections, the light coming from the rectangle light strips, and also the strip of light going down the middle of the floor.
Before even starting the lighting, I had to fix the scene, I had to match the layout, textures, and remodel some assets.
Firstly, I adjusted the chair Textures using Photoshop.
I then created my material for the chairs, I wanted to create a vertex painting material so I could
paint on roughness and dirt patches.
I also kept good organization through all of this and kept all the parameters in their correct groups.
Below is my material I created for the chair, I was going to create a master material for the whole scene, but the other objects already had shaders so it would have been a waste of time, with the material below, I can now assign the light orange seat textures to give the lighter seat variants in the scene, I know this could also be created using a tint, but the tint was also tinting the white parts of the chair, so I chose to use two separate textures.
Next, I wanted to create the plastic sheets that go on the outside of the advert posters.
At first, I tried just using rectangle planes, but they did not catch the light and reflect very well, so I quickly modeled a plane that bulges out, and then I added the plastic/glass shader.
Next, I had wanted to match the ceiling, this was going to be slightly trickier, something that I had not seen done in any of the other versions of this scene, so I exported my ceiling asset into Maya and worked out how I would do it. I first had to remove the ceiling lights.
Scene with the ceiling lights
Scene once I remoced the ceiling lights
As you can see it leaves big black spaces in the ceiling now, so that’s why I needed to go into Maya and model that ceiling panel to meet in the middle, I also had to make sure I did not stretch the UV’s. I also proceeded to delete all the lights in the scene and alter the ceiling shader.
My next task was to increase the emissive parts of the sidelights, they looked very dull and in the reference, they are glowing.
So, I remade the shader for that model and added a scalar parameter to a multiply node and was able to control the intensity of the emission.
Before the changes to the emissive part of the shader was made, shown in a detailed lighting view.
Dynamic Vs Static Lighting
I now started adding my lights, but before that, I had to decide whether I wanted dynamic or static lights, for me, this is an easy decision, I always stick to the rule that unless you need dynamic lights, then use static lights, static lights always do a better job than dynamic ones.
So why do people use dynamic lights then?
Well, there are two reasons, the first is because they serve a purpose, if your light is moving then it can’t be static, for example, if you have a directional light for your sun, and the light is moving with time, so it’s acting like a real sun and rising and setting then you can’t make it static because the light moves, so it can’t be baked into a lightmap, lightmaps are like very low-resolution texture maps that hold light data for shadows, etc., so it can’t be animated.
The second reason is a reason I used when I first used Unreal Engine and it’s a reason a lot of new lighting artists use dynamic lighting over static and that’s because it’s easier, you don’t need to worry about lightmap UV channels, lightmap resolution, lightmap complexity, you don’t need to build your lights and then troubleshoot when something doesn’t go as planned.
Well, can’t I use both?
Yes, you will use both in most cases, especially, in an exterior scene, not many exterior scenes that don’t have some sort of directional light for either the sun or moon, interior scenes are easier to light with just static lights because you can normally keep light sources in one place, but, say, you have a chandelier that sways then those lights need to be dynamic because they are moving, a lot of lighting in Unreal Engine is creating amazing lighting that is also performance-friendly, your lighting might be amazing but if you’re only getting 8fps then what’s the point? You need to find a balance of performance and beauty, and that’s where the art of lighting in Unreal Engine lies, and that’s why I love the lighting in Unreal Engine.
So, after looking at my scene, I have decided to use static lighting, no lights in this scene move so it’s more performance-friendly and also better looking to use static baked lights, below are my lights being placed in the scene in order.
I will show you in a series of images and a gif.
Below is my scene without any lights.
My scene with the edge lights
Edge lights + center lights
The following images are step by step of me adding various lights to the scene to match the reference.
For the reflections, I added a one large box reflection capture round the whole carriage, a couple of smaller round reflection captures to capture more important reflections, and then a planar reflection on the ceiling to capture more detailed reflections, as this was only a still image project, I used the planar reflection. If this was for a game, and performance was more of an importance for me, I would have used something more performance-friendly.
There are so many things with post-process that I would be here all day explaining them, so what I will do is insert a gif of all the post process effects I used, there are much better tutorials and stuff that explain how to use post-process effects so I won’t bore you with the details, but my main goal was to just tweak the final image to get it as close as possible, the main effect I used was the temp and tone effect.
My main difficulties with this scene were creating the exact same tones and reflection values as the reference, the reference has a green hue over the scene, something I had to implement into the scene without it taking over the scene, below are some failed attempts at this.
Compared to the final scene below, you can tell the above attempts were slightly off and did not work as well, the very last one of the four above was very close but had too much reflection and was slightly too dark and had too much contrast.
How Long Did I Spend?
I spent about 2 days on the scene so about 10-12 hours, a little longer than I wanted but halfway through I had to start again because I had a power cut and my scene got corrupted, and I couldn’t open the project, the second time over I worked much faster because I could avoid any mistakes I made the first time.
The one thing that took the longest was the overall color of the scene, capturing that green hue but still not letting it transfer over to the orange and white seats was tricky, so that kept me going back and adjusting a few times.
What Did I Learn?
I did learn a lot from this scene though, I got more familiar with creating parameter nodes in the material editor so I can later instance the material and speed up my workflow, I also learned a lot about the post process effects and how to really tweak them to get my outcome and lastly I learned about reflection captures, and how the larger the capture box the lower the resolution of the capture, so it’s good to go back in with smaller captures to capture certain details you want to show up.
Lighting Tips for Other Students
My first tip is a tip for all students not just lighting artists and its crucial in my opinion, do not worry about failure, I have failed on so many projects to get better, you can't become a high-level artist without failure on your way, as long as you learn from a “failure” then was it even a failure? I read something once and it stuck with me, it said “ instead of thinking of failures as a bad thing, what If I told you that you were 14 failures away from your dream job? you would now welcome those failures” and it is so true, welcome failure and learn from it.
Keep things simple, I’m sure we have all done this in the past “you add 10 lights to a scene, the scene looks great, you turn 5 off and it looks the exact same” keeping it simple will speed up your workflow, increase performance and also make it easier for the person who has this scene after you. Also if you need to change the lighting then it’s a lot easier if I said to you, can you make the right side of this image darker.
But your lighting setup looked like this, it would be very time consuming to alter the scene and the person after you will be pulling their hair out.
But if it looked like the one below, you can quickly change the lighting.
Always use reference, we know you think you know what a forest in the day looks like, but I can
assure you that your brain is tricking you, I learned this very early on when doing my realistic drawings, and I use this tip with everything, with drawing, it was, “Draw what you see not what you know” and it’s the same with lighting, always gather lots of references, it does not have to all be from real life, I normally gather some references from similar games as well.
Get feedback, reach out to other artists, most of the time, they will be happy to give you feedback. Sometimes, they might be busy, and if so, then respect that, but a lot of the time they will give you feedback and tips, and it will make you a stronger artist, I have gotten advice from multiple artists, and some aren’t even working in games. My mentor Samuel Walsh is a visual effects artist working at a frame store, and he has helped me a huge amount with becoming a stronger artist. Another artist who has helped me is Robert Ritchie, a junior lighting artist working at supermassive games, he has given me some very good advice and feedback which has helped me improve my art. My point is you have to approach an artist for help and feedback and if they don’t respond, then its fine but 9 times out of 10 they will respond and give you advice and help you.
Finally, don’t get too attached to a piece of work, we all love what we do and love our work, but it is a piece of work at the end of the day, being able to take criticism and change your work is a huge skill to have, no one wants to work with someone who gets angry every time you point out something they can change in a scene they are working on. To extend on this point, go back through your portfolio now and again and remove work that you're no longer happy with, you should be progressing, and that means older work is no longer showing what you're capable of, so remove them and keep the best work. Quality Over Quantity, you're only as good as your worst piece.
Use blueprints more, it will speed up your workflow massively, for example, let's say you have 60 candles placed around your scene, you now have to go and add 60 lights individually, which is a slow workflow already, and then you think these candles would look better with candle flames, now you have to place a candle flame on top of every candle individually, it's long, its and it’s boring, but if you created that candle inside a blueprint, then you can go into the blueprint, add the candle, add a point light on top of the candle and add a flame and it will update for every candle. I'll show an example below using the Merlin’s Cave pack from Leartes Studios.
This scene has 59 candles, but the candles were placed inside blueprints with their own light, which made it easy for me to add the candle flames.
Below is the scene with the 59 candles blueprints but no candle flames.
Below is the blueprint of the candle with the light created by Leartes Studios.
Then, I added a candle flame from the M5 VFX Vol2. Fire and Flames pack on the unreal marketplace.
I did this process for the 3 candle blueprints, there are 3 different candle shapes so each one has its own blueprint, and it saved me adding the flame to 59 candles, instead, I just added it to 3 blueprints, saved me a lot of time, and the candle flames are always in the perfect place. This also works well if you want to change the flame, later on, you can just change it in the 3 blueprints, and you can change the brightness of multiple candle lights in just one blueprint which is amazing.