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Studying Lighting in Games

Dominique Buttiens gave a talk on his lighting experiments in UE4 and shared a few recommendations for those who want to get into game art.


Hi, my name is Dominique Buttiens. I’ve been working as an environment artist for 4 years now, currently at Studio Gobo, Brighton, UK. I’ve worked on For Honor and Disney Infinity 3.0 – Star Wars: Rise Against The Empire. I can’t say more about our current project, but you can always follow me on my Artstation for the updates. Lots of exciting things are coming in the future!

Personal Projects

To me, art is a way to tell stories, and one day, I hope to consider myself a good storyteller. If you look at great movies or paintings, the lighting and composition can tell you a whole lot about the story being told. It can let the viewer focus on what you as a storyteller are trying to say and it can dramatically change the feelings associated with the visuals.

Because of this, I wanted to do a few smaller projects with the main focus on lighting, composition, and color grading. Unreal Engine 4 gives artists loads of interesting tools to help with this. So far I’ve ended up with the following projects (images and links below).

I’m using these projects to push my technical knowledge of lighting as well, and I’ve started to make some of the scenes available for download for anyone who wants to learn from it.

Lighting in Games

80lv: What is your take on lighting in games? It seems like such an important part of the general image that brings in a huge part of the atmosphere and so on, but in the production cycle, you usually start doing lighting very far down the line, when the whole environment is mostly assembled. Could you tell us why this thing happens and what are the most important functions the lighting plays in a game? Would 3D Artists benefit from setting up lighting at early stages of production?

I can only speak from my own experiences, but as with everything in game development, things happen in iterations. Personally, I like to play with very basic lighting early on, to give a sense of intention. But I’ve never had to set up the official lighting for a big production game. In AAA, there is a lot of specialization these days. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with a few very talented lighting artists who have helped me to improve my setups. (Big thanks to Carl Ross and Sander Van Der Meiren!)

During the blockout phase, the focus often lies with gameplay and pathing, while art and lighting come separate to convey the story setting, mood, etc. Lighting will be used for both helping the player(s) with direction and orientation and emphasizing the mood. Part of the lighting will be set up quite early on, but as gameplay changes, story changes, environment art changes… it can become a wasteful way to spend your time chasing these changes. Instead, the scene might stick a while with the basic ‘functional’ light setup while the lighting artist works with the lead or art director figuring out the overarching mood throughout the story. Lighting can often be the element that ties a game together when moving from one environment into the next. Quite often lots of time gets spent on color grading and comparing scenes based on what the intentions are of the art direction. Once this is nailed down and the levels become less prone to change, it becomes a lot easier to focus on the separate lighting setups. These two tasks can also be divided between a lead lighting artist and his/her team, depending on the size of the production.

As an Environment artist, I think it’s important to at least have a good fundamental understanding of lighting and how to set it up. Thanks to it, you will be able to both set up the lighting yourself on smaller productions and improve communication and collaboration with lighting artists and the art director.

Realistic Lighting

Realistic lighting is often applied in Archviz projects, but in games there tends to be a bit more of an artistic touch. Nevertheless, I find it useful to draw from realism to understand what the eye expects from lighting. In games and movies, you will often have lights that are placed just to compliment the composition, but they are not actually a realistic representation of the present light sources. While I do prefer avoiding fake light, I think that it’s normal to use fake lights as a tool to create the best possible art. However, it matters whether or not it’s easy to spot. I need to have at least a semi-plausible source for each light that I can see, or it will break immersion. And immersion is an important tool for a good storyteller.

Lighting in Unreal Engine 4. Advice for Beginners

The last few years, most of my lighting work has been done in Unreal 4. I find it quite an easy engine with a solid set of tools to create and tweak beautiful environments. I definitely recommend it for anyone interested in getting into lighting. Sometimes, young artists tend to add too much lighting. This can make it quite difficult to keep in control of what the light is doing. My advice would be to learn to get good results using just ambient light and a single main light source. In Unreal 4 that would be a skylight and a directional light, or even just a pointlight as the main source. Learning the basics like how reflections work also helps a lot. The reason good lighting is tricky is that it is a lot more than just technical skills. You need to understand light and color in the real world to be able to recreate it. Study movies and classical paintings for references of artistic uses for light. Or, study games!

ArtStation and Polycount and simply great place to find like-minded people to help you out. There is a lot of information out there already. For example, specifically for the Lighting Experiments, I’ve written a blogpost (find it here).

I’ve also started to release downloadable packages of the Unreal scenes I’ve created for people to study or to use the assets from. For a lot of people, breaking down an existing scene is a great way to learn how to do it yourself! You can find them here:

Dominique Buttiens, Environment Artist at Studio Gobo

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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