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  • Writer's pictureR Cipolletta

e39: Efficient Cinematic Lighting with Jeremy Vickery

The Gnomon Workshop 21.11.20

Cinema vs Film

Overall, I'd say that the majority of my missing context in the field of concept art is neatly bundled into three main categories: composition, lighting, and colour. Therefore it was in my best interest to find a way to educate myself on such things in as efficient a way as possible - and I believe I have done so with this particular Gnomon Workshop tutorial. Though it undoubtedly focuses entirely on film, you will see from the enclosed notes (below) that I gained many a valuable insight into digital painting and have been massively propelled forward as an artist, in this regard.

I am so excited to apply what I have learned to my already existing canvases, which honestly feel like they were simply waiting for me to watch this tutorial to spring to life.

Problems with Polaroid:

Despite singing its praise, immediately after watching this video series, a massive problem with my installation concept came to light (no pun intended). The Polaroid flash - so integral to the ability for the film to develop properly - suddenly became the overwhelming key light in every single shot and, what's worse, it constantly originated from right behind the viewpoint thereby completely robbing my scenes of dynamic lighting on top of the 'white-washing all the saturation out' issue.

Due to the importance of the Polaroid specifically to my installation concept (and to my innovation Learning Outcome) this was a tricky issue to address, and indeed it took me a few days of mulling it over to find an adequate solution - but find one I did! I resolved to paint all of my scenes primarily with only fill/kick and rim light, thereby producing a nicely rendered, albeit horror-movie dark, image for my submissions first and only after this will I add the overwhelming key of the flash as a singular layer overtop everything, in-post on Photoshop.

Though, undoubtedly, this feels like a tiny bit of a cheat when you view it at surface value, the Polaroids aren't actually meant to be high quality images, but merely stand-ins for a larger installation. Factor in that the rendered images are intended for a professional industry-level portfolio plus the fact that my character is a giant, ham-fisted huntswoman whose interest in instant Photography is based off of mine (after four years, I still can't get a high quality print to save my life) - and my decision not only starts to make sense, but actively contributes to the realism of the concept. So... Eureka!

Termination of Research:

I still retain that this video tutorial series was massively useful, despite the small headache it gave me over the flash issue. I honestly wish I could keep taking advantage of excellent university facilities like these, indefinitely - but as the project end draws closer and closer, I have to throw in the towel and consider this my last big research session into this specialisation as a whole.

I still feel like there is so much to learn about concept art, and there were so many research items I had in mind that I simply did not have the time to get to, but despite this I cannot help but feel immensely satisfied at everything I have learned! I am confident that I have enough under my belt to happily dive face-first into these submissions, and with all that said -

Time to finish these pieces.




  • Light consists of 3 things: Reflection, Refraction, & Absorption.

    • Absorption <-- this is the easiest to understand and work with. The colour of an object is determined by the light it does not absorb (i.e. a red Lego absorbs all colours except red, which ultimately bounces into our corneas).

    • Reflection <-- this divides into two things, Specular (light that comes in at a fixed angle and comes out at an equal and opposite angle - eg. mirror) and Diffused (light that bounces off at varied, random angles and diffuses rapidly as it travels for a softer reflection - eg. cloth). "Specular" & "Diffused" can be applied here. Refraction off of air particles can help imply depth of scene.

    • Refraction <-- as light goes through a transparent or translucent material, it will come out of the opposite side at a different angle. (Note: transparent materials refract all the light, whereas translucent ones refract some and reflect some).

    • ?? Shadows <-- absence of light. Mr Vickery divides these into specular shadows (crisp and opposite to the light source) and diffused shadows (softer and usually in response to multiple light sources - ambient occlusion in comp tech).

  • Colour temperature metaphor can be compared to the colour of a filament inside a bulb as it goes from off to on (as a spectrum: reds > oranges > yellows > whites > blues etc).

  • ^^ Instead of shading in colours (bright red for light and dark red for shadow), shade in temperatures!! (from bright to shadow: whites > yellows > oranges > reds > dark reds > blacks). *lose saturation as it approaches a light*

  • Colours will appear to change depending on the environment because of how they relate to the environment. A desaturated red used by Mr Vickery looked blue when it was used as a cooler tone in a warmer environment, but looked very creamy and bright in the same image with a colder accompanying colour palette.


Two types of composition: Camera & Lighting.

Camera Composition

physically where the camera & set pieces are to tell a story

  • ^^ TYPES OF SHOT: establishing shot (a wide shot of the environment you're working with), medium shot (shoulders & head), close up shot (mostly just head or face), extreme close up shot (a single feature), upward shot (from below, good for implying importance or power), down shot (from above, good for loneliness or powerlessness).

  • ^^ Blurring the background can help with an intimate effect.

  • ^^ Rule of Thirds & Golden Ratio <-- similar to what Nigel showed me. Your eye is always attracted to the crossover points in the thirds.

  • ^^ Repeating objects can help to show scale. Interesting. Showing an item up close which has the same size as an item further away, and then changing their scales respectively, can show the depth and size of other items you put alongside them. Mmmm.

Lighting Composition

comes after camera composition, and compliments/emphasises the pre-established narrative beats

  • 3 POINT LIGHTING: Used for portrait photography. Consisting of Key Light (strongest, brightest, 45 degree angle to character eg top left to bottom right), Kick Light (opposite direction from the Key Light and a lot softer - fills in the shadowed area), and Rim Light (relatively bright and coming from behind the character to separate them from the background, literally providing a rim of light around the edges so they don't fade into the black). It's a good start to show the shape of things...

    • ^ 3 Point Lighting produces a Core Shadow in between the Key and Kick lights which seems like an odd place for a shadow but actually helps massively with showing the shape of objects (especially how far forward something comes in the case of the example). Takes advantage of contrast....

  • FRAMING: Using surrounding objects that literally point to where you want the viewer to look. Subdivides into Foreground, Midground, and Background. Objects tend to be darker when there is less atmosphere between observer and item, so foreground pieces are darkest and background pieces are lightest (like Noah Bradley said, but this is so much more concise and comfortable to digest!).

  • POOLS OF LIGHT: Adding a little inconsistency to lighting (like a shadow that blocks the light from travelling right the way up to a high peak when otherwise it would) helps to make the image more appealing. This can help with creepiness.

  • GRADIENCE OF TONE: Never having a flat, samey colour to help with making the image interesting. Eg. vignette around the frame.

  • LIGHT ON DARK, DARK ON LIGHT: Frame dark objects with light backgrounds and light objects with dark backgrounds. Best used for important items or characters - using contrast to draw the eye.

  • ATMOSPHERE: Fog especially can be powerful to relay depth. Atmosphere, here meaning the varied refraction light values off of the particles in the air (atmosphere) more than just emotional subtext. Atmospheric lighting helps with dark landscape scenes as well, to avoid it from it melting into blackness.

  • IMPLIED LIGHTING: Using the light to suggest there is more to the scene than what is framed - like the cast shadow of a window, tree, or person over the subjects.

  • BACK LIGHTING: when the Rim Light is brightest as opposed to the Key or Kick. Using bounce light as a primary asset to give the scene a soft, 'magical' tone to the scene.

  • SHADOW ONLY LIGHTING: primarily using silhouettes, omitting Key and Kick Lights completely.

  • NON KEY LIGHTING: using Bounce Light as your Key Light. Good for mood, from mystery to softness.

  • Mr. Vickery does a lot of light studies by painting scenes from movies... maybe I should try.

  • COLOUR PALETTE: can be used in tandem with lighting to tell the story. Eg. high saturation for positive, glorified experiences, and low saturation for mundane, repetitive tasks (The Incredibles: the 'glory days' vs present day).

  • Consider the mood of the scene before making decisions on any of these compositional beats...

  • EXPOSURE: is quantity of light in the scene. Perfect, flat exposure is more along the lines of fiction. Exposure will favour one of two things, the bright area or the dark - you blow out one or the other when you choose, and this is something you could want to leverage for the scene.

  • CONTINUITY: keeping the lighting consistent so the subject of the shots looks like its in the same moment or location. Students/novices apparently get too technical with this - fixing the sun location and refusing to budge. Colour, tone, and mood, are actually more important than the specific light direction. Breaks in technical continuity are allowed in favour of continuity in the other components. Very forgiving from a logic perspective - prioritise story!

  • FOCAL POINT / SPLIT SECOND COMPOSITION: this is the difference between fixed images like posters, game covers, or fine art - movie shots tend to be on screen an average of 2.5 seconds, so the lighting needs to focus on making the story readable. So the composition, contrast, lighting, and focal point need to be on point. Information can be relayed in fractions of seconds this way and make for effective and efficient storytelling - no time wasting.

  • it's all about STORYTEELING. Lighting and camera should always aid the storytelling of what the director wants to say. If done well, nobody will notice it but will feel it, emotionally.

  • REALISM VS FANTASTIC BELIEVABILITY: students focus too much on the prior, but as you grow and as a develop as an artist you learn to apply personality/character to your lighting. Make it better than reality! Make them want to go to your place.

After this point the Gnomon Workshop tutorial transitioned into a technical, 'lighting in Maya' specification. This was worth watching, but received less of my attention due to its deviation in relevancy from my work.


Flawed Field (Abstract Musings of a Sleep Deprived Mind):

If my goal is to improve games then studying games to form my skillset was a bad move as, to appropriately improve something, you need a degree of separation from yourself and the flaw. Movies are centred on telling stories with images (which is what I wish to bring to industry) and games are not. Being so close to the issue can be useful, but how can I hope to revolutionise anything if I'm only learning the flawed skills to begin with. Ah if I could go back in time and re-do university...

- R Cipolletta


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