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Effective Lighting Practices

There are a few tricks I've learned in my experience with 3D lighting that I have found very useful and effective.

Pools of Light

Lighting your scene using small areas of light (I like to call them pools of light) gives a scene much more depth and character. As opposed to lighting objects uniformly, try to break up the surfaces by using these smaller spheres of light to focus attention on the important elements in the scene. The pools also add a slight sense of mystery and apprehension because you might not know what could be lurking in that dark corner. Figure 7.16 provides an example in which pools of light are used well.

Figure 7.16Figure 7.16 Pools of light in Indiana Jones: The Emperor's Tomb.

When lighting for games in particular, you'll find that light is extremely important to gameplay. For example, the areas you illuminate and draw attention to can be clues to the player. What door should I go in? Where is the hidden passageway? Questions like this can easily be answered with the proper lighting. Remember that you have the power to set ground rules and guide the player through a game with light (see Figure 7.17). Get in the habit of thinking about how a player moves through your scene. You can have the best-looking lighting in the world, but if it doesn't collaborate with gameplay, the point is lost.

Figure 7.17Figure 7.17 Using light to guide the player helps highlight areas that are accessible and important to the objectives.

Be Creative

If you really want to excel at lighting, try not to stick to the standard solutions. Put some thought into the history and purpose of your scene. Just like texturing, giving some intelligent thought to what you are doing provides the opportunity to tell a story with your lights. It's not just about making it look good; it's about using your artistic license to take a concept to the next level. Take the initiative to talk in depth with the level designer and art director to find out where that scene falls into the grand scheme of things. Maybe the level before yours was meant to be relatively easy and relaxing, but your level is supposed to challenge and intimidate the player, bringing them back into the action. It is your responsibility as an artist to convey that tension and immersion required to make the gameplay effective.


I usually start with a simple lighting setup and add detail as I go along. But in the early stages, I like to experiment with different colors and positions for the lights. I can't tell you how many times I've stumbled upon a great lighting scenario by just taking some chances and seeing what it looks like. Try crazy combinations of color, reverse the intensities, or reposition lights in unorthodox places. Just keep in mind the purpose of the scene that you are creating and do your best to accentuate and improvise.

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