Are you an aspiring 3D lighting artist?
You’ve come to the right place. We’ve mentored hundreds of artists through the Academy of Animated Art, helping new CG lighting artists land their dream jobs at companies like Disney, Dreamworks, and Sony. The best part? They’ve done it in a year or less.
If you’ve always been curious about working as a lighting artist, this guide is for you. You’ll learn:
- Building your skills to become a 3D lighting artist
- Understanding the salary range of a lighter
- Creating a lighting artist demo reel/portfolio
- …And everything in between!
Want to learn more? Read on.
What is a 3D lighting artist?
While a lighting artist can work on various projects, including video games, movies, instruction videos, architecture mockups, commercials, and medical visualizations, we’re focusing on lighting for animated movies.
The animation team includes riggers, animators, texture artists, and lighting artists all working together to bring an animated scene to life.
As a lighting artist, your job is to add depth to sets and characters with shadows, as well as provide proper illumination to bring out the scene’s emotion and, in some studios, to add surface qualities to objects.
Take a look at this time-lapse video to see just how powerful lighting is for animations:
Having a basic knowledge of artistic concepts, such as lighting and composition, is essential when building a career. It’s equally important to learn all about industry-standard 3D lighting software applications to become a successful lighting artist.
What is 3D lighting?
3D lighting helps set the tone, mood, and atmosphere of the scene and gives the scene its final look. This is done by adding light and shadows in a computer-generated 3D environment using various software applications and tools to simulate light.
You have to choose a different combination of light sources to highlight certain parts of the scene to evoke the right emotion, use light to set the mood to a scene, and represent real-life properties of a scene – such as times of the day.
Lighting can be done using different software applications such as Maya, Houdini, Blender, Cinema4D, and 3DS Max.
For example, here are just a few projects our students have created:
(Created by our student Ryan Hansford)
(Created by our student Nicolas Balliett)
Specifically, what does a typical day look like at an animation studio? In between your lighting work, you get to go to screenings of animated films and do fun stuff at the office. Through our work, we’ve attended movie premiers in both New York and Los Angeles. (Highlight: That time we had the chance to stand next to Beyoncé.)
Or like this time when we got to cuddle with a baby kangaroo.
But how much can you ultimately earn as a lighting artist?
And are lighting artists in demand?
Yes, lighting artists are in demand. After all, several growing industries, such as streaming services and VR, require lighting artists.
And according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job industry for special effects artists and animators is growing at a yearly rate of 8% – faster than average. The median 3D artist salary is $98,950 per year.
What skills do you need to be a lighting artist?
A lighting artist needs to have both technical and artistic skills. The skills you need are:
To ensure that the lighting is as realistic as possible, you should have a deep understanding of different artistic concepts such as shading, composition, color theory, design theory, and perspective.
You should know how light and shadow interact with each other in different situations to set the tone or the mood of the scene. Also, you need to understand the different CG lights to use and their attributes and dissect reference images to recreate certain tones.
Applying the lighting requires technical skills.
That’s why it’s so important that you know how to use different 3D animation software programs, such as Maya, to apply the lighting and render the final image.
Having experience and knowledge about procedural shading, coding, and familiarity with languages such as Python and Nuke can also help if you want to become a successful CG lighting artist. However, you don’t necessarily need coding skills.
As the name implies, character lighting is a technique that adds light and shadows to a character or an asset.
A big part of 3D lighting is character lighting because the play of shadow and light and the addition of specific design elements (capturing the eye’s wetness, the white of the teeth, the shape of the face, and so on) make the character look alive and realistic. If you’re not lighting your characters properly, the result may look flat, artificial, and harsh.
To light a character, you should have knowledge of different artistic concepts such as mood lighting, eye lighting, three-point lighting, Rembrandt lighting, hero colors, villain colors, shaping, and so much more. You need to learn how to use the key light, fill light, and rim light to control the light and shadow and make the character look believable.
Environment lighting involves adding light and shadows to a scene to make it appear as realistic as possible. Here, you should know how light and shadow interact with each other in real-life daylight and nighttime scenarios, including indoor and outdoor lighting.
Simulating natural lighting involves awareness of the environment around the scene, the direction of sunlight, soft illumination from the sky, the indirect light that blends different colors, and so forth.
If the scene requires artificial light from, say, a flashlight or a street lamp, you need to know how to simulate realistic lighting patterns and illumination in the scene for realistic results. You should also have an understanding of how light and shadow behave in underwater scenes, foggy scenes, snowy scenes, and more.
Materials and shaders
Materials make objects visible in the first place, while shader defines how each pixel is drawn to a screen. Different 3D animation applications have shaders to simulate materials. And different shaders come with different instructions and attributes. These attributes define the appearance of an object.
Lighting a scene isn’t just limited to applying proper illumination; you’ll have to consider the kind of materials that the objects are made of and how these materials behave when illuminated in real life so you can apply the effects in a computer-generated scene.
Some materials are reflective; others are refractive. Some objects have smooth and shiny surfaces and others have matte and bumpy surfaces. The attributes of the objects will influence the shaders and lighting choices that you’ll apply.
In 3D animation, compositing is a process that combines all the visual elements into one image. The visual elements come from different sources, and the composition process is meant to give the illusion that these separate elements are a part of the same scene. The scene combines two or more render passes to refine the animation and achieve the highest quality.
Compositing will require knowledge in animation tools such as Nuke and Adobe After Effects, just to name a few. It is also helpful to know how to use renderers such as Arnold, RedShift, Katana, V-ray and Octane.
To become a lighting artist, you need to know the theory behind lighting – how to identify a light source, what different lighting techniques work when, and so on.
A few lighting techniques most lighting artists frequently use are:
- Spotlighting creates three-point lighting so that an object is illuminated with three different light sources. These are:
- Key light – The main source of light that shines on your object the most
- Fill light – Adjusts the contrast between the right and left sides of the subjects to fill in the shadows left by the key light
- Backlight – Set in the back to separate the subject from the background, providing a soft glow to the image from the back
- Point lighting (called omni lights) is a single source of light in a 3D environment and the rays of light are scattered in all direction
- Ambient lighting is the average volume of light that’s produced by emission of light from other light sources that surrounded the lit area
- HDRI (High-Dynamic-Range Imaging lighting) replicates lighting conditions in a 360-degree HDRI photograph
3D lighting software
You’ll also need to know image editing software such as Adobe Photoshop and 2D compositing software, such as After Effects and Nuke.
And the tools differ slightly depending on industry. For example, Unreal Engine is more common in the video game industry.
How to become a lighting artist with no experience
Can you become a lighting artist without experience?
YES! Here below, you’ll learn the steps to help you become a professional lighting artist in the fastest and most effective way.
Get a degree
You can take formal training by earning a college degree to become a lighting artist. I don’t necessarily recommend this, as most college degrees aren’t created for today’s job requirements. Plus, it’s an overly expensive and time-consuming route.
A bachelor’s degree in Computer Animation costs around $40,000 per year. To be admitted to a master’s level program, you should have at least a 3.0 undergraduate GPA.
Some top animation schools include:
- The California Institute of the Arts
- School of Visual Arts in New York
- Rhode Island School of Design
- Ringling College of Art and Design
- Savannah College of Art and Design
It’s worth noting that a bachelor’s degree takes about four years to complete and is full-time. Not a lot of animation schools specialize in 3D lighting.
Enroll in online lighting courses
Taking an online course, like the ones we offer at our animation school, is a great way of mastering the artistry of 3D lighting at a flexible schedule. By taking an online lighting course, you can learn at your own pace.
Also, the courses focus on different aspects of 3D animation and 3D lighting, something that traditional animation schools do not offer. The best part? Taking an online course is more affordable than earning a degree in animation – and much faster.
Instead of working for a degree for four years, you can learn lighting skills and get a job within one year.
A great way to get familiarized with 3D animation and lighting is to read our book, Lighting For Animation: The Art of Visual Storytelling.
We also offer different lighting courses:
Our other courses help you specialize in different 3D animation applications such as:
All AAA lighting courses and tech workshops complement each other.
You can sign up for a single class or multiple courses to build a solid foundation in 3D lighting. The great thing about signing up for a lighting artist course is that you can learn at your own pace. No matter where you are and what you do, you can squeeze in time in your schedule to learn about 3D lighting online.
We have a whole library of ready-to-light, high-quality assets that you can practice on. You can also add these assets to your demo reel to get attention from hiring managers. We’re always coming up with new characters to light each month.
Best of all, investing in our assets library means gaining access to our lighting community. You’ll connect with other artists and showcase your work during our monthly lighting challenge. And you’ll also receive professional feedback from us!
As part of the course, we do regular lighting critiques. Like this one:
Ultimate Lighting Bundle
If you’re ready to enroll in our school, but you’re unsure what course to take, we suggest getting the Ultimate Lighting Bundle. This course features a proven system that will help you get your dream job as a lighting artist in less than a year – even with zero experience.
After spending more than a decade lighting animated movies for Blue Sky Studios, we developed a system that will train lighting artists quickly.
The Lighting Bundle is designed to help you learn about 3D lighting at your own pace. That’s why the training session takes only an hour every day. You can focus on your day job and spend your free time training to be a light artist.
We knew that the system was effective, but the results blew us away.
For the past couple of years, we’ve helped over 200 artists land their dream jobs at Dreamworks Animation, Sony Pictures, Blue Sky Studios, Reel FX, Giant Animation, and many more.
One of our successful students includes Shane Sternstein, a Dreamworks lighter.
Shane started in the animation industry before he found lighting and signed up for our course.
You can learn more about Shane’s story here:
You can see some of our student projects here:
Build a 3D lighting artist portfolio
How? Here’s what you need to know.
The demo reel is a series of clips that showcase your work. Your demo reel should include at least 5 of your best pieces of work.
Most hiring managers spend hours watching demo reels, so keep the length under 4 minutes, ideally under 2 minutes for students. Never include unapproved work, avoid loud music, and have a breakdown of all the lighting work you did in every shot.
Finally, your name, contact details, headshot, and website should be outlined in the demo reel.
If you want to learn how to put together a winning demo reel, sign up for the lighting bundle!
Get an internship
Animation studios have varying requirements for internships and apprenticeships. Generally, studios look for interns with experience of art, graphic design, design, computer science, and/or VFX and animation skills.
A few places to find internships include job boards, social media, and your network. For example, signing up for an online course at the Academy of Animated Art helps you to meet industry professionals and fellow artists.
Go to industry events and connect with people on platforms such as LinkedIn or in industry communities. Our own student community at AAA is highly engaged and we often showcase our lighting artists’ lighting art, like I did here in an email:
Get a job
Look at job boards for lighting roles. Alternatively, go straight to studio pages and look for open positions.
We’ve listed a few of the best studios to work for here:
- The best animation studios to work for
- The top VFX studios
- The best studios in Los Angeles
- The best studios in New York
There you have it! Now you know what it takes to become a 3D lighting artist.
I hope that these tips will take you closer to your goal of starting your career as a lighting artist.
Being a lighting artist is a fulfilling and rewarding career. However, you need to learn the skills and create a portfolio hiring managers want.
At the Academy of Animated Art, we’ve mentored hundreds of artists, helping new CG lighting artists land their dream jobs at companies like Disney, Dreamworks, and Sony. The best part? They’ve done it in a year or less.
Want to learn more?