Three insider secrets to a lighting portfolio that lands your dream job.

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How to Become a Game Lighting Artist [2023 Guide]

by | Last updated May 3, 2023 | Game Animation

Want to learn how to become a game lighting artist? 

Gaming is a popular and competitive industry – and today, you’ll learn how to build your lighting skills and stand out among other game lighting artists. 

Want to learn more? Read on!

What is a game lighting artist?

Game lighting refers to the process of telling a story in a video game by combining practical and atmospheric lighting together. That’s what game lighting artists work on. 

So, your job is essentially to bring the story to life. After all, every scene in a video game requires different effects and lighting based on the storyline. 

For example, take a look at these images and how the lighting shifts in the same scene: 

 image example

aces workflow

Image Credit to Jordan Osborne

And this video gives a good overview of what lighting in games is:  

But what exactly do game lighting artists do? Let’s find out. 

What does a lighting artist do in games?

As a lighting artist, you’re in a creative role that requires technical skill and knowledge of different lighting tools, such as Maya and Unreal Engine. 

Lighting artists control the colors, shadows, and other lighting elements to add emotion and depth to a scene. So, for example, lighting can show what time of the day it is or the weather. 

Your job will vary throughout a project, but the initial stages are about steps like:

  • Creating a lighting pipeline
  • Gathering references
  • Creating proof of concept light setups

It’s important to consider each shot individually to establish the look and feel. But, at the same time, you also have to look at the shots together to ensure they’re consistent with the larger game story and environment. 

In the production phase, you work on most of the lighting work, starting with first-pass lighting to establish the look and feel. This is what guides the rest of the team on how to light the following shots.

Throughout the game development process, you’ll work based on the lighting pipeline and troubleshoot any issues that come up. 

The way you approach your work depends on the work style you like, but many lighting artists prefer to break the process into more manageable pieces. So, for example, they’ll work on bigger shapes first and then smaller ones. You might leave color grading and bug fixing for last after you’re done with most of the lighting work. 

Now that you know what the actual career looks like, let’s talk about how much you can get paid as a game lighting artist.  

What is the average video game lighting artist salary?

Figures from a Glassdoor report show that the average video game lighting artist salary ranges from $53K – $61K – and increases depending on experience, expertise, location, and the studio. 

Overall, gaming is a growing industry that includes everything from mobile games to streaming and the Metaverse. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, special effects artists and animators show a 5% growth projection rate in the next few years. And this figure is likely going to increase, especially in the gaming industry due to the demand for games. 

Okay, now let’s take a look at what it takes to become a game lighting artist. 

How do you become a game lighting artist?

First, let’s explore the skills you need to become a lighting artist. Then, we’ll look at the software often used in game lighting processes. 

Game lighting artist skills 

Since game lighting is a creative field, some artistic skill is required. And, even though you don’t need to be highly skilled at things like drawing, you do need technical skills. (This is part of why 3D lighting is so fun – your work never gets boring.)

So, gaming artists need to know specific software, tools, and techniques to create digital artwork, such as 3D models and textures. Becoming a gaming artist requires knowledge of game design principles and concepts to ensure the artwork fits the game. Knowing the game production process, including how to develop pipelines, can also help.  

Want to know another key skill for game lighting artists? Cultivating a good eye for detail. It can help you use lighting more effectively to create an atmosphere and set the right tone for the game. 

You should also expand your visual library so that you can work with all kinds of references to create unique lighting. Then, as you begin to develop an ‘eye’ for light, including how to incorporate references into the creative process and work through lighting challenges, you’ll be able to take on more complex lighting work. 

So, what software do you need as a game lighting artist? You’re about to find out.

Game lighting artist software

Once you start working as a game lighting artist, you’ll gain experience working with game engines such as Unity, Unreal Engine, and Autodesk Maya. These are some of the most widely used software tools in the industry, so let’s take a look at each one.  

Unity

Unity is a real-time game development platform and one of the most popular game engines. Game developers worldwide use it because it has a wide array of features, including creating lighting effects. 

In fact, game lighting artists and developers can create and operate immersive 3D environments in Unity and deploy them straight to gaming platforms. 

Plus, Unity features a Global Illumination engine specifically for game lighting artists so they can execute different lighting techniques when lighting a scene.

Unreal Engine

Unreal Engine is another popular software that has a large selection of lighting tools and features. With its powerful lighting system, game lighting artists can create ultra-realistic lighting effects. It even has dynamic shadow-casting features to bring more depth to the game scenery and atmosphere. Read our Unreal Engine guide here

Autodesk Maya

Autodesk Maya is a 3D modeling and animation software used for animation and game development. Maya includes a huge range of lighting tools and features for game lighting artists looking to create realistic lighting effects. Read our Maya guide here

So, now that you know more about the software you’ll need as a game lighting artist, let’s talk about the process involved in developing a game. 

Game development processes 

Once you have a good understanding of the tools used in game lighting, you’ll need to build your knowledge of game development processes. This means understanding the lighting workflow, how to create a lighting pipeline from development to release, and the different roles team members have within the process.

As a game lighting artist, the work starts from initial lighting to optimization and improvement for release. So, understanding the game development process is essential. Once the initial images are crafted, you’ll work with a team to optimize, improve, and prepare the game for the final release. 

After the game is released, you’ll need to look at feedback and performance from players to help improve the game’s lighting and environment for the next release.  

Besides these skills, you’ll also need a portfolio. That’s what we’ll look at next. 

Build your 3D lighting artist portfolio

A portfolio (or demo reel) is one of the most important parts of landing a game lighting job. Why? Because it features your best work – all in one place. 

So, when building your demo reel, include a variety of pieces. You want to showcase your ability to create unique, atmospheric lighting using gaming engines like Unreal Engine. 

Since a demo reel is short (up to three minutes), you should try to catch your viewer’s attention within the first few seconds. Be strategic and think about what work to feature at the very beginning. 

Ultimately, your demo reel is a way to demonstrate the quality and complexity of your work to potential employers and give them technical examples of what you’re capable of. 

You can learn more about creating a demo reel in our demo reel guide

Take a lighting artist course

Once you’re ready to enter the gaming world, the next step is to evaluate the different paths for learning the skills you’ll need to become a game lighting artist. 

There are a few different options out there, including degree programs, online certifications, and self-guided online programs. 

Personally, I wish I had had input from a mentor when I first started learning 3D lighting. 

So, look for a program that balances teaching you technical skills with giving you access to industry experts and mentors to help prepare you professionally. 

Lighting artist degree programs can be long, usually between 2-4 years. These programs are also the most expensive options for game lighting, with the average cost of a degree going upwards of tens of thousands of dollars. 

And, since you don’t need a degree to land game lighting roles, this isn’t necessarily the best path. 

An alternative to degree programs could be certification programs. These can also take a long time to obtain, though – up to two years – and can be incredibly expensive. 

The third option is online courses. Self-guided courses, such as AAA’s Lighting For Animation Course Bundle, and workshops to learn programs like Unreal Engine can help you acquire the right skills without spending a lot of time and tens of thousands of dollars to learn 3D lighting. 

In fact, the Lighting For Animation Course Bundle is designed to help you get your dream job as a lighting artist in less than a year – even if you don’t have any game lighting experience yet. 

And, since it’s a self-guided online course, you don’t need to attend classes at a specific time and place. You can learn from the comfort of your own home and integrate the coursework into your schedule in whatever way makes sense for you. 

Here’s a short introduction to what we do:

 

Ultimately, I created this program to be the resource I would have needed when I started my career. So, the bundle includes mentorship from industry experts to help you create stand-out assets and land your next job in gaming. 

Over to you!

So, there you have it! Now you know how to become a game lighting artist. 

Becoming a game lighting artist can lead to an exciting, rewarding, and fulfilling profession. And, since it combines technical and artistic skills, it’s a great choice if you want a varied career that never gets boring.  

Want to learn more? Get these three insider secrets to creating a stand-out portfolio: 

About Jasmine Katatikarn

About Jasmine Katatikarn
Jasmine Katatikarn is the founder of Academy of Animated Art. She has 20+ years of experience in Feature Animation and VFX. Jasmine’s lighting credits include movies like Ice Age, Ferdinand, Peanuts, and Rio. Read more about Jasmine here.

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