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

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Three Insider Secrets to a stand-out portfolio

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VFX Lighting: How to Become a VFX Lighting Artist (2024)

by | Last updated Jan 23, 2024

What does it take to become a VFX lighting artist? In this guide, we’ll give you all the tips you need to start your journey to becoming a light artist!

 

What is VFX lighting? 

In filmmaking, Visual Effects (VFX) lighting is the process of manipulating the lighting of on-screen imagery to set the film’s tone and support the storytelling. It is applied to evoke different emotions from viewers and, in many cases, allows filmmakers to record live-action shots that would be impossible or impractical to shoot.

Lighting for Sci-Fi and VFX | Cinematography Breakdown

Lighting for VFX 

Why Lighting Animated Movies Is So Complicated

If VFX lighting is your passion, you can definitely make a career out of it. Lighting artists are some of the highest-paid artists in the filmmaking and entertainment industry. Below are some tips that will help you get your start as a VFX lighting artist: 

What is a VFX lighting artist? 

A lighting artist adds depth and realism to a computer-generated (CG) scene through lighting. A lighting artist is someone who’s an expert in knowing how light and shadows behave in real life and applying various lighting techniques and principles to set the CG light, adjust their intensity, adjust the color placement, and add shadows in a scene to add realism and depth as well as to set the tone or mood of the shot. 

What are the benefits of becoming a VFX lighting artist? 

The job demands expertise in scientific knowledge of how light falls on people and objects as well as a keen artistic eye. It’s a fun career, but it has a lot of technical challenges. Here are reasons why it’s such a fun and rewarding career:

It’s a lucrative career: VFX lighting artists are paid top dollars doing what they love best! The starting salary is good, and as you work your way up, you can earn a six-figure salary. Top studios are always looking for talented artists who can breathe life into characters and stories through VFX lighting. Of course, the compensation will vary depending on the role, experiences, and skillset, so it pays to get your start ASAP. 

It’s a creative career: Imagine working with projects that audiences will love for generations to come. A career in animation lets you bring out your creativity, create awesome content that people will love, travel to exciting places, and enjoy a career you genuinely love. 

Work with incredible talents: From industry greats to fellow artists, a career in 3D animation and VFX lighting lets you meet and work with creative people. You can learn so much by working with experienced artists and industry leaders. And all the experiences you had will take your career to greater heights.

Creative freedom: While you’ll have to take directions from a technical director to achieve the desired look of the shot, you’re given lots of freedom to interpret a scenario as you see fit. You are free to express and infuse your ideas into your work with the support of the studio. That’s because creative and artistic freedom is a core value of professional artists. 

Who can become a VFX lighting artist? 

Anyone can become a VFX lighting artist, as long as you have the training for it. You can train to become a lighting artist by going to school or taking an online course. 

Go to school: You can earn a bachelor’s degree in a related field and then specialize in a specific artistic discipline to become a VFX lighting artist. Going to school is the more traditional route, but it takes years to earn a degree. You’ll need to enroll in a 4-year course and get an internship before accepting projects. 

Also, going to school will cost you. According to CostOwl.com, you’ll spend as much as $25,000 a year for an undergraduate degree, not including living expenses and other costs related to your schooling. You’ll also need a 3.0 undergraduate GPA with a master’s level program to be accepted at an art school. 

Take an online course: This is the most practical way of becoming a VFX lighting artist because it’s affordable; you can take classes anywhere and learn at your own pace. 

Some courses offered by online schools are not offered in traditional animation schools. Taking an online course gives you more freedom regarding the 3D animation disciplines you’d like to specialize in. And you can accept projects on the side while learning about 3D lighting. 

Pricing between online schools varies, but at the Academy of Animated Art, our Lighting For Animation Course Bundle + only costs $1,999 or 12 easy payments of $199 each month. That’s just a fraction of the cost you’ll spend at a traditional school. Our Lighting for Animation bundle is one of the most affordable and value-packed VFX lighting courses on the market. 

At the heart of our Animation course bundle is a proven system that will train you to become a lighting artist in a year or less – even if you don’t have any experience. This system has helped hundreds of AAA students establish a successful career in the animation industry, working at top studios like  Dreamworks Animation, Sony Pictures, Blue Sky Studios, Reel FX, Giant Animation, and many more! 

What is the average VFX lighting artist’s salary? 

Imagine being paid more than you ever thought possible doing what you love! 3D VFX lighting artists are some of the most well-paid creatives in the animation industry. That’s the reason why it’s a sought-after career.

Of course, the pay will depend on an artist’s skill level and experience. The average base salary for lighting artists is $91,889, according to Payscale.com. A lighting artist with 1 to 4 years of experience makes an average of $42,000, while professionals with 10 to 19 years make about $125,000. Veteran VFX lighting artists make about $155,000 each year, on average!

How do you create a VFX lighting artist portfolio?

If you’re taking an online course, you can accept projects on the side and use your previous work experiences to build an impressive artist portfolio. To demonstrate your lighting skills, you’ll need a demo reel

A demo reel is simply a short video clip that shows your best work. The demo reel doesn’t have to be long; you shouldn’t show ALL of your work; just 5 of your best work will do. 

When piecing together a demo reel, here are some tips:

  • Your best work goes in first
  • Keep the length under 4 minutes, ideally 2 minutes for students
  • Outline your name, contact details, headshot, and website at the beginning and end of the demo reel
  • Never include unapproved work or WIPs
  • Avoid loud music and distracting texts
  • Create a breakdown of all the lighting work you did in every shot
  • Polish your demo reel regularly 
  • Never take credit for anything you didn’t do yourself

How to learn VFX lighting 

You can start your career in VFX by going to school and earning a bachelor’s degree in 3D computer graphics, plus getting at least some experience as a lighting artist in film production/ animation TV series or studying 3D lighting online.

Getting a college degree is the more traditional route, but most schools do not have courses that fulfill all industry requirements. You’ll still need to take online courses to specialize in specific disciplines in many cases. 

Taking online courses is the more flexible and affordable option if you’re planning on taking side projects just because you have more time on your hand as you build a VFX career. You can work anywhere in the world through remote learning, learn at your own pace, create your ideal workspace, and waste no time learning unnecessary skills.

It’s really up to you how you’d like to get your start in the VFX industry. What’s important is to start learning and investing in quality education. 

What are the different types of VFX? 

VFX isn’t just limited to big-budget franchises or animated movies. It can be applied in television commercials, architecture, advertising, broadcast series, etc. There are three types of VFX, and it’s essential to know them so you can focus your education on a specific type. 

3 Types of VFX

CGI: Also called 3D imaging or 3D rendering computer-generated imagery or CGI is a term used to describe digitally created visual content using computer software. The graphics, which can be either 2D or 3D, varies from characters and objects to entire worlds with intricate details. CGI is often used to create alien worlds, characters, and objects that do not exist or situations when shooting a scene is virtually impossible, like de-aging an actor or shooting superhero sequences.

Compositing: Also called chroma keying, composting is a process that combines two or more images to create the final image of a frame, VFX shot, or sequence. All the digital materials created and used during production, including digital materials like CG images, live-action footage, and matte paintings, are combined in post-production by a compositor to make it appear that all the elements were shot at the same place. One of the most common VFX techniques compositors work on involves shooting with a green screen. The visuals are added in post-production. 

Motion capture: Also called “mocap,” this technique involves digitally recording the actor’s movements and then transferring the movements to a computer-generated character or 3D model. It’s a detailed process that records the actor’s facial expressions to breathe life into the character. 

Usually, the actor will wear a motion-capture suit with special markers on their face so that the camera can track and record the facial expressions. Then, the data is applied to a 3D skeleton model using a mocap software program. One of the most popular characters created by motion capture is Gollum/Smeagol from the Lords of the Ring franchise, played by veteran actor Andy Serkis, known for his breakthrough motion-capture performances. 

VFX lighting techniques 

Different VFX lighting techniques can create various effects and moods. These lighting techniques help support the story. 

Three-point lighting

One of the basic lighting setups in filmmaking, photography, and VFX is the three-point lighting. The setup includes three lighting in a scene: key light, fill light, and backlight. By setting these lights in specific areas of the shot, you can achieve various lighting effects. The keylight is always the primary light and is the brightest. The full light is less bright, diffuses harsh lighting, and eliminates shadows. The backlight is set in the background; it separates the subject from the background. 

High key lighting & low key lighting

This setup consists of the main light, the keylight, which produces minimal to no shadows. The subject is brightly lit while the fill lights soften the shadows. This lighting technique is often used in cheerful or happy scenes because the bright lighting conveys feelings of positivity. High-key lighting is often used in music videos and commercials. 

On the other hand, low-key lighting only uses a key light instead of the basic 3-point lighting. In some cases, fill light and reflector are used when the job requires, but essentially, the lighting is very dark with shadows to achieve a dark mood. This lighting technique uses moody tones and shadows to define a subject’s outline, emphasizing the formation of shadows that translate to an ominous feeling. 

Practical lighting

This features actual lights appearing within the shot. The light source can be anything from candles to fairy lights, lights from a vanity table to a TV or mobile phone screens. The illumination isn’t intense, it’s not meant to be the sole source of light itself, but practical lighting works with other light sources in a shot. 

Natural lighting 

As the name implies, this lighting technique utilizes lighting that exists naturally – like sunlight or moonlight to set up a scene and achieve the right mood. Natural light sources can be hard to control, so you’ll need to explore ways to manipulate them to achieve the proper effects. 

Hard & soft lighting

Hard lighting features bright, focused lighting to cast harsh shadows and draw the eye to a specific part of the shot. Because of the bright light, the transition between light and shadow is defined and harsh, emphasizing textures and edges. 

On the other hand, soft lighting uses a large light source to illuminate a subject evenly, producing minimal shadows. The lighting is meant to create bright, natural lighting with diffused edges and textures. 

The best lighting artist courses 

What are the best VFX lighting courses for online learning? Here are our top 5 recommendations: 

The Lighting for Animation Course Bundle + 

AAA lighting bundle

The Lighting for Animation Course Bundle + features our proven system that helped hundreds of students get jobs at top animation studios, including Dreamworks Animation, Sony Pictures, Blue Sky Studios, Reel FX, Giant Animation, and many more! 

Our Lighting for Animation Course Bundle consists of 7 courses, FREE assets to practice on and put on your demo reel, as well as access to our online artist community. The courses are broken down into easy-to-digest clips to get you up to speed and determine the best approach to light a scene. 

vfx lighting

By signing up for the Lighting for Animation Course Bundle +, you’ll get lifetime access to all materials, course updates, + mentorship from real-deal professionals, including our co-founders, Mike and Jasmine. You’ll also receive student licenses for Maya, Arnold, Redshift, Octane, Unreal, and Katana.

By the end of this course, you’ll learn the fundamentals of 3D lighting, apply different lighting techniques to a scene, and become a lighting artist in a year or less without prior experience for as little as $199. 

AAA lighting bundle

Sign up here

Lighting and Shading for Film Production


Photo Credit: cgmasteracademy.com

This is a 6-week online course that focuses on VFX lighting, shading, and rendering for feature films in Arnold for Maya. At the start of the course, students will be presented with a simple lighting scene, which can be manipulated to achieve the best lighting. 

As you work on the scene, you’ll learn the differences between direct and indirect illumination, light typologies, designations, etc. You’ll also learn about mixing materials, transmissive materials, caustics, refraction, and sub-surface scattering. By the end of this course, you’ll learn how to composite different elements together, apply the proper lighting to a scene, and discover good rendering strategies to elevate your work.

Sign up here.

Lighting VFX Workflows with Katana and Renderman


Photo Credit: pluralsight.com

This online course shows you how to fully integrate a CG asset into a backplate, how to use various 3D animation application programs in conjunction with NUKE to create realistic characters, and how to match the lighting on Katana “to the corresponding lighting on set.”

By the end of this course, you’ll learn how to adjust the lighting of your renders in Nuke and create the final render on Katana. You’ll learn how to integrate assets to your plates and develop an efficient FX lighting workflow. 

Sign up here

Foundations of VFX Course


Photo Credit: cgspectrum.com

This VFX course helps you build a solid foundation in 3D modeling, animation, and VFX lighting through hands-on practice. You’ll learn each discipline and confidently use core VFX software programs that are used by top studios all over the world. 

By signing up for this course, you will learn how to create dynamic particle effects and implement lighting and rendering to a scene. By the end of this course, you’ll learn the VFX pipeline, light various scenes, and determine what discipline you’d like to specialize in the 3D animation industry. 

Sign up here.

Lighting: First Year


Photo Credit: cinelightacademy.com

This is an entry-level course of a multi-level program, and it’s designed to introduce students to the methods behind the latest industry standards. The Lighting: First Year online course will help you learn the fundamentals of VFX lighting using Maya, Arnold, Nuke, and Substance Painter. 

You’ll learn how to use different materials and separate a render into various layers, then be pieced together in Nuke. You’ll be trained to apply advanced VFX lighting principles to achieve movie-quality images, such as the many types of template solutions and tools, working in a node-based workflow, and building procedural assets. 

Sign up here.

Over to you!

Earning a degree is a sure-fire way of landing future projects, although not many people have the time and money to study at an art school. Quality education and training are the foundation of a successful career in 3D animation. Taking an online course is the more flexible and affordable option, especially if you want to specialize in a specific discipline like VFX lighting. 

 

Jasmine Katatikarn Headshot

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 here.

Jasmine Katatikarn Headshot

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 here.

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