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An Introduction To Character Lighting Concepts In Maya

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Lighting is the one of the most important aspects of creating great looking 3D art, but also one of the most complex and challenging to master. When done correctly it can help build masterpieces, when done incorrectly it can literally destroy even the best of works.

In today's short, but informative tutorial author Pratik Gulati will introduce you to the fundamentals of character lighting using Autodesk Maya. This is a great entry level tutorial for beginners and more advanced users alike. These universal techniques can be applied to any 3D software, so even non Maya users can follow along!


Step 1

We first open the Maya software and import our character, as you see I have a simple 3D human model in the scene. From the closeup shot we can see the placement of the camera.

Tutorial An Introduction To Character Lighting Concepts In Maya

Step 2

We are using Spot Lights in Maya for the various lights, but it can also be done with other lights like Volume lights, Directional lights, etc. To create a Spot Light in Maya, go to Create> Lights>Spot Light.

Tutorial An Introduction To Character Lighting Concepts In Maya

Step 3

We will also be using the "Look Through Selected Camera" feature a lot, so that we can look through the selected light and decide its coverage. First select the light and then go to Panels >Look Through Selected.

Tutorial An Introduction To Character Lighting Concepts In Maya

Step 4

We will be using Raytraced shadows for all our lights, also enable Raytracing in the Mental Ray renderer so that our shadows are accurate. The settings for the lights are:

  • Light Radius - This defines the area from which the light is coming. The larger the Radius, the softer our shadows will be.
  • Shadow Rays - Increasing this will increase the samples of our shadow quality, but will also increase our render times.
  • Ray Depth Limit - Is the limit of how many times the light ray will bounce from one surface to another.
Tutorial An Introduction To Character Lighting Concepts In Maya

Step 5

key Light - It's the main dominating light in the scene that defines the subject and the lighting conditions.

With the help of the key Light we define the light direction and the shadows in our scene. You should never use a sharp key light on your characters, use a good filter size so that the shadows are appealing and soft.

In the below example, we can see that the key source is the sun light coming from top right (also observe the shadows of the light.)

Tutorial An Introduction To Character Lighting Concepts In Maya

Step 6

As seen in the following image, we create a Spot Light at around 45 degrees from our character. Also note the Raytrace settings of the light.

Tutorial An Introduction To Character Lighting Concepts In Maya

Step 7

The "Rim Light" creates a bright line around the edge of the object, to help visually separate the object from the background. It should be placed in the opposite direction of the key light.

Tutorial An Introduction To Character Lighting Concepts In Maya

Step 8

Here you can see the position of the Rim light.

Tutorial An Introduction To Character Lighting Concepts In Maya

Step 9

The "Kicker Light" is used to enhance the effect of the key light. It's placed in the same direction as the key light, but the coverage area is reduced to 50 or 60%.

Tutorial An Introduction To Character Lighting Concepts In Maya

Step 10

The "Fill Light" is used to reduce the contrast of a scene and provide some illumination for the areas of the image that are in shadow. It is generally placed opposite to the key light.

Tutorial An Introduction To Character Lighting Concepts In Maya

Step 11

Placement of the Fill Light and it's settings.

Tutorial An Introduction To Character Lighting Concepts In Maya

Step 12

A "Bounce Light" is used to simulate the bounce of the keylight from the ground or other surfaces that surround the character. This light should be very soft with soft shadows, we are using a Volume light placed just before the character's legs to get a soft falloff of light.

Tutorial An Introduction To Character Lighting Concepts In Maya

Step 13

We now import our renders in a compositing software program (I am using Photoshop for simplicity.) We start with the unshadowed Diffuse render pass and "Multiply" the character's Occlusion pass on top of it.

We then "Screen" all the other light layers. We can then add color to the light layers to enhance the feel of the light.

Tutorial An Introduction To Character Lighting Concepts In Maya

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