16 February, 2019

Speed lighting – Quick, atmospheric lighting tests in Unreal Engine 4

I recently put together a small journal entry which explains some key lighting principles, demonstrated as predictably as ever with Unreal Engine 4.

You can read that entry right here!

I got quite a lot of enjoyment out of the last stage in particular, where I quickly put together some varied but really basic lighting structures. These experimented with different approaches to colour, key and atmosphere. Some were quite striking, others more subtle, such as the following:

This was one of my more subtle lighting experiments.

This was one of my more subtle lighting experiments.

You might not think such pursuits are quite up there with sky-diving, drunken orgies or demolision derby, but let me tell you… you’re absolutely right. It’s quite sad and I should really try to get out more. Nevertheless, I put together a few more such tests this last weekend.

I figured they’d be worth writing about… mainly because I’m desperate for attention and since I refuse to own a phone, selfies are therefore not an option.

As with those featured in the aforementioned entry, I gave myself the goal of creating some different atmospheres around the same core character pose. Each took somewhere between five and ten minutes to create. Plus another five minutes spent sourcing relevant reference images. Oh, and at least an hour’s procrastination cry-laughing at what seems to qualify as games journalism these days. I’ve always been old, my body’s just catching up.

I hope the following pieces demonstrate how quickly you can put together some stylised, atmospheric lighting Unreal Engine 4. I hope even more so, that you can employ these lessons to your own practice. Even more than that, I hope the world will some day know peace.

One of these is a lie.

Cybear

Goal and approach

Logan made me sad, so I’ve only watched it once. Unlike Gerald’s Game, which I’ve only watched once because it induced a state of severe nervous shock. One which Anna has mocked me for ever since.

The one thing that always stands out when I think of Logn (besides Stephen Merchant looking and sounding exactly like Stephen Merchant), is the lighting in the opening scene.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LX0T9rlvwjQ

Really dark but with incredibly vibrant blues and purples, which I fancied having a go at recreating but with a little more variety in palette.

Back and Key lights were made intense and positioned to the side of the character, highlighting their silhouette and creating the appropriate level of mystery and shadow. Each was given a wildly opposing colour to give the scene a bit more depth and contrast. The palette feels distinctly sci-fi and almost introduces a sense of Cyberpunk, so I checked out a few movies with similar colour use for reference:

Logan, Lights Out, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, Blade Runner 2049. © Their respective studios.

Logan, Lights Out, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, Blade Runner 2049. © Their respective studios.

It’s personal preference, but I liked the ones featuring a main colour which dominates the scene and then a different, complimentary colour in a very specific area. I therefore added red Detail Lights around the eyes and bulbs on the back of the character. This created an interesting sense of contrast and texture down the left hand side of the character’s face, where the reds overlap with the oranges, sitting atop the dark blue of the scene itself.

They also introduced a sense of intensity and purpose to the character him/herself. Depending on which area of this image you focus your attention, you get a very different sense of what the character’s motivation might be.

Or I’m just trying to use as many words as possible to sound clever. Potato potato.

Lighting structure

  • Key Light: Low, strong, yellow
  • Fill Light: Low, aqua
  • Back Light: Strong, very light blue
  • Detail lights: Light red, near bulb on back of character. Light red on character eyes.
Unreal Engine 4 Lighting

Cybear

Next…

African Sunset

Goal and approach

Since Cybear was heavily stylised, I want to take the lighting in a more naturalistic direction this time. I also want the character have a more menacing, imposing presence, without being overtly aggressive. Reds and oranges are effective in communicating danger, whereas purple has the opposite, more calming effect.

I figure mixing these two colours in a Low Key setting would capture all those elements. I also remember experiencing this colour combination during any number of sunsets from our time in South Africa. Using some of Anna’s photography from such occasions as reference, it doesn’t take long to achieve the mood I’m looking for.

South Africa Sunset

This structure casts our character at their most aggressive and confrontational. The dominance of the silouette makes them feel imposing, with the subtle highlights shining off bits of armor adding to both the mystery and sense of strength.

The red eyes make a serious difference, too. The purple lighting on the characters head actually create a sense of peace, but this is offset by the the intensity of the reds in such a key position.

It’s like things are peaceful, moments before this guy fudges you up.

Lighting structure

  • Key Light: Low, soft, purple
  • Fill Light: None
  • Back Light: Strong, orange
Unreal Engine 4 Lighting

Sunset

Next…

Forest Campfire

Goal and approach

I want to build on the core themes of the previous scene with this one. I like the sunset vibe and overall simplicity of creating a sense of atmosphere and mood with minimal lights.

I’m going with a campfire because that would justify the warm light being cast in front of the character, rather than behind. I’m also thinking oranges and blues would give a more naturalistic setting.

I take a look at some images from Google, also films and videogames I remember seeing cool campfire scenes from. Those oranges and blues work great, so I’m stealing them.

© The Revenant, Jurassic Park: The Lost World, Google image search, Red Dead Redemption 2

© The Revenant, Jurassic Park: The Lost World, Google image search, Red Dead Redemption 2

The use of blue immediately gives things a more somber tone, given we associate it with sadness.

It’s easy to overlook just how much of an impact lighting can have on our perception of a character’s intent. Comparing this one with the above, the sense of purpose in the character is completely different, just for moving a few lights around:

Light comparison

Lighting structure

  • Key Light: Low, soft, bright orange
  • Fill Light: Dark blue
  • Back Light: None
Lighting in Unreal Engine 4

Forest Campfire

Next…

Noir

Goal and approach

I’m bored of colour now and fudging love black and white lighting.

I’m really just chucking this one together because whenever I play around with lighting in Unreal Engine 4, I inevitably end up doing something in black and white.

I add a very soft volumetric light to the background, increase the intensity of my Back Light considerably which is also moved way off to one side. Finally, I stick some rectangular blocks in the way of my Key Light to create that patterned look over the character’s body.

© Whoever owns these films.

© Whoever owns these films.

This is about as rudimentary as you can get for a Film Noir lighting style, but the drama it introduces is undeniable. You’ve got shadows casting shadows across other shadows. I position these over the character’s eyes just to intensify the forboding sense of mystery.

This version comes together in barely a minute and is probably my favourite.

I am clearly, very easily pleased.

Lighting structure

  • Key Light: Low, light
  • Fill Light: None
  • Back Light: Very strong
Lighting in Unreal Engine 4

Noir

Conclusion

I’m not sure if ‘Speed Lighting’ is a real thing in the same way Speed Modeling or Speed Painting is. Nevertheless, I think it’s just as worthwhile a practice.

The flexibility, power and potential of lighting in modern games engines has lead to there being a fairly consistent level of demand in the industry, compared to just a few years ago when such specialist positions weren’t nearly as commonplace.

If it’s a role you’re interested in pursuing, then lots of quick experiments like these can help demonstrate your understanding of lighting in general, while also contributing to the skill set used in your showcase pieces. You get a far better understanding of how to control and art form and become expressive in your own right, when you practice it frequently. I don’t care if you’re hitting drums, lighting scenes, painting canvases or picking your nose – the more often you do it, the better you’ll become. Both technically and creatively.

That being said, if you follow this method and still suck in ten years, don’t come blaming me.

Cheers!

Posted 16 February, 2019