Lighting / LookDev / Compositing - Art by Thomas Eckstein

Lighting / LookDev / Compositing - Art by Thomas Eckstein

Thomas Eckstein
by ThomasEckstein on 22 May 2021 for Rookie Awards 2021

Hi everyone! Here is my entry for The Rookie Awards 2021. It includes detailed breakdowns for 4 of my Demoreel projects that I have created during my education at PIXL VISN, media arts academy in Cologne, Germany.

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All of the projects were rendered using Arnold (Maya) in the ACES colorspace, as this allowed me to obtain richer colors in my renders. Nuke was used for all the compositing done afterwards. I also rendered every project (except 2 Portraits) in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio (CinemaScope) to keep the look as cinematic as possible.
Below you can find detailed Breakdowns and more information about each project. Be sure to check out the video sequences.


Still Life - Cheese Platter

I definitely wanted to include a Still Life project in my Demoreel, because it allows for moody lighting and is very unique in its look. After inspecting a lot of references I decided on a cheese platter, as this was a nice combination of organic and hard-surface objects, which would let me challenge myself and learn even more.

First steps

Having enough references for this project was important to me, since I had to do the shading for many different organic objects in the scene. I also found a nice reference, which served as the foundation for my layout.

Since I knew that the cheese platter was the focus of my scene, I based the rest of my layout around it. This took me longer than expected, since at this point I not only had a couple of different lighting scenarios in mind, but I also wasn't completely sure which other objects to place in the scene. After a lot of testing and moving things around I finally had something satisfying.
Most of the models used were either Megascans or bought on CGTrader. I did the modeling and surfacing for the fork, table and the platter. The swiss cheese in the center was made using a Houdini script by Carsten Baars and shaded in Maya.

LookDev & Lighting

I created a separate dedicated LookDev scene to dial in the look of each object in a neutral environment. All my collected references paid off for this process, as they really helped to get all the little details right. The trickiest objects to shade were definitely the grapes, since I had to get their interaction to light just right to make them look real and believable. I tried adding the subtle look of seeds inside some of the grapes for that extra touch. A few textures also required minor re-texturing / fixes, which I did in either Substance Painter or Affinity Photo. Finally I rendered a rough turntable for individual objects to make sure they react correctly to different lighting scenarios.

After finishing up the LookDev for all the objects I could now tackle the lighting of my scene. For this I had two main guidelines to follow. Firstly, I wanted the focus to be on the Swiss cheese in the center and secondly, to keep the scene a bit moodier to convey more of a painterly feeling (just like in most Still Life photographs and paintings). It really helped that I already had some different lighting scenarios in mind to test. To direct the focus even more I added a subtle spotlight with atmosphere from the left onto the cheese platter. Even though this is a fairly small detail, it aided in selling the look and the mood I wanted to create (you will see this later in the compositing section).
Overall I ended up having 10 light groups that I could later tweak in Nuke.


The first thing I did in Nuke was to balance out my light groups to have the focus on the platter even more. I also exported two atmosphere passes from Maya which I added to my Composition. Firstly, the subtle spotlight mentioned before and secondly an overall atmosphere pass. With the help of Cryptomattes I was able to tweak the lighting on individual assets, especially the bread on the left side. Finally I added some particles in 3D space. For this I generated a point cloud of the scene to make sure they were placed in the right spot.
It was at this point that I learned the importance of render layers... When wanting to create some depth of field (ZDefocus node), I noticed a lot of artifacts on the top of my wineglass and some of the cheese. Because of this I had to re-render the whole scene and ended up having 5 layers. (You can see these in my "First Steps" section above).

Raw Render - Finished Comp:


I learned a lot from this project, as this was my first big Demoreel scene that I worked multiple weeks on. The main thing I learned though was how to properly lookdev different types of organic objects and how to set up a proper Composition in Nuke with multiple AOVs (for 10 light groups and 5 render layers). On top of that I learned the importance of rendering in layers (the hard way), since this helps to avoid many problems down the line.

Mushroom Glade

After my rather moody Still Life I wanted to have a project out in nature, to show my outdoor lighting skills. For this, some sort of forest clearing immediately came to mind.

First steps

The first thing to decide was what time of the day to go for. In the end I decided on dawn, as this allowed for a nice warm color palette. Because of this I could also include some light rays to enhance the scene and perhaps make it seem a bit dreamy / fantastical.

When searching for references of forest clearings and glades I found many pretty photographs of mushrooms. This inspired me to also have them as my main focus in the scene. Since I didn't really want to have a shot of a forest ground, I needed something to lift them up. For this I used an old tree stump covered in moss. Not only did the stump help solve this issue, but it also served almost as a thrones for the mushrooms to direct the focus even more.
To have the feeling of a clearing in a dense forest I added some element very close to the camera. This helped to sell the look. Using MASH to add some scattered mushrooms on the stump and in the foreground, as well as some twigs here and there aided in populating the scene. After having my layout, I decided to also cover the rest of the scene with moss, to make the shot look more natural. I put some mushrooms on the side of the stump for more breakup and realism. During the process of creating my environment I opted to have some light rays coming from the right side to highlight the mushrooms on the "throne". This decision helped me to adjust my layout for the look I was going for accordingly. The branches in the foreground were also animated ever so slightly using a lattice deformer to make the shot a bit more dynamic.

Once again most of the assets used were Megascans. For the moss I used a combination of scattering moss cards which I created using "SpriteUV", as well as XGen.

LookDev & Lighting

I decided to tackle the shading of the main mushrooms on the stump first. To give that extra little bit of realism, I added an XGen description to them for the fuzz on the surfaces. After that I moved on to shading the rest of my scene, going from assets more in focus to those out of focus. This process helped me keep the look and feeling of all the assets in the scene uniform.

Since I already had the direction of the light rays in mind, I knew how to position my key light (coming from the right onto the mushrooms). After that it was a surprisingly fast process to light out the rest of my scene. The only important thing to keep in mind, was to keep the focus on the stump. To have the shot feel dreamy and almost a bit fantastical I went with softer colors. This meant sticking to more of a reddish / purple color palette. the key was to find that sweet spot between realistic and fantastical, but this was going to be mainly tweaked later in compositing, since I could create iterations much faster there.

I ended up having 6 render layers, 8 light groups, as well as 2 atmosphere layers for the light rays. Because I wanted more freedom to tweak the rays themselves later in compositing, I decided against creating them in Maya. To make the shot more dynamic I also wanted a camera shake, so I rendered a slightly larger image to compensate for later.


The first thing I did was to dial in that dreamy look mentioned before. Having all those light groups to adjust definitely paid off here. Afterwards I added the atmosphere passes for the light rays. I used two different animated noises as masks to "cut" out the rays. Because of the moving camera I projected these noises onto cards and placed them right where the light rays were supposed to be in 3D space. Using a generated point cloud of my scene helped me to place the cards correctly.
For final touches I added particles in 3D space, some glow, depth of field, as well as a lens distortion to the shot. Finally I added a slight camera shake to the shot. Because I kept this in mind before I rendered, the edges of my shot weren't an issue.

Raw Render - Finished Comp:


Having a rough lighting scenario in my head (light rays coming from the right) really paid off during the creation of the layout for my shot, since I didn't have a concept I was working off of. Because I already knew how I wanted light rays to enter the scene, I could adjust my layout accordingly. The lighting part of the project was a much easier task because of this. For artist who also aren't working of off a specific concept, I definitely recommend thinking about the main lighting direction before creating your layout!
This project was also my fist time using XGen in a larger scene. It was very interesting trying it out for the first time, but I still need much more time to get used to it, as I really only scratched the surface.

Portrait Lighting

Next to the Still Life project, this was something I wanted to include in my Demoreel. The models I used for this project were made by Franziska Milius. Be sure to also check out her amazing entry if you haven't already!

First steps

Because I had two models to use for my portraits, I wanted to also have to different directions to take the mood and lighting in.

For the butterfly woman I decided to take it in a more mystical & fantastical direction. For the holy man I wanted to depict more of a wise and mysterious old man, who has had many experiences in his life.
It was important to me that the camera angles of all portrait weren't too similar, so I tried out quite a lot of different setups.

Lighting & Compositing

Since Franziska had already done all of the LookDev herself, there really wasn't much to do in that department. I only did some minor tweaks here and there to certain shaders.

Butterfly Woman:
To keep the Portraits feeling more mystical I decided on a blueish/purple color palette for the lights. I generally placed the lights a bit lower than usual to enhance this feeling.
I really like the side profile, not only because I could do more back- and rim lighting, but also because I found that the hair strands in front came better to fruition. Later in compositing I also added a background to support the direction and color of the light.

For the front profile I felt like glowing eyes would fit perfectly, so I placed the lights in a way that the eye sockets were intentionally dark, to make the glow pop even more. To create the glow I replaced the existing eye shader and created a new one. I played around with a combination of different noises and used those as masks for the emission. I also only lit half of the face to create more contrast in the image and to support the mystical feeling.
For the side profile I rendered 3 light groups and for the front profile 4 light groups. Finally I rounded everything up in Nuke using some Grade nodes, a bit of  Edge Blur, Glow and a Vignette. I also decided to add some smoke elements into the Composition (again, to enhance the feeling).

Holy Man:
For the first Portrait I chose a more standard 3/4 angle from the front right. I decided to go for Rembrandt lighting as  you can see on the illuminated triangle under his right eye. This shapes the face nicely, puts a highlight in the eyes and draws the focus to the triangle. Rembrandt lighting also adds a bit of mystery which, in my opinion, suited the Holy man model very nicely.

The lighting for the second pose was a bit trickier to figure out. In the end I found two great Portraits of old men having a vertical light bar in the middle of the face (see the references above). I am not sure if there is a name for this lighting technique, but again I found it very suiting for the style I was going for in my Portrait: A wise and mysterious old man who has experienced much in life. To add to the mystery and to differentiate it a bit more from the first Portrait, I decided to add smoke and even some particles to the Portrait.
4 light groups were rendered out for each image.


This project was a nice change of pace in comparison to the other bigger projects which required a lot of planing around the layout and render layers. I am very happy with the results. Figuring out how to convey the mood/feelings I was going for and finding a different style for each Portrait was a lot of fun and makes me want to do more Portraits in the future.

Cities of the future

After the last 3 projects, I found that a large scale environment was still missing in my Demoreel, so I went searching for ideas. I ended up finding this amazing Concept Art by Fanny Poulain and the idea for a large scale futuristic city began to take form.
This is definitely my largest and most ambitious project I have done so far. I am happy that I got it done just in time to submit it to The Rookies Awards!

First steps

For this project I already had a  great reference to base my layout on, so I had a good start in the blocking phase of my scene. During the blocking I also started searching for more specific references to help me with some of the smaller details, like the transition between the city and the water. More importantly though, I searched for references of glowing windows, as it was essential to get these right.

After the blocking phase it was time to add some more detail. The front islands are simple blocks formed out of a cube that I also used for the blockout, since they would be covered in buildings anyway. For the back island however, I sculpted some hills directly in Maya. I then used MASH to scatter a lot of low poly trees which populated the outskirts of the island.
The spaceships are from CGTrader and all of the buildings in the scene are models from Kitbash3D. Smaller buildings were instanced and again scattered with MASH on all of the islands. However, the buildings by the water, the towers, as well as the bridge were placed by hand to get them looking just right. Finally I wanted some movement on the closer islands, so the city wouldn't seem empty or abandoned. For this I found low poly models of streets online, which I hand placed along the city outskirts to have some cars driving along them. I also placed a lot of streetlights and railings along the road to have more small details.
Curves created along the streets to animate all the cars on a set path. A similar procedure was used to animate the small spaceship in the front.
Since I wanted the large spaceship to be partly obscured by clouds like in the reference, I opted for adding some volumes (clouds) around it.

LookDev & Lighting

Since the Kitbash models were fairly complex and had a lot more shaders than anticipated, it took quite some time to complete the lookdev of all the assets. Looking back at it now, I could have probably saved a lot of time in this part, because many details of the shaders aren't really visible in my final lighting setup anyway.
For the ocean I combined a bunch of animated noise patterns and plugged them into the bump map. At this distance it gave me enough detail to seem believable.
The final part of the LookDev was to add glowing windows to the buildings. This was the most important step in Maya to get right in my opinion, so that I would have a nice variation of on/off building lights. A lot of tweaking of the windows was done in Nuke, but more on that later. After some testing I came up with a fairly simple solution... I combined two different textures in an aiLayerRgba node using a greyscale color jitter (set to faces) as a mask. One of the textures was almost completely darkened, so that I would have some windows seeming completely black (lights turned off). This way I had a lot of variety in the brightness of each window. Another color jitter node was used afterwards to vary the hue of the windows for each building. The result was then plugged into the emission channel of a new window shader. I duplicated this shader 3 times for all the small buildings and once more for some of the towers, varying the settings each time.
Below you can see one of these networks.

The lighting started off quite rough... I tried matching the lighting in my main reference, but was never satisfied with the result, so I decided to go hunting for more references. It was at this time that I was sent another amazing reference from the anime "Ghost in the Shell" (see my references above). I liked this green/blueish Sci-Fi look much more, so I decided to go into this direction.
First I defined a general light direction coming from the left. Since I wanted the glow of the buildings to stand out I darkened down my skydome and directional light, so that the scene felt fairly gloomy. After that I added a lot of smaller lights to liven up the city. This included streetlights, spotlights, lights inside and around the front left and right towers, as well as a lot of static and animated lights on the bridge connecting the front islands. Because the focus of the composition was on the big tower in the background, I decided to add a large area light, which simulated the bright, lively city below to help direct the focus even more.
At this point the shot looked a lot more like the futuristic city I envisioned, so it was time to move on to Nuke where most of the work was done to get the final look. I ended up rendering 23 render layers including all the smaller lights in the scene, as well as 3 overall atmosphere (fog) passes. I also decided to do the motion blur of the spaceship in Nuke, so a motion vector AOV was added to the export.


As mentioned before, quite a lot of work was done in Nuke to turn the raw render (see above) into the final image. The first thing I did was to balance out the lights. This meant giving everything a bit more saturation and toning down the lights in the front left tower, as it seemed to take away the focus from the big tower in the back. I also made the water a lot darker to make the shot more gloomy but more importantly, to make the reflections of all the lights pop more.
After that I decided to tackle the Background. For this I created a 3D scene in Nuke and added a projected a sky onto the inside of a sphere, as well as some mountains projected onto cards. I also put some towers (cards) behind the back island to add detail to the horizon line and to convey the feeling of a dense Sci-Fi city even more. Lightwrap nodes were used to blend the render and the background together.
Now it was time for the window glow. At this point most of my windows had a yellow / red tone to them, which didn't fit the style I was going for in my reference. So with the help of Cryptomattes I made a bunch of masks for some grade nodes to change the color tone and to add more variation. This worked perfectly, but something was still missing... There still wasn't enough detail in the city to really make it seem alive. Again, I used Cryptomatte to mask out certain building parts. With the help of these masks I put even more colored windows into the city, which would later receive the "glow treatment". For more detail I also added a sign in 3D space to one of the towers on the left. I used a generated point cloud to make sure it was placed in the right spot for the camera movement.
Now it was time to for the glow treatment: add the 3 remaining fog passes, as well as a lot of glow to breath live into the city. With the help of a great gizmo I found online ("VirtualLens") I was able to introduce some haze into the scene, which blended everything nicely together. Because the 3 fog layers made the scene much brighter I had to color correct it back down.
For some final touches I added depth of field, motion blur, chromatic aberration, lens distortion and camera shake to the comp. Lastly I used a LUT to give my shot the final Sci-Fi look.
I added a screenshot of my node tree below.

Raw Render - Final image:

For the full breakdown, be sure to check out the video above!


Because of the great reference in the beginning I got off to a great start. It was really fun to see the city grow during the layout phase, as I haven't done anything at this scale before. Even though I ran into some troubles during the lighting of my scene I pulled through because of my second amazing reference. This just shows me once again how important references are in the creation of my projects.
I also learned how much work can be done in Nuke alone. Every time I compare my raw render with my final comp out of Nuke, I am blown away. With more planing I feel like I can optimize my workflow more, to spend less time on things in Maya that can more easily and quickly be done in Nuke. Lastly, I learned to love Cryptomattes. It was the first time I used them to this extend and I have to say they are amazing.
For my first large scale shot I am overall very happy with the result and look forward to bringing even larger environments to live in the future!

Thank you for reading through my entry!

Hopefully you enjoyed these in-depth breakdowns of my projects. I am happy about any feedback so you're welcome to leave any thoughts in the comments!

For any questions, or other inquiries feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn, Artstation or via email: [email protected]

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