Lighting for 3D Animation - Ivan Pechalin

Lighting for 3D Animation - Ivan Pechalin

Ivan Pechalin
by ivanpechalin on 28 May 2021 for Rookie Awards 2021

Hello everyone! My name is Ivan Pechalin, and I am a 3D artist focusing on Lighting and Look development. I am pleased to share with you my last 4 projects I created within 3 months during my 15-month education at PIXL VISN media arts academy. I hope you like it!

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Night Café

I came up with the idea for this project as I saw images from the "Terminal (2018)" movie, and I thought it would be great to do something in this style. I liked this kind of stylized artificial lighting look and the atmosphere, and how the characters are lit. In a few days, I discovered this fantastic animation on LinkedIn from Jean Motta and thought: "What a coincidence! So I asked him to provide me his animation for lighting and look development, and he said, "Yes!". Thank you again, Jean!

First steps planning and references

As I got the Maya scene from Jean, I started to analyze what materials I have to work with. What kind of models are there? Do they have proper UV's? How does the scene look like? Luckily, some of the Assets and the rig were provided by the "Inanimate" animation school, and they already had good UVs and geometry. I just had to make some minor improvements to get the best results at the texturing stage. After this step, I started to collect reference pictures for lighting and texturing

Look development work on assets.

After analyzing the references, I started preparing assets for texturing and modeled a few simple things like a window and the wooden box for ketchup and mustard. As the assets were ready, I jumped into the Substance Painter, and at the same time, worked on shading in Maya.

Here are some examples from Substance

And from shading in Maya (not final, it's gonna be tweaked at the lighting stage later)

Some of the props, like salt or the ashtray, in my opinion, were just enough to texture them with procedurals in Maya. Here is an example of my shading network for salt, fundamental techniques with a noise node:

For the window, I used surface imperfections from "Quixel Megascans" and adjusted them with a "remapValue" node in Maya. After that, it is just a roughness map and the glass shader. To achieve the best result, I also modeled the glass with thickness as in the real world. 


As I finished texturing and the first pass of shading, I returned to the references to analyze them from a lighting perspective:

- The character is warmly lit.

- The key light comes from the lamps above. Etc.

I really like the combination between the key light and the red kicker; those create this nice terminator and very interesting shaping on her face. But one thing I wanted to add in CG was this neon-blue rim light on the left side of his face. You can not really see it on the reference; it was more an artistic choice to create more contrast.

Here is my lighting setup from the inside

and from the outside

As the dome light, I used a map with a night New York City. 

For the neon lights, I used these great models as the mesh lights created by my classmate Anna Kottenhahn. Thank you a lot for providing them!

I also rendered a volumetric pass for each light on the separate layers to replicate some atmospheric haze.

I did it very settle because otherwise, it would remove contrast from the image, which I very like.

Here is a comparison with and without fog

Here are also all of my lights individually


At the compositing stage, I just did the usual things, nothing too complicated. Tweaked all of my lights and AOV's, color correction, DOF, chromatic aberration, some rotos, etc.

Here is a RAW render from Maya VS. finished one after compositing

I used the "pgbokeh" plugin from "peregrine labs" for the DOF and chromatic aberration." I am still practicing with it, but I love how it works because you can export your Maya camera to nuke and work with f-stop, focal length, and set a focal plane based on the deep data. Thanks a lot to my school teacher who showed me that. Here is a comparison with and without DOF and chromatic aberration

Here you can also take a look at the node tree from Nuke


Render time is essential for every lighting artist because you want to see your results as soon as possible and have a good quality render without noise, flickering, etc. 

 Here you can take a look at how I separated my image for rendering:

I rendered the character, background, and props separately.

The character layer took me 28 min per frame in 4K resolution. I could have rendered it with lower sampling and save even more render time, but I did not want to have a deal with denoising, and also, I had enough time to render it.

I saved a good amount of render time for the background layer because the camera is static, so I had to compute just one frame, which also took me about 30 min. in 4K.

Props were rendered in about 10 minutes. I rendered in ACES colorspace with "Redshift" (1x Nvidia 3080).

Final Thoughts

It was a pretty challenging project for me; I studied a lot about interior lighting and how to get rid of the noise in the GI and find a good balance between the number of lights, to avoid too dark and too bright areas in the image, and still keep desired contrast. Also, I switched to Redshift during this project. It was quite risky to learn the new render engine in a short amount of time, but now I am thinking it was a good decision, and it also helped me skill up my flexibility on switching between tools. Thanks again to Jean for this great animation and to all people who supported me.

Monster Attack

I really enjoy working on an animation where the camera and objects are moving. It is exciting to see how your lighting interacts with the movement. I was very happy that I found this animation at the "Academy of animated art" asset library and thought it would be a great experience to work on an action shot.

 First steps planning and references

The same process as at the previous project; I studied the assets and then collected the references. This time I had not a lot of work with texturing because the creature was already textured. One thing I had to model and texture was the spaceship.

Here are references for lighting. I knew that I want to recreate this hot sunlight/sunset mood that makes everything look more dramatic. I was always inspired by this kind of lighting.

My goal was to focus on the creature and also make it feel like you're looking at it yourself, so I decided to create some layering in the image and came up with the idea to make this spaceship interior.

Look development work on assets. 

I did a straightforward model for the spaceship without any details because I decided to do them in Substance painter with a displacement painting.

For the glass, I used the same technique as before with surface imperfections and made three different layers to get more exciting bending on the glass.

Here you can take a look at the displacement. I just used a particle brush in Substance to create some random SCI-FI pattern.

Interior props like a table, cigarettes pack, etc., I took from "Quixel Megascans". So all I had to do is just to shade them properly.

Here are a few pictures of the creature 

The rock I also have from "Quixel Megascans". The helicopter is just a random model from CG trader I shaded with procedurals in Maya; it was just enough as it in the background.


In this scene, I have a straightforward lighting setup. First, I had to find a good sunset sky HDRI map with a dramatic color palette, and I found it at "CGskies." Then, I put the key light in the same direction as the sun on this map to strengthen it. And put one additional light as a light that comes from the spaceship. 

I also rendered atmosphere fog separately to merge it later in compositing, put some noise to it because otherwise, it would look too flat. 

Here you can take a look at each light separately


 I did not have to do a lot in compositing, the same process as previously. I just tweaked lights and AOV's, also added some motion blur, camera shake, DOF, color correction, etc.

 Here is before and after 

Node tree from Nuke


 I render this image all in one in 4K resolution. It took me 12 minutes per frame, fog layer 3 minutes per frame.

 Final thoughts

I had some challenges with rendering refractions where I discovered some areas where I have to practice more in the future; it showed me that rendering refractions is not that easy. But otherwise, I enjoyed working on this project, and maybe I will return to it later to add some more details. 

Mine Adventures

This is one of my favorite projects because it was created from scratch, and I could work in a team again. Thanks, Stefan Klosterkoetter, who found this cute little creature online; those are actual figures created by Amanda Louise Spayd

First steps planning and references

My part in this project was to present this creature in the best way with lighting, do animation, and build some environment. First, the idea was to make a simple studio lighting setup and leave it there, but I thought, why not try to tell a little story because I knew Stefan would texture it very well, and Anna Kottenhahn makes it an excellent model.

I opened the "Quixel Megascans" library and found this mine assets pack that reminded me of this old western movie about gold mining and adventures, then I came up with the initial idea. Here you can take a look at the storyboard:


After that, I started to collect references for the environment and lighting.

Look development work on assets

Thanks a lot to my classmate Anna Kottenhanh, who modeled this cute little creature in Zbrush

Huge thanks to Stefan Klosterkoetter, who did a great job on texturing; here is the asset turntable, and you can also find his rookies entry and a detailed breakdown for it.

For the rest of the environment, I used the asset pack from Quixel Megascans; it's just a great resource if you are a lighting artist and don't want to waste a lot of time on modeling and want to focus yourself on lighting.


For mine, I used a simple cylinder, modeled the form I needed, and placed all of the assets referring to the reference images and my imagination. Here you can take a look at the screenshot from Maya. 

As the next step, I animated cameras and did the animation. For the camera, I wanted to make some shake to break this linear CG look and make the motion blur appear more attractive. I like to make it in Maya with the expressions. Here is a quick tutorial on how to do it, and also, after that, in compositing, I can exaggerate it if it's needed with the "camera shake" node. 

Here are examples of compositional decisions I actually made earlier at the storyboarding stage 


For lighting, I knew from the beginning that I want some light from the outside because if I would only use the lights from these warm lamps, it would be too dull. I think it is always nice to have some variety and experiment with things. To achieve it, I made some holes on top of the mine and put the light there. The rest of the lighting comes from the lamps inside. Here you can take a look at my lighting setup in Maya.

As usual, I rendered the volumetric passes separately to have control over it in compositing, and the AO passes to give the image more contrast later.

Here you can also take a look at the lights individually

Shot 01

Shot 02

Shot 03


 I added some dust particles for the first shot in compositing, tweaked my lights, fog, and some AOV's. I also added motion blur and DOF and did color correction. 

 Here are examples before compositing and after.

Shot 01

Shot 02

Shot 03

For the particles, I rendered P and N AOV's from Maya and worked with the particle emitter in Nuke's 3d space. Thanks a lot to my teacher, who showed me this technique. 

Here you can take a look at my node tree


 This time I used Arnold CPU(AMD Ryzen 7 3800X). I rendered each shot all in one and some RGB masks for the things I knew I wanted to tweak in compositing. Each frame took me about 20 minutes per frame and the fog layers about 10 in 1080p.

 Final thoughts

It was an excellent experience for me to work on multiple shots simultaneously; I learned how important is organization and that you have to be very attentive because there are a lot of things you have to be aware of to deliver the best results. And again, it was fun to work in a team with very talented people.

Woody X-Mas

With this project, I wanted to convey emotion through light and try out a bit different kind of technique as it is still a frame.

 First steps planning and references

As I got this Christmas scene from my teacher, I imagined that it would be great to do something with this free Woody rig I found in the Agora community. As long as I think about the Christmas tree and presents, I get a picture in my head from "Home alone" where the whole family unpacks the presents at the end of the movie. You feel that Kevin is happy but at the same time a little bit sad because he must think about this lonely woman who celebrates alone with the doves outside. 

So I decided "Exited woody, with a bit of loneliness" would be my story.

Here is my compositional decision 

I gathered references for atmospheric lighting and mood I like. Then, I knew I want to make a night interior.

Look development work on assets.

I took some textures and assets from "quixel megascans" like for the doors, floor, and walls and then worked with shading on Woody (luckily, the textures were provided with the rig, but only the base color). I also added the noise node to make some surface breakup for the displacement and roughness.


The lighting setup is relatively straightforward: spotlight, fill light, light from the present, and the mesh lights for the tree light chains. Here are screenshots from Maya 

All lights individually

Fog layer


I used all of the techniques I showed previously.

Here is a before/after image

Also, node tree from Nuke

Final thoughts

It was just a fun project for some variety, and just to do something different as animation, I could probably work a bit more on it and maybe find an animator who would animate it.


That's it! I want to thank all of the people who supported me during this time and you for reading. Thank you!

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