Star Heist

Star Heist

Diana Lee
by dahyunjlee on 18 Jul 2021

This is my final submission for the Academy of Animated Art June 2021 Lighting Challenge! I was responsible for set texturing, shading, lighting, and compositing. This was the first dynamic action shot I worked on. Lessons from my previous project Peaches helped a lot as I set out on lighting this daunting sequence.

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Shading the Character

My initial look for the character's suit was inspired by Elastigirl's costume in the film Incredibles 2. The suit was overall silver, and I added a dark portion to the pants reminiscent of thigh-high boots/tights. After a few iterations, I settled on an orange red more akin to Elastigirl's original costume. (I mean, what was I thinking anyway, going for Alexander Galbaki when I could go for Edna Mode??)

The pants still have a dark gradient that comes up to the thighs but it is much more subtle, and the red really brings out the warm tones in the character's skin and hair.

For the skin, I used the color map that came with the Miosha rig. It is a fantastic paint, especially on the lips. I just added some specular, bump, and subsurface details and it was good to go. For the hair I looked to references because I wanted to make it feel more like natural locks. I created some small variations in width, color, and displacement to get something organic while using the original geometry.

Finding the Lighting Structure

I initially set out with the reference frame below, from Star Wars. I was struggling to come up with ideas because I wasn’t too familiar with this type of shot (action heavy, sci-fi, spaceship). I wasn't set on the colors of the reference, but I knew that I wanted a warm-cool-warm overhead lighting setup.

Once I saw Francesco Giroldini's awesome paintover, I knew that was what I wanted, and the shot changed entirely. The idea of warm vs cool is still there, but I think this color palette was much better for the character skin and costume shaders that I had created.

Moreover, Francesco suggested that I make the characters read overall darker and more contrasty, against a brighter, less contrasty background. In the paintover you can see that the black points are lifted behind and around the character . I added multiple volumetric lights, haze, and environment lights to lift the blacks and reduce contrast in the set. You can see this throughout the shot.

Refining the Lighting

Halfway through the project, I saw that the paintovers were clashing with each other, and that it would be impossible to keep a warm-cool-warm lighting setup throughout the whole sequence. I was set on how I wanted the final frame to look, so I ended up changing the blocking for this part, making the background entirely cool with a warm foreground.

At this point I rebuilt the lighting rig from scratch. The dozens of practical light sources were causing a lot of temperature mixing where the orange and blue lights met, creating murky purple tones that I did not want. I struggled for days to figure this problem out and it was so rewarding when I changed up the structure.

When I added FX, I realized this moment was key to the sequence. (Tip: start with fx in the scene if you are planning to use it. Just adding fx at the end doesn't work as I found out the hard way lol) I added a blast of light from the sparks and then animated the values in compositing so the background would momentarily darken for this part, letting the foreground really stand out, while still trying to keep the background less contrasty than the foreground.

I really leaned into the saturated colors for this project. I love how dramatic the final result looks!

Render Layers and Light Groups

Here are my raw render layers and light groups after compositing. I also had layers for motion vector pass and cryptomattes.

Final thoughts

Through this project, I learned that on shots as dynamic as this, it takes a ton of work to make every frame look good. There are a lot of lights that are animated to ease on and off and I really hope none of it was noticeable!

There are certainly some aspects that I think could be better. But after nearly two months, I am happy with how it turned out. The full credits for assets are available in the description of the vimeo link.

As always, any and all feedback is welcome. Feel free to comment or reach out on Instagram or  Twitter. Thanks for reading!!

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