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Why you can’t learn CG Lighting over a beer.

I have had quite a few requests from people to “pick my brains” over a beer and learn the secrets of great lighting. I’d be happy to do this, but I can’t. In order to explain why, you’ll need a little background, so here it is:

As a professional CG Generalist of some 17 years and two years before that learning to use my tools, I have done a lot of CG lighting; lighting for commercials, for TV and feature film visual effects as well as for animation. I’ve done photoreal, hyper-real, and most non-photoreal applications you can think of including toon-shaded (cel-shaded), experimental and various animation styles. I often tell people that I’ve done so much lighting and shading that I could render photoreal with Microsoft Word if I needed to and had enough time. That’s a joke, of course…most likely…

I started the same way many digital artists began back in the 90’s, with a background in some other field, and finding 3d imaging technology a useful tool for something other than film-making. In my case, as a scenic and lighting designer for the stage, I discovered I could use this remarkable technology to visualize set and lighting design before ever setting foot in the theatre. This had never previously been possible and so I took to it with enthusiasm, learning to use 3d Studio R4 for DOS and Alias Wavefront among other tools. When the digital media industry hit Vancouver, companies were looking for nearly anybody who could make a decent picture using 3D software and, since there is no real financial future in theatre, the shift to visual effects seemed natural.

What I was confronted with immediately was that lights in my 3d software were odd, not really behaving like lights at all. They seemed sort of light-like but just didn’t “feel” right. And having stood atop 12’ ladders aiming theatrical lights for many years, I had a pretty good idea of what a light should feel like. This took me on a path of discovery and research to discover exactly what these “lights” were, what they were intended to be and what the software developers had intended when they created them. Over time, I learned how to utilize limited tools to generate reasonably realistic light which apparently distinguished my work among my peers and provided opportunities for advancement.

As I gained experience, moved up the chain and became a lead artist, I found myself coaching younger artists who had, let’s be plain about it, pretty dodgy lighting skills. As I learned more about the industry, I discovered there were broad misperceptions about both light and lighting tools so I decided to try and do something about it by writing my discoveries into books. I was fortunate in that someone found value in my research and actually published them. This led to a number of speaking engagements and invitations to teach, which I have now been doing for 12 years. In those years, I have learned to teach efficient, beautiful lighting and shading as reflected in the work of my many successful students. What my students learn, mainly, is that really good lighting and shading is incredibly simple. And because I talk a lot about how simple really good light and shading is to accomplish, the misperception is that it must be simple to learn as well. Many people have approached me over the years asking for the secret of good lighting. I have had numerous requests to “sit down over a beer” and tell how to light well; what the recipe is. In answer to this request, let me retell a story about a conversation that apparently happened to Picasso.

It is said that someone once offered Picasso money to draw something on a napkin for him. Picasso sketched a figure, handed it over and asked for one million dollars in payment.
“One million dollars?” the man replied, shocked. “That only took you thirty seconds”
“Yes,” said Picasso, “but it took me 50 years to learn to draw that in 30 seconds.”

Of course, it doesn’t take 50 years to learn to light well using CG tools, but it does take some new technical knowledge, some cynicism about your tools and a basic rewiring of thinking processes including the acceptance that most of our presumptions about light and materials are fundamentally wrong.

None of these things are particularly hard to learn, but it does take a certain amount of deep discussion and reflection to internalize them to the point they become useful tools, and that’s not going to happen in an evening, especially not over a beer.

So I apologize in advance. It’s not a conversation. It’s a process that usually takes several months and about a hundred hours of training.
So…sure…I can light just about any scene in about ten minutes. But it took me 19 years to learn to light a scene in 10 minutes.

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