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How Lighting in Animation is Used to Add Value to Your Work

ben marvazi 2020

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“Lighting in animation is more than just making a scene look stunning—it's also about choosing an aesthetic that can evoke a desired style, mood, or ambiance.”

Jonathan Lam, Animation Writer

Lighting in animation is a lot like lighting in photography or filmmaking. The lighting artist sets up a combination of light sources to either draw attention to a special part of the setting, set the overall mood of the scene, or represent the natural properties of the scene such as the time of the day.

The lighting artist can significantly bring out various details of the objects. Without the proper lighting, everything in animation can look unappealing and boring.

In VFX and 3D animation, lighting is what sets the emotion and mood that can make or break a film. 

In this blog, we look at some animation artists who use lighting in animation to rewrite the rules and serve as examples for other animators in the industry. When you’re done reading this blog, you will know exactly how to use lighting in animation to add value to your work!

What is Lighting in Animation?

Lighting in Animation, an anglerfish fish luring its prey with its light

Image via All3DP

Lighting in animation describes the use of different tools and techniques to simulate light in a computer-generated 3D environment

3D Lighting techniques offer a huge amount of flexibility regarding the level of detail and functionality. They also operate at different levels of complexity. Lighting artists can choose from a variety of light sources, effects, tools, and techniques that suit their needs.

Just like photography or filming, the lighting stage of the 3D animation pipeline is all about making a 3D scene or sequence visible in a specific way by setting up different sources of light. 

Lighting in animation is especially important in 3D animation because it must support the story, convey the mood of a shot and also visually depict the location, time of day, and even the weather convincingly.

These factors have a much heavier weight when it comes to longer projects. Creating a consistent lighting scheme across the entirety of a 3D feature film or television show is one of the biggest challenges the lighting department of a 3D animation studio will be up to.

In VFX and 3D animation, lighting is what sets the emotion and mood that can make or break a film.

Different Animation Lighting Effects

different animation lighting effects around a sphere

GIF by Kate Sierzputowski via Colossal

High-end rendering engines produce high-quality ambient lighting in animation that can create extremely convincing scenes. Standard rendering engines, however create a somehow similar effect by adding a lighting value to all the pixels in the image. 

Global Illumination (GI) and Skydome are two of the most used algorithms used in 3D animation studios like Dream Farm for creating convincing ambient lighting in 3D environments. Let’s take a closer look at these algorithms:

Skydome Lighting: 

  • Skydome is an effective tool to simulate light from a dome above the scene; representing the sky. It can even be used with HDR images to perform image-based lighting too. 
  • Skydome is mostly used for outdoor scenes but can also be implemented for indoor scenes when needed.

Global Illumination: 

  • Global illumination algorithms calculate light traveling throughout the entire scene. Such algorithms take not only direct illumination into account but also calculate indirect illumination in which light rays from the same source are reflected by other surfaces in the scene. 
  • Thus, they create a very realistic illumination that pretty much resembles what we see in the real world.

Different types of light sources can be used in combination with these two. Experimenting with these tools and techniques can take you to a point where you can effectively simulate real-world lighting in a virtual environment.

Here are some popular techniques used to create lighting in animation:

1. Directional Light

understanding directional light in animation, light source shining onto a sphere

Image by Jamie Rios Velasco via All3DP

Directional light (also known as infinite light) is the complete opposite of point light because the light source creates parallel light rays in a single direction. The light can be controlled by adjusting the position and color of the light or by rotating the light source. The illumination travels infinitely through the scene, no matter the position of the light source. 

Directional light is often used to simulate sunlight or moonlight in a scene. It is ideal for illuminating large, open spaces.

2. Point light

understanding point light in animation, light source in the center with spheres around it making long shadows

Image via What-When-How

Point light (also known as Omni light), emits light from a single small point in all directions. It is often used to create fill light because it has no specific shape or size. The closer the object is to the light source, the brighter it appears. A light bulb is an example of Omni/point lights in the real world.

This lighting is often used to depict a light bulb in an open space or candlelight or Christmas lights on a tree. 

3. Area Light

understanding area light in animation, light source shining onto a sphere from above and light bouncing off the walls

Image via What-When-How

An area light emits light from a specified surface with a specific shape and size; such as a window, fluorescent light fixture, or back-lit panel. In other words, an area light is a physically-based light that casts directional rays from within a specified boundary, creating soft and realistic shadows. 

These properties make it a popular choice in product lighting or architectural visualization. Area lights do have an overall direction, but they don’t emit parallel rays like directional light.

The light source emits light from surfaces, creating soft shadows with no parallel rays. The size and shape of the light have a set boundary of either a rectangle or a circle. The area light is often used to depict the soft illumination of fluorescent light or the light from a window.

4. Spotlight

the understanding spotlight in animation, light source shining onto spheres from one place

Image by Tina Lee via Academy of Animated Art

A very popular category of lighting in animation, especially in most 3D animation software, is the spotlight. A spotlight produces a cone of light in a single direction, with the light getting more intense closer to the source and the center of the cone. 

The lighting artist can control the cone angle, determine the size of the light or soften the outside edge of the cone to create different looks. A flashlight is an obvious example of a spotlight in the real world.

This lighting is often used to simulate a flashlight, a desk lamp, a street light, or a car headlight in a scene. Spotlight is also used to create 3-point lighting, which comprises three spotlights to illuminate a scene.

Basic Lighting Techniques

the understanding of basic lighting techniques in animation, light source shining onto mans face in different ways

Image via Lighting Pixels

Lighting in animation comprises three basic techniques that are widely used in photography, film, theater, and painting. These three simple lighting techniques can be applied to a virtual 3D environment as well to create basic lighting for 3D animations. However, lighting in animation is not limited to these three techniques and can be much more complicated.

1. Three-point Lighting

Three-point lighting is probably the most common lighting in animation techniques. As the name suggests, this technique uses three light sources, namely the key light, the fill light, and the rim light. 

The key light is the most intense one among the three and the primary source of light. It is often placed to one side of the subject. 

The fill light is less intense and is typically placed on the opposite side of the key light to fill in the shadow cast by the key light slightly.

And finally, the rim light is placed behind the object to separate it from the background by adding a highlight around it.

2. Two-point Lighting

Two-point lighting is most similar to what we see in our everyday lives. It comprises a primary source of light, typically sunlight, and a second light surrounding it, typically the sky’s ambient lighting. 

3. One-point Lighting

The one-point lighting setup has only one light source without any complementary one to fill the shadows. This is an extreme technique used to create a very dramatic effect.

How to Create Lighting in Animation

How to Create Lighting in Animation, creating CGI light on a character

Image by CGLoftTraining via YouTube

Lighting in animation is used in every aspect of an animated film. It’s also used in gaming, video production, and digital artwork. 

Creating the right lighting in animation is a complicated and often lengthy process that can make or break a film. It is therefore important to study reference material and know how light behaves so you can mimic it in your animation projects. 

Every artist has their preference in terms of how to start adding lighting to animation. Generally, the first step is to look for reference images to get a sense of the proper lights to use to create a realistic scene. 

Without reference images, it’ll be challenging to achieve a sense of believability in a scene and so the final image could end up looking cartoony because the lighting is off.

When adding lighting to animation using 3D animation software, you should apply various light sources. These software applications come with a host of lights, including base lights, accent lights, filters, and blockers to enhance the atmosphere and create realism in a scene, layer by layer. 

Digital lights vary depending on the 3D animation software and renderer being used.

It’s easy to become too dependent on animation software or reference images when creating lighting in animation. However, this is entirely acceptable, especially when animating a complicated scene with various light sources and techniques. 

With that said, you also shouldn’t be afraid to experiment with your lighting software. Use the reference images as a guide to understanding the scene you’re animating but let your imagination run wild to create an original shot.

The Uses of Lighting in Animation

uses of lighting in animation, creating light on a figure in a program

GIF via Adobe

Lighting in animation is often used to relay the emotion of the scene, which time and part of the day it is, the weather at that particular point in time, the location of the scene, and it also supports the story for the audience to get a better understanding. 

For example, a yellow light could signify a bright, sunny day. On the other hand, a dark scene that uses a lot of cold light might signify a drastic change in the mood of the scene from happy to sad. 

Things like 3D commercials, 3D animations, and product visualizations also make use of lighting in animation by making the objects look appealing or boring by constantly altering the intensity and color of the lights. 

With the help of 3D lighting software, shades, reflections and shadows are created in a 3D animation. This is very much like how lighting is used in a live-action set. The main difference between the two is that lighting artists in animation have more freedom to be creative as they are not governed by the physics and properties of actual light.

However, lighting in animation is more than just making a scene look good – it's also about choosing an aesthetic that can evoke a desired style, mood, or ambiance.

Lighting can be incredibly nuanced, and it's often used to give audiences a better connection to the emotional levels of the animation. Lighting in animation can help to convey the mood and tone, depict the location, time of day, and weather, focus a particular point of interest or character to the audience, support the storytelling, and present a particular visual style. 

Let’s look at some of the moods that lighting in animation can create:


use of lighting in animation to create drama, a worried expression on characters' face with dramatic lighting

Image via Expanded Cinematography

Low-key lighting in animation is often used to achieve an atmosphere and mood that standard lighting can't convey. The style is achieved by using hard source lighting within a scene, thereby increasing the contrast between the subject and the environment. The dark tones and shadows help evoke a feeling of mystery and intrigue. 


use of lighting in animation to create anger, an angry expression on characters' face with dramatic lighting

GIF by tacoberry via Tenor

For creating anger, high-intensity lighting techniques can be used to help emphasize the expression of anger on the subject's face, boosting the emotion using dramatically harsh edges, lines, and shadows. 

Color can also help create the mood by using red tones that are often associated with action, conflict, excitement, and passion.


use of lighting in animation to create sadness, a sad scene of a lonely character

Image via JLRamos3D

Side-lighting techniques which direct the light source to one side of your character can help convey a feeling of sadness. 

Combine this with cold and dull color palettes such as muted blues, greens, browns, or even grays to enhance the feelings of sadness and sorrow.


use of lighting in animation to create joy, a excited character looking into a TV

Image by Jasmyne Bell via No Film School

If you want to convey a feeling of joy and happiness, use a nice bright lighting setup. Use soft lighting and increase the intensity to boost the glows and the feeling of positivity within the scene. This will also make your characters appear less severe, creating a smoother look and softening their edges. 

Combine this with a warm color scheme, such as bright yellow and orange, to convey a feeling of warmth, optimism, cheerfulness, and friendliness.

To sum up, lighting in animation can help to:

  • Elicit the right emotions
  • Support storytelling
  • Set the mood and tone of the scene
  • Focus the viewer’s eye on the most important element of an image
  • Depict the time of day, climate, and/or location of a shot
  • Highlight specific characters or objects in a scene
  • Create the illusion of depth and volume
  • Maintain continuity
  • Present a visual style
  • Create lighting design 

How Lighting in Animation Adds Value to Your Work

Lighting in animation is an important aspect of every 3D animation project. It is a combination of light sources to either draw attention to a special part of the setting, set the overall mood of the scene, or represent natural properties such as time of the day or even weather.

Without lighting in animation, your work will look dull, flat, and boring. There are many lighting techniques you can use to improve your work. Learning the rules will allow you to break them 

If you’re interested in knowing more about animation and the business side of animation, check out our free masterclass, download a copy of our free marketing handbook, and check out our blog on “How to Start an Animation Studio”!

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