Some Notes For Students

I've been getting a few e-mails from students with questions about lighting resources and questions about what is expected of them once they graduate. To that end I thought I'd make a few notes about some books and websites I've found useful and a few notes about what would make your reel stand out from the crowd. Some of the sites mentioned here may be in the links section too, but I'll repeat them here for the sake of clarity.


This is a non-definitive list of books I have found useful over the years. All these books are available online from Amazon for all of you who don't have a large bookstore nearby.

The best book on cinematic lighting as far as I'm concerned is "Painting with Light" by the late, great John Alton. Alton was the cinematographer of such film noir classics as T-Men amongst others and though the book does not deal with colour and is a little dated it is still essential for its straight-forward discussions of light placement, technical considerations of light and how moods and atmosphere may be created through the use of light and composition. Definitely top of the reading list.

"Film Directing Shot by Shot" by Stephen D. Katz is a good introduction to ideas of layout, shot composition and movement. Good film-making practice can be picked up from here. If you're making a film as your final project I'd definitely look through this one.

"Advanced RenderMan" by Tony Apodaca and Larry Gritz is not only the best book on the RenderMan specification but it also has excellent chapters on the maths basics you'll find useful, and computer lighting and composition in general. An absolute must if you want use any RenderMan renderer and a lot of it will be relevant no matter which renderer you use.

"Cinematography Screencraft" by Peter Ettedgui is the best illustrated book on cinematography available. It also features chapters on D.P.s whose work has come to the fore over the last few years like Darius Khondji and Janusz Kaminski.

"Masters of Light" is a text only book featuring in depth interviews with cinematography greats such as Gordon Willis and Vittorio Storaro.

"Film Lighting" is a bit long in the tooth but does have some excellent snippets from cinematographers describing how they solved a particular lighting problem.

"Ways of Seeing" by John Berger is a wholly theoretical book about the way we see images and why they provoke the responses they do. I urge you to read it if only to broaden your understanding of what makes an image significant to an audience. There is some structuralism and semiotics in here but don't let that put you off.

Both the Industrial Light and Magic books by Thomas G Smith and Mark Cotta Vaz respectively contain much that is inspirational as well as some very interesting behind the scenes info.

"The Invisible Art" also by Mark Cotta Vaz is a beautiful book on the history of matte painting. For a study on how the photoreal can be produced without a camera this is valuable reference.

"Digital Lighting" by Jeremy Birn is a good book for those looking at the concepts of digital lighting.

"Computer Graphics - Principles and Practice" by Foley, Van Dam, Feiner and Hughes. This is the bible of computer graphics. This venerable tome is heavy and densely packed with the sum of CG knowledge. It's kept pretty much up to date and is now in its ninth edition. For understanding what goes on inside a 3D renderer there is no better book.

Michael Langford's "Basic Photography" is still the best technical introduction to photography. He explains how film, lenses, processing all work and how each of these processes influences the final image. If this book doesn't have enough information for you there's also "Advanced Photography".


Here is a list in no particular order of websites that have useful information or inspiration on them. is the website for The American Society of Cinematographers. is the Creative Networks' cinematography site. is the central hub for VFX news and gossip. is Jeremy Birn's website featuring a wealth of information on digital lighting.

Reels - What to put on them and how to think about your lighting

One topic which is often not covered so well on many college courses is what to put on your reel if you are more interested in lighting and technical direction. Animators have the walk and run cycles which are standard demonstrations of proficiency. There really isn't an equivalent for lighters so here are a few pointers on things you should be able to demonstrate.

You should be able to demonstrate a good understanding of aesthetic concerns and issues. Graphically your images should be pleasing on the eye. Obvious to say this but an awful lot of lit images are just ugly. If you want to light a car, look at car advertisements, see how these have been lit. Pick an appropriate style for your particular model and the use this as the basis for your own lighting. If you want to capture a certain mood or ambiance, think of a movie where you've seen it before. Watch it, examine the framing, the lighting, the grade, what filters if any were used etc. As you do this you will begin to build up a mental library of images and you will have to rely less on looking directly at other's work and begin to use your own judgments and ideas.

Become a media junkie. Open your eyes. Whenever you see an image look at it, examine it. What makes it work, how was it produced? Remember it. Start collecting a source bank of reference images you've culled from magazines or off the net. Use this collection to fire off ideas about how to tackle issues in lighting your own work. Whatever problem you come across, someone else has come across it before and solved it. You need to find that out and apply it to your own experience. This is why I suggest reading John Berger's "Ways of Seeing". This book will help you to understand how images work psychologically, and once you begin to grasp that it will form the basis of your mental toolkit for your own work.

Always find reference for any piece you want to create. Often on projects you will get a mood sheet, which is generally a thumbnail illustration which suggests a palette and probably a lighting scheme for your work. You may not do these for yourself but you should at the very least raid your source bank for images which give you the visual information you need (be it lighting, texture, grading etc.) to do your work. Never work in a creative vacuum, you will not produce good work. Looking at the work of others isn't stealing, it is adding to your visual education, and that is a lifelong study.

So conceptually you know what you're doing. What do we want to see when we get your reel and how should you go about producing it?

A good range of lighting examples on your reel shows visual understanding and learning. Try to show some photo real work, preferably composited in with live action, but also do some more stylised work that shows your personal aesthetic more directly.

Keep it short. Students are always too ambitious in terms of the running time of their projects. My student film was 7 minutes long - disaster! Apply a limit, i.e. 30 seconds and polish that 30 seconds till it shines. Studios will not sit through a 10 minute epic no matter how good you think it is so don't do it.

Don't put anything other than your best work on your reel. A recruiter will not care about quantity, only quality. Never be tempted to pad out your reel to make up this mythical 3 minute running time we all hear about. 20 seconds of genius on its own is better than 20 seconds of genius interspersed with 2 minutes and 40 seconds of filler material. A bad piece of work on your reel will have a detrimental effect, so if there's anything you're not a 100% happy with, get it out of there.

The over-riding concept in CG lighting is divide and conquer. If you look at the whole lighting problem in one mass you may well be overwhelmed. So break it down. "Where's the key light coming from?", "What is the key to fill ratio?", "Are the light sources being used soft or hard?" "Is there any filtration being used?" All of these are simple questions to answer, and if you go through the image you are looking at or want to create in these terms it becomes easier to make one step to another, to another. So begin by placing the key light. Only when you're happy with its placement start adding a fill light, again one at a time. There is a tendency for students to try and place every light they think they'll need first and then sit and fiddle, continually adding more and more lights till they scream and go home. These are bad tactics. You want to have the minimum number of things to tweak at any one time. Hence add one light at a time. Change one shader parameter at a time. Build it up gradually. If possible you can even render each light separately and combine them together in the composite for the ultimate level of control. This is very wasteful of disk space however.

A good exercise to do is to take a photograph or painting and attempt to copy it in CG. This was the "exam" that ILM used to make its potential matte painters do in the old days as a demonstration of their abilities. It doesn't have to be super complex, say a couple of pieces of fruit, but make it look great, tweak those shaders, play with the lights.

Always try and impose a frame render time limit on yourself. If you want to work in VFX or animation you will have to work within a frame budget. No-one is going to care what techniques you used to produce an image, but they will care if it took 4 hours to render a TV res image. That's too long. 20 minutes a frame is the yardstick for a standard, non-complex render at TV res. Try and work to that. If it takes longer than that you're getting too complicated. Remember the shorter your render times the more versions you can crank out before your deadline, so the more opportunities you'll have to improve it. I have had 12 hour a frame renders on movies but that was for super-complex geometry and shading, but even then I'll work for hours to cut the render-time to the bone by using tricks like rendering background passes at lower quality settings, using as little ray-tracing as possible, changing the resolution of texture maps to minimise network traffic, using level of detail geometry etc. etc. You have to learn and demonstrate efficiency. State your render-times on your reel.

If you are lighting a sequence of shots try to build a light rig for your light set-up. Once you have a look that you like in your master shot you can use the rig in all the other shots. Try to add in all the lights you're likely to need like sky, bounce, rims, fills, and key. This way you'll achieve a higher level of consistency and quality across your range of shots. By using a consistent number of lights and light names it makes writing automation scripts for pass rendering etc. a lot easier.

Try not to do clichéd work or shots obviously copied from movies e.g. no TIE fighters. This makes you look like an amateur.

Don't use "CG camera moves". By this I mean if a real camera can't do it then you shouldn't either. Big fly through camera moves look cheap and irritate people. If you want to demonstrate some lighting then simple, elegant camera moves are the way to go. Read "Film Directing Shot by Shot".

Don't use lens flares or other gimmicks to excess. Anything that has become a cliché, avoid like the plague. Some effects become fashionable for a while and everyone uses them. Recruiters want to see a clever use of effects. There really is no such thing as good or bad types of effects it's just a matter of exercising a little taste and judgement when using them. Don't use effects like lens flares to hide bad work. Get the 3D right and then, if appropriate, add the flares.

Learn how real cameras, lenses and film-stocks work. Use this knowledge to inform your CG work. This will immediately improve the professionalism and believability of your work. Use "Basic Photography" by Michael Langford for this. For example do you know why lens flares happen? If not find out. That way you know when it is appropriate to use one.

Try to get a decent grounding in CG theory, i.e. the topics covered in Foley and Van Dam's "Principles and Practice". You don't need to be totally au fait with everything but if you understand the basics of what's going on inside your application you'll find it easier to fix problems when they occur. And you'll also find it easier to move from one application to another.

Try to work on other people's projects so you learn to deal with the problems that crop up on someone else's production. Frequently in VFX you will get footage which differs from what you might have shot yourself, generally because the person shooting the footage doesn't understand the VFX process that is to follow. Learning to deal with, and making the best of what you're given is an important skill. You also need to learn how to deal creatively with other people. VFX is a team game and you need to able to work with people, both senior and junior to you to ensure that the finished product is what the client wants. You may not like the briefs you get at college but look on them as a creative challenge from a difficult client! Trust me, you'll come across much worse in the world of work.

A good mindset to develop is that of a crafts person rather than a more traditional artist. Generally we work to a brief from someone else. Often the briefs are very prescriptive and do not leave much creative freedom. Get used to that. You will also usually be working with a compositor on a film who has his or her own ideas about your shot and will have input on it. Learning to work with the pipeline at your studio is a very important part of the job. Also being aware of what your co-workers are doing ensures continuity which is crucial when you have a big team working on a sequence. It only takes one person to start doing their own thing and the whole sequence falls apart. Make sure that person isn't you.

Never, ever stop learning. The process of lighting, like any creative pursuit is an on-going one. You will never reach a point where you will know everything. You should also never reach a point where you are totally happy with your work. My parting shot to you : Always strive to learn something from every piece you do and apply it to the next piece. You should just keep getting better and better.

Good luck to you all.

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