When it comes to building an environment, lighting is one of those aspects that can make or break a scene. You can have the best looking assets, but poor lighting can destroy all the time and effort you put into your props. On the other hand, a scene composed of mediocre assets can look great with proper lighting. This is because lighting will create the overall impression of your scene to the viewers’ eye at a quick glance. Because of this you want to push your lighting to define the shapes and silhouettes as much as possible, using light and dark to give the illusion of depth.
To ensure that we have enough contrast in our lighting, I start off by painting over the scene in black and white, darkening and adding highlights to areas that help define the shapes within the scene. The point of this process is not to create a master piece of concept art, but rather to plan out where to place lights when we step back in the engine.
Afterwards I begin to think of the time of day and mood I’d like to convey to the player. In this case I wanted to come up with something fantastical during sundown. I began coloring over the scene using sample colors off a reference image. This was a great way to get a nice palette going, and I felt it gave me much more direction to work with, rather than trying to mix various hues.
Using the paint over concepts, we go back into the editor and try to mimic the lighting we did in Photoshop. Because this is an outdoor scene, I figured I could get away with using a Directional Light which would seem natural as it would act as my sun. Unfortunately I could not get the highlights and shadows exactly where I wanted them to go. So instead I went around and “painted” lights throughout the scene. As you can see there are many point lights to fake the illusion of sunlight. I had much more control in placing highlights this way. Keep in mind this looks like it could be heavy on rendering, but note that these are all static lights and not realtime lights.
To achieve the final result, instead of using saturated colored lights to get that “purple” look, a Color Lookup Table is used to change the entire hue of the scene. These are a cheap and easy way to quickly alter the atmosphere and mood in an instant.
Well at this point we are very close to finishing the scene. We could sit and tweak the lighting and colors around for quite some time, but it’s time to move on for some finishing touches.
Next up are smaller details to add to the atmosphere of the scene. It’s getting there and I think we will be wrapping this up shortly!
Victor Kam teaches Level Design and Mission Design at VFS Game Design