Lighting and Atmospherics Rhetoric


Lighting is the most expressive element within a scene as it gives form to color and shape and transforms these into emotional components. Words used to describe lighting and atmospheric conditions are so powerfully full of emotion – stark, barren, murky, resonant, radiant, glorious, somber, emergent, terrifying, diffuse, harsh, contrasting, deep, underlying, staccato, vivid, pulsating, dying.

When the chance permits, lighting can be used to mesmerize and even hypnotize the viewer. This is because lighting has the ability to capture an audience’s emotional mindset. Here, it’s less about informing a scene. More about imbuing a scene. Playing out a quiet narrative. Sneaking about. Less action-filled moments like these. Slow camera pans. Here the viewer is really studying the scene.

Look at a Gerome’ painting or a Caravaggio. What words come to mind here? Are they emotive? How does radiant or chiaroscuro make us feel? When we look at Gerome’ we see this radiant world full of pattern and texture, often set against deep or broad fields of radiant color. When we look at a Caravaggio we almost feel as if the subject is emerging from the shadows.

When we stand in front of a massive Hudson River School painting we confront a singular moment fixed in the artists’ mind and we are humbled by the magnificence and massive, operatic grandeur of nature.

When we are sneaking about an old Cathedral. How does light and pattern play out ? What does it do to reinforce the scene’s emotional intent ? How do glancing surface patterns create slow rhythm. What’s the pattern language saying ? How do diffuse fields set our expectations and engage our sense of curiosity. What does shadow say to us?

When we are crawling on our hands and knees, down in the dirt, in broad daylight in a desert environment, peering over a rocky crag and viewing the invaders sweep in and take the old city in one go, how does the scene transform before our eyes ? How does the interplay between light and atmosphere, as the dust of a thousand horses is swept up into the air, become a character within the scene in and of itself. Where once there was air, now there is this luminous and roiling mass that consumes the riders and the audience.

When cool light shimmers off the glancing surfaces of of a thing, it reveals it’s subjects age and makeup. It conceals nothing. Old wood, worn brass, the divots of pockmarked marble – the history of the thing. It tells a much different story when viewed from glancing angles either due to camera work or player position. Memorable and emotive lighting is like a well-developed line spoken from the lips of a great actor. Neither exists without the other. Old things have stories to tell and they don’t shout loudly. They speak with soft and somber tones. Even their reflective spectacle, when the angle of incidence is just right, is like the wheezing of an old soul.

Rule #1 – We don’t separate lighting and atmospherics.

Color Light Movement – Light Movement Music:

  • All emit energy and all can be tied together to draw out resonant emotional responses.
  • Kandinsky used the term “inner resonance”.
  • Orchestral color.

Sensory-based lighting.

  • See Monet
  • See Kandinsky
  • See: Blau Reiter School
  • See Turner


  • Improvisation Series, Composition Series.
  • Concerning the Spiritual in Art
  • (Grey has no energy, and hence no movement…)

Goethe: Theory of Colors – 1810

  • Included colored shadows, refraction, and chromatic aberration (prisms).
  • Color arises from shadow.
  • Had a huge gemstone collection.

Industry Inspiration – In order of influence

  • Hudson River School Painters
  • Gerome (Jean-Leon Gerome 1824-1904)
  • French Orientalism (See: Napolean, campaigns in Egypt. Archaeology. Expeditions. Rise of it’s popular interest in France
  • The Pre-Raphaelites – ie; Gerome
  • James Gurney
  • Turner
  • Piet Mondrain – Composition

My Inspiration

  • Gerome
  • Gustave Dore (Value, eye-tracking, composition, emotional intent)
  • James Gurney (References Gerome implicitly in his dissertation of principles of composition visa-vis light and color) Also, Eye tracking – Informed, intentionally diverted, or semi-informed for gameplay reasons.
  • Charles Hawthore
  • Jan Van Eyck
  • Vermeer – Gemstone color. First VFX in the world.
  • Northern European painters
  • Kandinsky
  • Sargent
  • Monet
  • Alma Tadema
  • Hudson River Shcool
  • Bernie Wrightson (Value)

Practical Lighting

  • Harold Davis – Photographer extraordinaire. Author of many amazing books on lighting, landscape, black & white, portraits. Knowledgeable and inspiring, including: Creative Lighting-Digital Photography Tips and Techniques
    • Diffusion
    • Backlighting
    • Ambient
    • Indirect Illumination (GI)
    • Post Process
    • Exposure control
    • White balance
    • High and Low Key lighting and exposure (Think bleached outdoor with emergent form indoor,
    • Reflection and Refraction (Light bounce and light distortion through a medium (glass, water, etc.)
    • HDR Lighting – Capturing the entire value range in a single, blended image.
    • Multi-RAW effects – Similar to HDR in terms of capturing various ranges in a single images. Can be split and recombined or blended with layer masks.
    • DOF
    • Filmic Tonemapping
    • Naughty Dog’s done a lot of work on this. Sets a great foundation for them. I’m also not a big fan of SSAO when it makes things too black, especially when it consumes a lot of screen space. Their rendering pipeline’s it’s own animal, but I’m a big fan of TLOU…

Engine Lighting Principles – An ideal

  • Refraction and reflection and light absorption – Materials (Glossiness range, etc.)
    • Physically-based materials (neutralized diffuse.) with artful overrides and opportunities (added details, wear-n-tear, etc.) for local or even global artist control (It’s all an illusion in the end and we bend the medium to suite our needs and support and enhance the gameplay and vision. See Naughty Dog.)
  • Physical material library reference – BRDF library of various and holistic material sets. Diffuse texture calibration.
  • BRDF – Bidirectional reflectance distribution function
    • How does light reflect off an opaque surface
    • See: Lambertian reflectance – Property that defines an ideal reflectance of a material when the characteristic is unknown.
    • View angle (camera, eyes) multiplied with the reflection vector, on a specified type of material, resulting in the amount of directional diffuse reflection, or gloss.\
    • Fresnal reflection – Light passing through a material with varying reflective properties, interference, or cumulative properties (moss, felt, silk.). Think of “net transmission”. Also used to describe iridescence as in a soap bubble.
    • IBL – Image Based Lighting and Rendering – Use an HDR cubemap to control lighting on an object character. HDRLightprobe, OR spherical HDR Cubemap surrounding an environment. Workflow.
    • SVGI – Cascaded Light Propagation Volumes. Use voxel grid.
    • SH Lighting and SCAO – Spherical Harmonics Lighting and Shadow Casting Ambient Occlusion in conjunction with GI, and radiance transfer.) Per-pixel-based.
    • Screenspace SH Lighting – Looks more precise.

Engine Lighting Principles – Striking a Practical Balance

  • Unreal Engine 4
    • Static lighting and baked directional lightmaps that support streaming.
    • Light types for static, animated, and moveable attributes.
    • Light propagation volumes for SVGI attributes.
    • Lightmass properties to maintain and control radiosity and bounce
    • Embedded IES profiles
    • Wonderful and masterful implementation of Physically-based shaders.
    • Light functions
  • IBL – I’d like to see an implementation of IBL in UE4.

Best Game Lighting and Atmospherics (No particular order)

The Last of Us

  • Interior in the Museum of the Revolution – Murky, Ambient, Great indirect lighting. Great shaders. Uncharted 3 and TLOU have great character lighting. TLOU has great runtime character shaders. Naughty Dog’s scenes quickly gets noisy, though, especially in outdoor environments, due to lack of gamut mapping principles deployed across the team, or other softening agents. Great char indirect shadows, though. Very important. No SSAO used. Good iris effects ( human-based exposure control)…Still too many unintended blackness in corers and niches…something to really avoid. Probably as result of not having the ability to clip lighting, so the radius is brought in, resulting in very dark corners…too dark. No bounce. Good HDR lighting for generalized control over large exterior shadow value and color created deep meta sense of indirect illumination. Culturally, Naughty Dog fall into the Photographer’s lighting universe. Somewhat documentary, but always expressive and mapped to an amazingly consistent gamut. Great combination of baked lighting and dynamic elements. Old school meets new school. This is a fantastic solution with a few unfortunate artifacts.

Bioshock Ininite

  • Fantasy Illumination. Color balance. Shape and color. Depth read. Diffuse atmosphere in the interiors.

Medal of Honor Warfighter

  • Radiosity and outdoor color bounce is masterful. Geomerics Enlighten engine here.

Gears 2 and 3 – All you need to know about value range and the interplay of gameplay and aesthetics.

Crysis 3 and RYSE

  • Outdoor landscape of New York City
  • Master of depth and scene read. This, due to the work of one of our industries most amazing lighting artist – Pierre-Yves Donzallaz
  • Donzallaz was also the lighting lead on RYSE, which also reminds me of the paintings of Gerome. In fact, the coliseum in the screen shots for his RYSE MP work is an ode to Gerome’s “Pollice Verso”-1872. This is a stunning example of classical painting’s intrinsic value towards our industry. The RYSE work is more emotionally charged and expressive than Crysis, but Crysis’ gameplay plays a role in this.

Arkham City on Xbox 360

  • The city at night. Great orientation. Very Noir. Except on the PS3, where specular appears to have been stripped almost entirely. Stripping spec basically means eliminating value range. Very sad to see.

Upcoming Games

  • Tom Clancy’s The Division
    • Very cinematic exposure and color. As saturated as any Jason Bourne film. It’s not the point. It’s more about value-driven lighting. From a lighting fan perspective. It’s really exciting. Fits their IP very well. Expressionistic realism with a heavy bias towards realism.
    • Cinematographer-dominant lighting.

Best Lighting and Atmospherics in Film and TV

#1 – Game of Thrones

  • Hands down, the best lighting and post processing. Great gamut mapping, best lighting composition and hand-touched nuances. Great scene-to-scene lighting juxtapositions. Nuanced monochromatic breakup. Amazing colorist work. Great use of triads and limited palettes, as well as value.

Blade Runner

  • Canonical nouveau noir ala Ridley Scott.

Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (1989)

  • Foreshadows some fantastic visual principles found in film and games today ! One of the underdogs of great cinema lighting. Very simple, but forward-looking practical lighting and scene development. No post processing. Raw in it’s greatest form. Very influential in my Cyrus work.


  • A Personal favorite because value and atmospherics is used so expressively in this film. This translates to our medium so well. Very educational.

  • Universal Pictures – The Mummy, The Wolfman, Frankenstein, Dracula, the Bride of Frankenstein
    • A Personal favorite. Value and atmospherics are hands-down, the de-facto primer on mood with value. “Almost” better than film noir as it leans on depth as well as screen space to achieve it’s intended effects.

Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick)

  • Want to see a masterpiece of natural light in film ? Check it out…Very educational.

Hannibal (Ridley Scott)

  • The atmosphere in the second half of the film, which takes place in Italy, is amazing. Pure Ridley Scott vision. Borderline Stanley Kubrick.)


Unreal Engine 3-4-based lighting and atmospherics experience for environments and characters including:

  • Dynamic Light Environments
  • Light Environments
  • Lightmass
  • Dominant Lighting
  • Cascade Shadow Maps
  • Light Functions
  • Lighting Channel exploits
  • Lighting performance exploits.
  • Emotive lighting – Historical or otherwise
  • Lightmap fidelity and best practices
  • Cinematic Lighting
  • Light Propagation Volumes (UE4)
  • All other actors that interact with lighting (fog actors, fog sheets, particle fx, etc.)


Harness the environment and environmental effects for emergent lighting and atmospherics opportunities such as those that are spontaneously or dynamically produced.

Make environments reactive and exploit them as devices to emphasize visual principles.

These principles are found in the works of James Gurney in his book Imaginative Realism-How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist

  • Vignetting,
  • Shape-welding,
  • Counter-change
  • Windmilling

An INDESPENSABLE must-have companion to this book is Gurney’s Color and Light-A Guide for the Realist Painter. Gamut mapping, color-scripts, triads; – all this is here and more.

Let me talk a moment about the four principles above. These are my favorite shape/form/color/value principles. They’re eternal. James Gurney presents these principles in his book, along with many others, in a way that struck me as one of the most helpful, eye-opening experiences. I can’t give this artist enough credit. Wander through art history and you’ll see how painting, drawing, etching, lithography, photography, film; all rally around these principles. Gerome’, Dore’, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Bernie Wrightson, James Gurney, NC Wyeth, Ridley Scott, Game of Thrones’ amazing cinematographers, lighting, colorists, and post production artists, and EPIC\Gears of War’s Wyeth Johnston.

In order to focus the scene and guide the player through space, these principles emphasize the power of value to establish ‘read’. Also lean on these in order to eliminate visual popping and culling. Unreal Engine provides many tools to achieve your lighting and atmospheric or final look goals:

  • Fog actors
  • Fog sheets
  • Infinity doors
  • Hue shifts via temperature changes. Value remains similar, but the temperature color change (warm vs. cool) yields contrast.
  • Lens flares
  • Bokeh effects
  • Scene effects
  • Weather effects
  • All manner of tertiary particles
  • Kismet interaction and scripting for VFX
  • Spawning behaviors
  • Lighting particles
  • Flares
  • Smoke, Steam, Mist
  • Fluids
  • Volumetrics
  • Volumes and Triggers
  • Events
  • Post Process
  • Etc.


Fullfill the vision and support, maintain, and enhance gameplay and/or pathing and progression.

  • Dominant pass or ambient pass – Exterior. Framing.
  • Local interest (hero) starting point – Interiors. Staging.
  • Focus on value – Establish value range extents visa vis value AND color
  • Focus on emotion – Multi-pronged: Theater of the mind. False positives. Emergent conditions. Confidence vs. apprehension. Temperature, value, depth shifts to reinforce.
  • Establish depth layers based on context (the why of depth layers)
  • Focus on shape – Drawing
  • Focus on Color – (color contrast used as value. In value range, both can be similar. See Charles Hawthorne. See temperature change not above.
  • Focus on story – Always reinforce and support the narrative or manipulate it. (False positives, emergent conditions, etc.)


  • Documentation
  • Process Guidelines
  • Technical References
  • Value studies, Color Studies, Color Scripts.
  • Teamwork – Lean on your peers for support. Work together. Group discussions, analysis, critiques. Move fast. Divide and conquer, but be lead by a single individual within the team who does the following:
  • Communication
  • Demonstrations
  • Group critique
  • 1 on 1’s
  • Drive-by’s
  • Squint tests
  • Comparative analysis
  • Cadence, rhythm, adherence, variance (examples of adherence is monitor calibration. Same monitor with wide vertical view angles.)
  • Establishing flow in a team.
  • Everyone knows what to do
  • Everyone knows how
  • Everyone knows why