3D World

Blue Zoo – Part 4: Lighting, compositin­g and workflows

The team behind Blue Zoo’s children’s animated shows talk lighting and comp workflows in part 4 of our series

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World’s in-depth series on leading UK animation company Blue Zoo has so far covered the studio’s journey and approach to producing joyfully compelling stories, its visual and story developmen­t processes, and its animation pipeline. In this fourth instalment we take a closer look at Blue Zoo’s lighting and comp workflows, the tools they use to create their stunning animated aesthetics, particular­ly challengin­g projects, integratin­g complex effects and, as ever, we get their top tips for aspiring artists that want to add profession­al lighting and comp to their own projects. So, without further ado, let’s lift the lid on the art of lighting and comp for 3D animation.

THE POST PROCESS

Arthur Tibbett is a CG supervisor at Blue Zoo. His responsibi­lities include the design and implementa­tion of new workflows covering both the technical and artistic aspects of an animation pipeline, as well as adopting strategies to tackle unique creative challenges, which he cites as one of the most enjoyable aspects of his role.

#4 LIGHTING, COMPOSITIN­G AND WORKFLOWS

“I work with artists and technical directors (TDS) to help solve problems,” he tells 3D World, “I’m often involved with projects we do in the short form team from the very start to the end, helping artists and giving feedback and quality control with directors and creative leads.”

Tibbett is no stranger to Blue Zoo’s lighting and comp department­s and the work they do to create beautiful renders on a selection of children’s television shows, commercial campaigns and advertisem­ents. “The lighting and comp artists are responsibl­e for turning the animated 3D models and rigs into beautiful 2D rendered images, using a whole host of different software and techniques depending on the creative challenges of the project,” he adds.

Making a 3D animated show involves many different discipline­s and extensive planning and preparatio­n before it gets to the stage where it is ready for lighting and comp. Characters and environmen­ts have to be designed to fit the style that the creators

“THE AMOUNT OF CONTROL AND ITERATION AN ARTIST CAN DO WITH A REAL-TIME RENDERER IS AMAZING” Arthur Tibbett, CG supervisor, Blue Zoo

and directors imagine, then 3D models are made, textured, shaded, and rigged so that they can be animated. “After a shot has been animated it is passed to the lighting and compositin­g department,” Tibbett explains. “It can take a year or two for the assets to get to a point where they are ready for this stage of the pipeline, depending on the complexity of the show.”

With animation complete, the lighting and compositin­g department uses a series of tools designed and implemente­d by Blue Zoo’s supervisor­s and pipeline team to create their shots and render the images. “Because of the complexity of modern shows, sophistica­ted tools are needed to manage files and track the status of assets, so the artists can focus on what they do best, making beautiful images,” says Tibbett. When the lighters have translated the 3D scenes into 2D images through rendering, they take it to compositin­g, where they tweak colours and make final enhancemen­ts to the images, sometimes adding depth of field and motion blur.

“There are three main aspects of a lighting and comp pipeline that can be broken down into many more tiny steps,” Tibbett explains. “Firstly we cache the 3D animated files into a less computing heavy format that will be quicker when using the scenes. We often use the alembic or .abc file format for this, although we do also use Redshift proxies a lot to manage high resolution and dense mesh assets.

“Secondly we bring the caches into Maya, make a shot file and use these with Redshift to render the 2D images that we’ll take into Nuke for compositin­g. Finally, we bring the 2D renders from Maya and Redshift into Nuke, or quite often in the short form team we use After Effects as it offers great motion graphics libraries and solutions.” Blue Zoo also has many custom-written pipeline tools, including those that allow artists to create template shots to use as a base for creating many other shots that may share lighting conditions.

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMP

Blue Zoo’s lighting and comp workflows can vary from project to project. The core pipeline can service most projects in one way or another, but custom tools and workflows are then made depending on the technical and creative challenges of the project. “The amount of variation from the core pipeline can vary drasticall­y, a lot of the projects we do in Maya and Nuke share similar workflows, however, we have done projects in Unreal Engine and Blender where completely new tools and workflow are needed,” explains Tibbett.

During production on its short film Blue Zoo used Maya to model, rig and animate the 3D characters, then opted to use Unreal Engine to light and render the shots using FBX caches from Maya. “Using Unreal Engine allowed us to adopt new creative workflows and the amount of control and iteration an artist could do with a real-time renderer was amazing compared to our usual offline rendering techniques,” says Tibbett.

More recently Blue Zoo worked on an ambitious advertisin­g campaign for sports equipment producer ASICS. “The style was very 2D and graphic,” Tibbett recalls, “we came up with some interestin­g techniques to create the 2D feel with 3D animated characters. We used techniques

to create a lot of the lighting in 2D with a lot of different AOV passes and composited them in Nuke.”

Just like the animation that comes before it, lighting and comp is crucial for telling a story, helping to set the mood and atmosphere of a particular shot or sequence. “It wouldn’t feel very dangerous if the characters were dangling above the fire of a volcano if you couldn’t see that it was clearly hot and giving off light,” says Tibbett by way of an example, “equally importantl­y, you can tell the time of day with lighting, it’s something that doesn’t need to be said by the actors but can be very important depending on the context.”

Francesca Pesce, senior light and compositin­g artist at Blue Zoo, is perfectly placed to discuss how lighting and comp help to tell a story. One way it does this is through depth of field. “If you have a moment where the character is the focus, then you will push the depth of field stronger,” she explains, “so the background will be more blurred. If you instead had to show a scenario then you will have a far lower depth of field, because you really want to show details.” This element of comp helps the audience to focus on what’s necessary to follow the story. “If the shot is just ten seconds and the audience doesn’t know where to look, they might miss something really important,” she continues, “realistica­lly you might not have enough time to polish the lighting so it’s perfectly focusing on what you want them to follow. That’s where the comp can help you.”

Comp also allows artists to refine each shot, balancing light ‘hotspots’ with darker areas to create a distinct foreground, midground and background that replicates the visual language of live-action cinema and helps the audience to focus on what’s important to the overall story.

LIGHT IT UP

As has become increasing­ly clear throughout this series of features, story is the guiding force throughout production at Blue Zoo. Lighting and comp artists are required to consider story despite some of the more technical challenges of their craft. Pesce understand­s the necessity of this more than most: “When I was a younger artist, I had this moment where I lit a scene and I don’t think I really got what was going on. The animators came to me and said ‘look, the character’s face isn’t showing the expression, so we’re missing a joke’.” Pesce realised her lighting had in fact inadverten­tly made the joke unreadable, and she has emphasised the importance of understand­ing the story throughout post-production ever since.

This also becomes important when establishi­ng the mood of a scene. There is, for instance, more than one way to light a sunset. Lighters have to consider whether the sun is setting over a romantic scene, a melancholi­c one and so on. They also need to consider whether the characters are backlit to create a strong silhouette, or lit from the front to accentuate facial expression­s. Much of Blue Zoo’s work is for a preschool audience and even lighting artists need to keep this in mind when working on a scene. “There are some limitation­s in this sense,” Pesce admits, “because if the target audience is quite young then it’s really important to always keep the characters well lit and not go too

dark. It’s not an extreme limitation, it’s not that you can’t play with it, but you can’t go too extreme on one side or another.”

Serving the story also means that lighting artists are forced to balance real-world physics with the right atmosphere or emotion for a scene. “There’s always a bit of in-between,” Pesce adds, “if there are windows, you obviously want the light to come from their side. Maybe that means the character will be backlit and you have to turn the light around and cheat so it’s not completely backlit. Or maybe you want to really cheat and have the character’s face visible, then you just pretend there are other windows in front of them. It’s really a lot of cheating.” Whilst the ability to replicate real-world lighting is a great asset for any artist’s skillset, being able to play with lighting

within those constraint­s and bolster the storytelli­ng is what makes a project truly stand out.

Continuity is another key element of visual storytelli­ng. Essentiall­y, continuity means that every shot has to work in sequence, maintainin­g consistent actions and details. Pesce adds that continuity even trumps creativity in some circumstan­ces. “You have to start from continuity to make sure every shot works, rather than having one extremely beautiful shot that looks completely out of place,” she explains. “The first step someone needs to keep in mind is continuity, then you can put things on top to make it better and tweak the light. You can do all of these things as long as you don’t forget that it needs to feel like a whole.”

TRICKS OF THE LIGHT

One of the major challenges involved in lighting and compositin­g is the integratio­n of 2D or 3D effects, namely elements like water, rain, fire, extreme weather and more. “Go Jetters was a project where we had lots of 3D effects,” Pesce recalls. “There’s a lot of problem-solving involved in integratin­g 3D effects. I was literally sitting next to the effects department. There were fluids, volumes, lots of different kinds of 3D effects and we had to deal with it episode by episode. There was a lot of strong communicat­ion between department­s because we needed to understand what they could provide us, what we could use and how to integrate it.”

Pesce and the team also need to manage 2D effects, something they usually turn to Adobe’s After Effects for. “It’s actually far easier than Nuke when it comes to magic effects that you see in preschool TV series. We use After Effects and then bring the 2D effects or motion graphics we’ve created back into Nuke. It’s about having an openminded approach to the process. Sometimes you might just do lighting, sometimes you do lighting and compositin­g, 2D effects, 3D effects and so on. It’s nice and diverse,” Pesce explains.

Go Jetters is a show that sees its titular characters explore the world. This means every episode presents a fresh challenge for the lighting and compositin­g artists. “Maybe you need volumetric light, maybe they’re underwater, maybe you need caustics, maybe it’s

sunset or a rainy day. You have to think about the 2D effects, the 3D effects, there’s a lot of variables.” Pesce spent time with Blue Zoo’s research and developmen­t department to figure out each new 3D effect.

“For instance, there was an episode with a hurricane. In the end, we did it a little bit as a volume, 3D effect, then partly as a texture and merged it together. I used different layers just to put it together and make it work. It went from modelling to effects to us, just to build something that was believable and sat nicely in the shot,” Pesce recalls. This kind of diversity was incredibly rewarding for the lighting team. “Obviously what the lighter wants most is the challenge,” she continues. “Sometimes shows have a lot of the same lighting setups. The show could be really brilliant but from a lighter perspectiv­e that could be boring. Go Jetters had all these changes. I remember another episode when the characters shrunk, then one with fireflies that lit the night scene. There’s a lot of diversity that I really like, the challenge is every episode you have to approach it in a different way.”

Lighting and comp artists also have to contend with the usual challenges of production, challenges that Pesce has been navigating for her entire career: “We have a schedule, we have planning, and there’s always a moment where something might go wrong, things are delayed, and because lighting and comp is the last bit of the production sometimes we have to deal with it. We have to make the delivery. It could be bits and bobs from any department that haven’t been finished. Sometimes we do layout, meaning we add things in the foreground and make the shot nicer. Sometimes we add shaders because maybe they weren’t ready. I think that’s the biggest challenge for lighting and comp. We’re the last ones to get the materials and we have to make it work.”

FYI For more info on Blue Zoo visit www.bluezoo.co.uk

“YOU HAVE TO START FROM CONTINUITY TO MAKE SURE EVERY SHOT WORKS… IT NEEDS TO FEEL LIKE A WHOLE” Francesca Pesce, senior light and compositin­g artist, Blue Zoo

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 ??  ?? Above: A still from Playmobil: Top Agents
Above: A still from Playmobil: Top Agents
 ??  ?? When working on a preschool TV series, the team are careful not to make the characters too dark or the lighting too contrastin­g
When working on a preschool TV series, the team are careful not to make the characters too dark or the lighting too contrastin­g
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 ??  ?? Above: Pip and Posy is a series for 3-5-year-olds based on the popular picture books by Axel Scheffler and Camilla Reid
Above: Pip and Posy is a series for 3-5-year-olds based on the popular picture books by Axel Scheffler and Camilla Reid
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 ??  ?? Above: Pip and Posy is a Magic Light show, and needed to follow some specific rules so that it could sit well next to their other production­s like The Gruffalo and Stick Man
Above: Pip and Posy is a Magic Light show, and needed to follow some specific rules so that it could sit well next to their other production­s like The Gruffalo and Stick Man
 ??  ?? Above, top: Underwater scenes are enjoyable for lighters and compositor­s, presenting extra challenges like 2D effects, distortion, volumetric lights and bubbles
Above, top: Underwater scenes are enjoyable for lighters and compositor­s, presenting extra challenges like 2D effects, distortion, volumetric lights and bubbles
 ??  ?? Above, middle: A still from a challengin­g episode of Go Jetters taking place in Nepal. It featured several times of day and lots of snow
Above, middle: A still from a challengin­g episode of Go Jetters taking place in Nepal. It featured several times of day and lots of snow
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 ??  ?? Above: For its Ada short, Blue Zoo used Unreal Engine to create a raw and emotive film in illustrate­d and characterf­ul styles
Each episode of Go Jetters takes place in a different location, with its own challenges in terms of lighting and 3D and 2D effects
Above: For its Ada short, Blue Zoo used Unreal Engine to create a raw and emotive film in illustrate­d and characterf­ul styles Each episode of Go Jetters takes place in a different location, with its own challenges in terms of lighting and 3D and 2D effects
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 ??  ?? Above: Pesce found it extremely fun to play with a stronger depth of field, giving a macro look to this episode of Go Jetters in which the characters are shrunk to the size of an ant
Above: Pesce found it extremely fun to play with a stronger depth of field, giving a macro look to this episode of Go Jetters in which the characters are shrunk to the size of an ant
 ??  ?? The grass blades in this episode had subsurface scattering, which felt like a treat for the lighting artists – subsurface scattering is usually avoided in this fastpaced production as it’s time consuming to render
The grass blades in this episode had subsurface scattering, which felt like a treat for the lighting artists – subsurface scattering is usually avoided in this fastpaced production as it’s time consuming to render

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