Cinematic Lighting/Atmosphere | Brick à Brack

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You've spent a long time setting up your camera, adjusting your mini figures, cleaning and arranging your sets, and storyboarding your animation. You are ready to start animating, right? Nope!

Lighting is arguably the most important and noticeable element of a brick film, especially helpful when selling the look of your film. From what I have seen, it is also the greatest weakness of most LEGO animators. I see dozens of well-animated films that suffer from a lack of atmospheric or even total lack of proper lighting. Having perfected my own blend of cinematic and atmospheric lighting, I can say that achieving decent lighting is relatively simple and inexpensive, and while there is not a single, be-all end-all way to light your scenes, there are certainly some basic parameters for your lighting.
Note: Editing/filters/color grading usually only works when you already have decent lighting; in my experience, you cannot simply do poor lighting and hope to fix it in Adobe Premiere Pro-Hitfilm Express/Pro.

First, one must consider the scene/setting they are animating. Is it a nighttime scene? A day time scene? Is the character in a room? Moving into shot composition, what types and sources of lighting would exist in this environment in real life? Is there a lamp? A ceiling shaft? A flashlight? Admittedly, for lamps, flashlights, etc. unless you own Bricklites, you will probably have to use a light flare effect in post-production. However, for the base lighting, decide the mood of your film and adjust your lighting accordingly. For example, I animate horror-driven cinematic films, so I use a base of blue and white lighting; for nighttime scenes, again, a base of blue with purple, orange, white, or green, depending on the mood I am trying to establish. For cartoon-style LEGO animations, I recommend that you stick with white lighting with color grading done in post; for realism, again, play around with your lighting.

For lighting, I use two desk lamps and various assorted LED lights; I also use plastic color filters for the desk lamps. In my earlier films, I relied primarily on the desk lamps, and I would recommend you use those for starters, especially if you are a beginner/intermediate animator. Rather than spending hundreds on expensive lighting kits, I would like to remind you that the placement<i> of your lights will help you achieve your desired atmosphere more effectively.

From what I have seen, many beginner animators use one harsh white light to light up their scene and leave it at that. The result? Noticeable, unpleasant glare on the reflective LEGO figures, uneven lighting, and a somewhat grainy quality as well. If you have not heard of three point-lighting, I suggest you read more into that. Summed up, it is the placement of three lights around a hypothetical figure, with one main light showcasing the figure, and the two smaller, weaker lights (usually with one overhead) highlighting the details/adding depth and shadows to the subject.

Using this as a base, again depending on your scene and the atmosphere you are going for, play around with the placement, keeping in mind that too much reflection/glare (especially on the subjects or windows/other reflective pieces) can reveal the camera/degrade the quality. I often use my blue lights to bring out the color in my figures, with white lighting to balance out the blue and highlight the rest of the subject/setting. A common mistake, one that took me months to get over, is to oversaturate a certain color (i.e. overusing blue lighting). This only works in certain scenarios (such as when a subject is near a flashing siren; then overusing red would work), but for cinematic lighting/atmosphere, an evened-out look is better, again with shadows/finer detailing exposed when appropriate. You don't necessarily have to keep your lights static - I have played with animating flashlight beams and different lights in past brick films - but it is recommend at least at the start to stabilize your lights to avoid light flicker.

Other tips I can give you to improve your lighting are camera settings and editing/effects/color grading in post. I use a Canon Powershot SX530; depending on the camera you have, it may have a Manual mode. If it does, make sure to set it to Manual mode to have maximum control over your lighting. For my camera, using the circular "Function Set" button, I set it to 16:9 (standard YouTube aspect ratio), adjusted the "My Colors" to "Vivid," and set the white balance to Tungsten, to allow for more vibrant colors under different lighting. You can also play with the ISO, or image sensor sensitivity, but I don't recommend that, as it sacrifices image quality for increased brightness. I set mine to 100 on my Canon Powershot to allow for higher-quality photos.

As for editing/color grading, if you already have decent lighting - or at least clean, white lighting - then I would recommend only minor editing; in both brick films and SFM/3D animations, I have seen people abuse effects such as glare, lens distortion, glow, and filters, which ultimately lowers the quality of the video as well as darkening the video itself, often to the viewer's annoyance. Again, my definition of decent lighting is that if your film can stand on its own without editing/filters, then your lighting is good for starters.

With that being said, in Hitfilm Pro v12 2019, use effects such as "Hue, Saturation, and Brightness," "Brightness and Contrast," and "Color Correction Wheels" to touch up my lighting. Again, a lot of experimentation is involved in this process; again, depending on the atmosphere and base lighting, you will have to use different effects if you want to go the extra mile. For example, when doing my nighttime scenes, I drag the slider for Saturation to roughly -20 to desaturate the footage, and use different effects to bring out a *mild* blue tint. For daytime/cartoon lighting, I use roughly +20 saturation and color grade different parts of the scene (for example, in a current project I am animating, there is a single shot with a purple curtain placed in the center with adjacent checkerboard gray walls. I increased the saturation of the purple in that scene *slightly* to help it stand out). However, Da Vinci Resolve is another great free option to color grade your footage; I purchased Hitfilm Pro because I grew quite used to its format and VFX composition over the last ten months, and wanted to upgrade for my Christmas animation.

So there you have it! If you have questions/ideas/corrections/suggestions, comment below!

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