Tag Archives: Lighting

Ambient Occlusion Combined with Toon Shader Tutorial

(Editors note: Hey folks, this is the last post we’ll be seeing on here until January sometime – I’m entering a heavy development phase and I can’t maintain this as well. I will be back though, promise. For now, over to Prantic)

Hey there back with another Maya rendering tutorial and this time its on Render Composites of Maya’s Mental Ray Ambient Occlusion Texture and ToonShader.
With the combination of these two shader networks we can create a very cool composite that can be used for any CG stylized animation or commercial product rendering.
Here we’ll learn about different techniques to render out AO pass and then combine them with the Maya TS.

The video training can be categorized into:

  1. Ambient Occusion Through manuel object Plugin
  2. AO through layer compositing
  3. Toon Shader techniques
  4. Compositing the render scenes in Photoshop


Ambient Occlusion and ToonShader Render Composite Tutorial from Heather Craik on Vimeo.

Or watch it on Prantic’s Channel.

Mental Ray Caustics Tutorial (Maya)

Alright, after so much anticipation in creating a lighting tutorial in Maya, I’m back with a proper, easily understood, video lesson regarding Caustics. The Video lesson is about 20 minutes and focuses on Maya’s Mental Ray system shaders and lighting techniques. Caustic effect is an important and a remarkable effect which occurs in nature and is very much required in creating a realistic looking glass lighting effect.  As this is a more advanced tutorial beginners may have a little trouble initially; don’t worry, I’m available if you’ve any questions.

The Topics in the video can be categorized as follows:

  1.  Intro: Discussing “what is caustics?” with examples
  2. Creating basic caustic effect using Maya’s own default material nodes
  3. Discussing about Photon transmission, GI/Caustics
  4. Creating Caustics with Mental Ray materials
  5. Ways and Tips to make Renders times faster
  6. Conclusion: Showing mental ray renders with properties and Photon Map Visualizer.

So, grab a pack of something (I’d recommend chips) and let’s get started!

Maya Mental Ray Caustics Tutorial from Heather Craik on Vimeo.

Alternatively, you can watch it on Prantic’s Youtube channel.

Tutorial: Make a Procedural Ice Texture

The texture may or may not look like this

All right, here’s the deal.  I’ve gone ahead and made the texture, along with tutorial video, on my other computer (the one without internet) and I can’t transfer it over here in order to upload.  Quite a long story.

At the moment this is a placeholder (sorry!) but I’ll get this updated as soon as humanly and computerly possible.  I may even sit and write a transcript with screenshots to go alongside it.

This texture can be applied to just about any object, and with minimal tweaking you’ll be able to slide it into any scene that calls for ice sculptures.  I’ve made and used it before, and really couldn’t be happier with the result.  Rather than just copying the old texture, I decided to go through it properly in tutorial form.  Hope you’ll find it useful (when it finally gets uploaded)!

Inspiration; James Turrell

From famous glass-blowers to someone that can loosely be described as a light artist.  In this post we’ll be looking at a completely different style of creation and what we can learn from the spirit behind it.  Last week we looked at how changing the parameters of a craft can turn it into an art form, this week we’re looking at how science and research can enable our work.

James Turrell; The light psychologist

Turrell came to art in a more round-about fashion that most; he was a student of psychology and mathematics, an approach that’s carried across into his work since.  He never sculpted or created paintings, instead he’s been using light installations to evoke emotions in his viewers on a more basic level.  He believes that by using light in certain ways you can create a space in the mind to start exploring your own sense of spirituality.

The Roden Crater in Northern Arizona houses his largest experiment.  Using the natural light he’s created different rooms in the crater in order to control how the light is perceived, with the ultimate aim being to make people feel different, powerful emotions within each one.  According to James, light, our understanding of it, and its effects on us are key to how we perceive the world.

The Allure

I’ll be the first to say that he wasn’t an obvious choice as a role model for me personally.  Looking at his art online you don’t really get a feel for what he’s trying to achieve; it was only after seeing how people viewing the rooms in person reacted that I became more interested.  Using art as a way to help people connect to themselves and the world around them is, I think, one of the things that defines great art.  If art is a conversation, then art that can connect and prompt thoughts and emotions is doing something right.

“I always felt that art was more interested in posing the question than it was in getting the answer, but I’ve come to more recently think that art is the answer.” James Turrell, interview with Egg.

Useful Lessons from a Lightsmith

There’s two things I’m choosing to take from Turrell’s approach.  The first is that science and more technical skills don’t have to be separate from art and creativity – in fact, they’re more linked than not!  Using what we’ve learned through research and ‘techie’ skills we can have greater freedom to create something wonderful.

The second is that art must have a purpose and a meaning.  Well, I guess it’s possible to have ‘art’ without either of those things being intentional… Looking at the great artists of the past and present though, are there any that didn’t have something to say?  New thoughts, new ideas, new twists, perspectives, conversations – aren’t those more important than any creative or technical ability?

How can we use this?

I propose that as a community we should be moving towards expressing ideas and truths, without restricting ourselves to purely technical or purely artistic methods.

Programmers can create incredibly beautiful things using some lines of code.  Artists can do the same using some lines on paper.  The means don’t matter.

However one question to ask yourself before creating, or maybe even after (if you’re the sort of person that likes to just pick up your things and start), is important.

What’s the point?

Inspiration: Dale Chihuly

Every profession has its heroes, and every individual in a profession has people they take inspiration from.  This is particularly important in ‘creative’ industries, though you’ll see it happening across the board.  The more aware you are of your preferences and role models the easier it’ll be to climb out of a slump when you need to.  Since I’m just starting to explore this myself, over the next few months we’ll be having a look at three artists whose work really resonates with me.  We’ll also look at how you can utilise your own heroes to launch yourself further towards your goals.

Introducing the Creator of Glass Forests

Dale Chihuly’s art takes the form of beautiful glass sculptures and installations, each exploring colour and form in new and natural ways.  He was one of the first glass-blowers to take the step from solitary work to building teams in order to create something larger and more intricate.

After studying architecture, he became fascinated with blown glass in the early to mid 1960s and has been furthering the craft/artform ever since with his installations, research, and innovations.  A lot of his influences come from his past; his mother’s gardens in Tacoma, his childhood, and his love of the sea.

When he first started out there was a huge amount of respect for his medium, which enabled him to learn from established professionals and study in the first hot glass program in the US (University of Wisconsin).

Why Dale?

The reason I find Chihuly’s work so interesting has a lot to do with my obsession with colour and contrast; through his experiments with glass he’s discovered new ways to tie his art into his environment.  Man made and natural.  Also he plays with light and dark a lot, especially in his later pieces (the Black Series in particular deals with setting the scene with darkness to show off the brighter colours and light).

Added to that is the fact that, as a person, he’s pushing the boundaries of what’s ‘acceptable’ and ‘normal’ all the time.  Through building such strong teams and creating such large pieces in glass he’s challenging the old stereotypes surrounding his medium.  Once thought of as a solitary craft, he’s shown us that it can be a collaborative art.  He’s doing what he loves because he loves it without worrying what anyone else will think.

How does this help?

I’m not a glass-blower.  I do like to create, and contrasts in life, emotion, what we see, what we hear, and so on… Delight me. I also like to be reminded that creating doesn’t have to be a solitary act.

Therefore summing up Dale Chihuly’s influence on me isn’t difficult.  By looking at his work I can see how someone else has tackled contrast in a literal sense, and from that I can start to notice subtler distinctions in my own work.  Having recognised that it’s such a huge theme for me, I’m now a lot happier to explore the bounds of that theme (and ignore them entirely when I choose).

Most important of all (perhaps) is seeing someone succeed at creating/working on something they love.

Who wouldn’t want that for themselves?

Take a look at your heroes; Who are you drawn to?  What do you like?  When I first did this exercise every artist I was fond of happened to be a digital fantasy artist.  Looking through them I eventually realised that they all had certain themes and focuses in common… one of those is contrast.

After identifying that I looked for artists in different areas using those themes.  Dale Chihuly was one of the first I came across and fell in love with (artwork, come on people).  Now I like the ‘new’ artists I found more than the older ones!

Give it a go, you might be surprised what you learn (I sure was).  Oh, and comment here too – who do you look up to in your field and why?


Chihuly’s Website and Artwork

Dale Chihuly’s Official Biography

Article about Chihuly

Practical Tips #4; Pay Attention to Time

Vancouver clock wikimedia commons

How many times have you had to re-work something that you thought clicked really well?

I’m going to assume it’s been at least once. Probably far more times than you care to really think about! In this last week alone I’ve had to change and tweak things on a project at least three times; I’ve a feeling we can all relate to that. The next few Practical Tips are going to focus on areas of planning that can help minimize repeat tasks, starting with taking time of day and season into account. You may not really think about these and still create some amazing pieces, however this series is about polishing things and making it even better. Besides, on the off chance it does become important, wouldn’t you like to know how to start?

This tip will show you how to add context to your scenes and animations by using the time and date.

It’s good, but…

There’s a city scene in your animation; one that you’re particularly proud of actually. You’ve got your lighting set up beautifully, you have wonderfully animated people in the background, your sound effects are realistic, and your camera fly-through is nothing short of an art form. Your textures even manage to work well together and approximate realism – but better!

When your project manager (or audience/client/whoever) sees it they start asking questions. Why are there people in party clothes first thing in the morning? Why are the lights on all the cars on in full sunlight? Shouldn’t the children be heading to school instead of skipping around in the middle of the park next to the old people on the benches? Didn’t the brief say ‘Monday morning’?

Your scene is beautiful; but it’s logic is so flawed that you’ll have to go and redesign parts of it. Think of the waste!

Avoiding the ‘but’

How much easier would it be if  there had been a way to plan this sort of thing before doing all that work?  Instead of redesigning parts and tweaking for a few hours, you could have been doing something more fun, or even getting a jump-start on your next task!  Your scenes would mesh together logically, you wouldn’t have avid fans (or, worse, your boss) wondering why certain things were there, and best of all your viewers would be able to appreciate your work without getting distracted.

Also, you could be secure in the knowledge that each item or piece of your scene was there for a reason; this means you could justify it if you needed to further down the line.

Prevention is better than a cure

1. Read your brief twice. If there are any mentions of time or date on it you may not notice until the second pass; if there aren’t you’ll need to dig a bit deeper to find your information. Go to the source and ask your boss or clients. Read the context of the scene too if it’s part of a larger project, sometimes this will give you more information as well.

2. Research. I can hear the groans now… Look at it this way – an hour (or less) doing research now can save you 2+ hours later. Check the background of the location, local weather, what people do at a specific time of day or season. Find out enough so you have a basic grounding in your chosen place.

3. Find ways to work it in! This is the fun part; use your research and the information you got from your brief, and come up with the most creative way to incorporate your new ideas. It doesn’t have to be anything big or particularly thorough, just show you’ve thought about it and avoid the obvious errors. (Note: don’t obsess over this. If you start to take longer making sure things are accurate than you do working on the project there’s something wrong.)


It’s worth running through these steps whenever you’re working on a big project, or you feel time might play a factor. While you might not want to use it every time it’ll lift your work when you do, and keeping it in the back of your mind will help you add an extra layer of polish.

And if things do go wrong and you have to re-do a part? You now have some idea of where to start.

Soften Your Spotlights; Quick and Easy Fix


If Alpha Maps control what you see, Lighting (done correctly) controls where you look and why.  It’s an area I’ve neglected a little bit with this blog so far, but it also happens to be my favourite part of creating a scene.  In my opinion it’s the main story-telling tool in your arsenal – you can highlight the important parts of a scene, shroud other parts, set the mood, tell the story and even change the entire feeling of the piece just by tweaking the lighting.

Today we’re going to look at Spotlight Parameters, and how you can soften the edges and make the light seem more natural.  Using the default parameters for spotlights (targeted and otherwise) will give you a very crisp, unnatural line.  There’s one parameter that will change that and make a huge difference to your scene, and that’s what we’re going to play with today.


We’re starting with a very simple scene; a sphere, a plane, and a simple target spotlight.  The spotlight has shadows enabled just to make the technique easier to see, and all the objects are textured with the same default grey material.

Changes and Alterations

To get the effect we want (ie. A softer edge on the light) go into the modify tab on the spotlight and scroll down until you see ‘Spotlight Parameters’.  Expanding that menu will show you this:

You can see that the hot spot and falloff are very close to each other by default, which is what gives the light it’s crisp edge.  All we need to do to soften it is make the Falloff field value larger.

Alternatively, you can make the hot spot smaller; so long as the distance between the two parameters grows the edge will soften.


The reason this works is because the Hotspot defines how large the brightest part of the spotlight is (much like the name would suggest), whereas the Falloff defines where the light stops shining.  If they’re close together you don’t get much time for the light to decay between the two values.  When you increase this, there’s more time for the light to ‘fade’ and it gives you a softer edge as a result.

Wrapping Up

As I mentioned in the introduction, this was just a quick pointer to help you use spotlights more effectively.  I’ll be talking about lighting more in the coming weeks, as well as my more usual texturing tricks; if there’s anything you particularly want me to talk about then please let me know!

Thanks for reading and I hope this was useful for you; let me know in the comments below.  See you Friday!