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How Lighting Imparts Emotion in an Animated Scene

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Read Time: 6 mins

Lighting in animation is more than just making a scene look stunning—it's also about choosing an aesthetic that can evoke a desired style, mood, or ambience.

Lighting can be incredibly nuanced, and it's often used to give audiences a better connection to the emotional levels of the animation. Lighting can help to convey the mood and tone, depict the location, time of day, and weather, focus a particular point of interest or character to the audience, support the storytelling, and present a particular visual style. It does a lot.

In this tutorial, you'll learn how lighting in animation can help to immerse the viewer in the emotions of visual storytelling using light. You can then apply these techniques to your own animated projects, such as the one showcased below. 

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Use our free video course below to learn how we created lighting in the scene.

In this tutorial, I'll show you how lighting can enhance your animation project. I'll cover:

  • How animators approach light
  • What are the different types of lighting and how they can be used in animation
  • How to set the mood and ambience using these lighting techniques
  • How to use colour lighting

How Do Animators Approach Light?

Color Scripts

Although lighting is often one of the last elements to be added to an animation, it is important for animators to have it planned out ahead of time.

You can do this by using color scripts. A color script is a sequential visual outline of how you want to map out the color, lighting, and emotional beats in an animation or film. Color scripts are like storyboards, but with more detail when it comes to conveying tone.

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They are used to convey certain moods in specific parts of a story or to help define how particular colors are linked to certain characters. This is incredibly useful when planning your animation and helps keep the look and feel of your project consistent.

To learn more about color scripts, check out our tutorial on How to Make a Colour Script for Animation Projects.

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Surfacing

Surfacing in animation is a process used to create texture and materials. It determines how a particular object reacts to light. For example, a material such as wool will have no reflection or glossiness, while a material like metal is glossier and more reflective.

surfacingsurfacingsurfacing

Surfacing is one of the most important aspects in animation, as the way something looks is also part of telling a story and making the world more believable and immersive for the viewer. For example, if you want something to appear old, then you can increase the amount of dust, rust, and general wear and tear that an object has. If you want something to appear brand new, you can make the surface glossy and shiny. 

What Are the Different Types of Lights in Animation?

1. Spotlight

A spotlight produces a narrow cone of light in a single direction (usually no wider than 45°), with the light getting less intense the further it travels from the source and the further it is from the center of the cone. 

Spotlights are usually used to highlight certain focal features such as artwork, architectural features, or stage performers.

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2. Directional Light

A directional light (also known as an infinite light) mimics the lighting that you would get from the sun or the moon and is ideal for illuminating large open spaces.

Directional lights emit parallel light rays in a single direction, travelling out infinitely through the scene, no matter the position of the light source.

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3. Area Light

An area light emits light from a specified surface, creating soft and realistic shadows. This is often used to depict soft illumination such as fluorescent lights or windows.

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4. Point Light

A point light (also known as omni light) emits light in every direction. It doesn't have a specific size or shape like an area light, and the shadows it creates are hard with blurry edges. 

A real-world example of this type of lighting would be a bulb.

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How to Use Lighting to Create Mood and Tone

Effective lighting brings the viewer into the story. Here are some examples:

Drama

Low-key lighting is often used to achieve an atmosphere and mood that standard lighting can't convey. The style is done by using hard source lighting within a scene, increasing the contrast between the subject and the environment. The dark tones and shadows help evoke a feeling of mystery and intrigue. 

dramadramadrama

Anger

For creating anger, high-intensity lighting techniques can be used to help emphasise the expression of anger on the subject's face, boosting the emotion using dramatically harsh edges, lines, and shadow. 

Colour can also help create the mood by using red tones that are often associated with action, conflict, excitement, and passion.

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Sadness

Side-lighting techniques which direct the light source to one side of your character can help convey a feeling of sadness. 

Combine this with cold and dull color palettes such as muted blues, greens, browns, or even greys to enhance the feelings of sadness and sorrow.

sadnesssadnesssadness

Joy

If you want to convey a feeling of joy and happiness, use a nice bright lighting setup. Use soft lighting and increase the intensity to boost the glows and the feeling of positivity within the scene. This will also make your characters appear less severe, creating a smoother look and softening their edges. 

Combine this with a warm color scheme such as bright yellow and orange to convey a feeling of warmth, optimism, cheerfulness, and friendliness.

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Awesome! You're Finished!

Congratulations! And that's how lighting in an animation immerses the viewer and creates mood and ambience. Now that you're familiar with these concepts, try them out in your own animation projects. And remember, although a lot of lighting can be generated with computers, it is still important to study how light works in real life and take inspiration from the world around you.  

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In the meantime, I hope you've found this tutorial useful, and if you'd like to keep learning about colour in animation, try my recent tutorial about how to create a colour script for animation projects. I'll see you next time on Envato Tuts+!

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