How to light your animations Pixar-style

3D artist Jack M Gilson creates daytime lighting with 4 easy steps in Unity, for a dreamily lit scene inspired by Pixar.

pixar lighting

The scene above only has a daytime lighting rig. There are no other light sources other than the sun and some extra bounce lighting

Unity has everything you need to get beautiful lighting, all it needs is a little time and patience from you. Lighting can be a time-consuming task because you have to plan your light sources, bake out the first pass, tweak the first pass and bake again. This cycle can go on for as long as you are not satisfied. But fear not! If you follow these tips and give your game some serious thought, I'm confident you will be on your way to creating some beautiful bakes.

Firstly, decide what you are lighting. Great bakes require bright milky textures to really get a good bounce going and some decent colour tones that your lights will complement. It's a good idea to test your palette against the colour values you wish to use for the lighting.

pixar lighting 2

Secondly, turn your attention to the lights themselves. Lights are the bread and butter that give a scene atmosphere and life. Get to know your lights and the Cookie option. You can create a texture that contains an alpha channel and assign it to the Cookie variable of the light. The Cookie will be projected from the light. The Cookie's alpha mask modulates the light amount, creating light and dark spots. They are a great way of adding lots of complexity or atmosphere to a scene.

And thirdly, by default Unity will classify the light based on how much the object is affected by the light, but these default settings are not the way to go. Go in and tweak it to get the correct flavour of the scene.

01. Test your ambience

step one pixar

Once you have your models and textures loaded, drop in some lights to start to get a feel for the atmosphere. The ambient light is a tricky one and should be a dark orange colour for daytime and an almost black-blue one for night. High saturation with low brightness.

02. Atmospheric effects

pixar step 2

Unity 4 will not make great atmospheric effects for you. Instead, by adjusting a slider you need to put in a 'pop' light. In this case, a Directional light pointing down, with shadows off and a low intensity light using a bright sky colour will do the trick.

03. Use cookies

pixar step 3

Use Light Cookies to break up the rather clinical lighting Unity can produce. I create a simple dappled texture to break up the ground texture and make it more interesting, then I use lots of complementary tones to make the dappled lights more juicy-looking.

04. Make it delicious!

pixar step 4

Be sure to also boost the default Unity Lightmapping settings. I like to use three bounces and have the AO setting sitting on 0.7 Influence with a high contrast. Tweak your main Directional light by boosting its brightness and lowering the ambient light.

Expert tip: Lights have options too

pixar expert

There are extra options in the Lightmapping>Object tab. You'll see Shadow Samples and Shadow Angle (Directional lights only) or Shadow Radius (Point and Spot lights). Play with these to create soft shadows.

Words: Jack M Gilson

With over eight years’ experience in video game art, Jack is currently working on next-generation mobile games in Berlin. This article first appeared in issue 191 of 3D World magazine.

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