Lighting challenges in episodic animation: the wonders of automation

As a lighting artist, we know how rewarding working in episodic animation is—the moods you manage to change, the beauty lighting that makes your characters’ personalities come alive, the small but still noticeable details of background sets. We also know the challenges that come along when working on an episodic animation project, making you the Everest-climbers of the pipeline.

In our first article of the ‘Lighting Challenges in Episodic Animation’ series we’ve talked about numbers: the large number of shots you need to complete whilst working on an episodic animation project and, consequently, the number of repetitive tasks that will arise. We put together some tips and tricks that can help you optimize your workflow and shed light on some of Katana’s Lighting Tools that can help you save time. 

This time, we’ll continue to speak about numbers but from a different perspective. And no, we’re not confusing lighting with accounting. We’ll expand on how you can save time and we’ll also discover ways of efficiently—and quickly—communicating with other artists and departments. Then we’ll uncover two key practical tricks that can help you to work smarter.

Let’s dive right into it and find out together how we can solve the apparently-sisyphean challenges that episodic animation brings.

Lightning McKatana

For lighting artists in episodic animation—and in general-—one of the greatest challenges is time management. It is a common practice for lighting artists to have to work overtime after all the other departments have updated the assets. Because of the pipeline queue, lighting artists often have to wait before actually loading, taking action based on the feedback and ultimately getting the work done. So how can you get home earlier and still deliver qualitative results?

The working arrangements have been altered in the past couple of years due to the pandemic and many studios have chosen hybrid or remote ways of working. Whilst we can’t use the literal sense of ‘going home earlier’ here, the issue still stands: the dead time caused by updating assets from earlier departments in the pipeline. Wouldn't it be great if that dead time could just go away? No more additional work at 6 PM on a Friday when all those departments publish their finished work and go home, and you are stuck updating your projects to integrate them with the latest lighting.The good news is that Katana, Foundry’s lighting tool supports you in being more efficient and working smarter.

With Katana, you are able to load very complex scenes at near instantaneous speed. This is done through the deferred load process, a feature that distinguishes Katana from other lighting tools by loading only the necessary lightweight files and not the whole asset. The node-based workflow stands at the roots of our lighting software as each node keeps the relevant and specific information about what it does such as where it attempts to retrieve data from or the ways it modifies existing data. If you have more than one shot that you need to work on, it’s not necessary to open up individual projects as lots of shots can be inside the same project and, with deferred loading, all the assets (static models, animation, FX etc.) only get loaded when you tell it to. Therefore, having over 200 shots in a single project loads about as fast as a single shot! Basically, thanks to this type of workflow, you are able to save time. 

Templates or, to put it simply, recipes for something that we want to accomplish, are also a great way of making full use of Katana. They work wonders if you want to save more time as they are a great support in automating redundant tasks. They’re also helpful from an organizational point of view as they help us to create standard procedures. 

Katana Recipe

It’s true that you don’t always need to follow the recipe entirely as it can have its own variations but, just like in episodic animation, there will always be specific repetitive actions you need to take in order to accomplish the task of “making that cake’’. A specific action represents a step of the template such as the render settings or asset injections or any other crucial part that you need in order to create a render. Every ingredient of the recipe is a node that has a specific task to modify something in order to change the final result of the render. 

Now that you’ve seen the great use you can make of templating, why not level up your newly-learned ways of saving time? We can safely assume that any problems you may encounter along the way will often arise again, especially when it comes to episodic animation projects where repetitiveness is the chorus. Katana has Macros—an amazing feature that allows you to ‘package up’ your solved problem. You can then refer back to it later when you encounter a similar problem and follow the same particular workflow to solve it. By definition, Macros are nodes that wrap any single node, or group of nodes, which can be published so that their state is saved so they can be recalled in other projects. 

Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could also save time collectively? Sharing is caring and, with Katana’s LiveGroups, you can share. These LiveGroups allow you to work alongside other artists at the same time, making it easy to work on the same scene in parallel. We’ve mentioned before that our lighting tool is node-based, therefore you are able to share nodes between show, sequence, and shot levels. You can use LiveGroups to either collaboratively work within your team or across the other departments, the choice is yours.

The list principle

We’ve been talking about the wonders of Katana but we think it’s only fair to share some tips and tricks that you can use no matter what lighting tool you work with to help you save time. One vital step in learning how to work quicker and smarter is realizing which aspects of a shot you will be revisiting in other shots too. You can start making a mental list but we’ll give you the first two.

The first item on your list can be set dressing. The previous article of the series covered how we can light the set once and then reuse it in multiple shots whenever needed. But, since we’re talking about episodic animation, we can also reuse some of its certain details linked to set dressing. Set dressing is pivotal in setting the mood by choosing the right colors and textures, and placing the proper lighting that convey, through the power of the mise-en-place entirely, the message behind the specific sequence. You can take elements from the set dressing of a particular environment and reuse them in a different setting. For example, you can take a chandelier, a candle, or a lamp from a bedroom sequence and use it again in a hallway sequence. The results: you’ve managed to save time and you’ve kept the consistency of the set dressing in the bigger picture—not just in one room but in the whole house where the action takes place.

Katana Chandelier

Second of all, you could be able to take a shortcut on the render time highway by making use of animated gobos. Let’s take the very well-known example of reflecting the sun on the water and you want that effect to be visible while the water is passing under the bridge. Of course, you could trust the lighting algorithms or a renderer to deal with this light interaction but it takes a lot of time and it might be problematic in the context of a limited budget. So why not use an animated gobo instead? Simply take an animated texture that resembles that beautiful ripple effect and shine it on the underside of the bridge. This way you don’t have to deal with the complications of light interactions and save valuable render time that can rather be spent focusing on what matters most: the beauty of lighting.

It’s all about artistic arithmetic

So there you have it, you should now be an expert on all things numbers while working on episodic animation projects. Or, better said, trying to cut down those numbers, be it the number of shots you have to go through or the number of hours you can save by using Katana’s features such as Macros, Templates or LiveGroups. Our goal is to offer you solutions, tips and tricks, or just suggestions that will support your creative process so you can keep on creating impactful, inspirational, and beautiful episodic animation shows that we can all enjoy.

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