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Learn how to shade and light a character using Cycles

In this Blender rendering tutorial for, you'll learn to shade and light a 3D character in Cycles, specifically the Clicker based on The Last of Us.

The final result! Sculpted in ZBrush, textured in Substance Painter and Rendered in Blender

Shading and lighting go hand in hand, and it's a non-linear process. The shading choices you do affects the lighting, and the lighting changes the shading. It's important to keep your workflow flexible. Always think about what makes the final shot the best it can be, instead of being too technical about your light values or shading settings. At the end of the day, we're making pretty pictures and not science.

This article as a YouTube Video

Learn how this character was textured

Check out the article below to see the texturing workflow using ZBrush, Blender and Substance 3D Painter.

How to Texture Realistic 3D Characters in Substance Painter

Scene Organization Using the Outliner

Clean Outliner. Happy Artist.

Organizing your scene is helpful as it makes it much easier to work on the shot. If the scene is messy, it's also harder for other artists to take over your Blender scene, including yourself in the future.

I prefer to add the various items to Collections:

  • Character model
  • Lights
  • Environment
  • Cameras

Goodbye Filmic, Hello AgX

While Filmic has been in Blender for years and generally produces nice results, it tends to wash out colors and desaturate your render. AgX is a replacement for Filmic and has all the benefits, while at the same time preserving your vibrant colors.

Download AgX from here.

Follow Riley Brown's brilliant YouTube video for installation instructions:

Using AgX in Blender

Render Properties - Color Management and use these settings
Use sRGB for color maps
Use Generic Data for scalar maps (disp, roughness, normal, etc)

How to Light Using Cycles in Blender

When lighting in Blender, I prefer to use Area Lights. The shadows are soft and comfortable and the lights are easy to control. Using a standard three-point-light setup is a proven technique and it works time and time again. It's important to keep the lighting simple.

Key Light: The main light source for the character. I try to usually leave either 1/4 in shadow or 1/4 in light.

Fill Light: Lights the pitch-black areas of the scene. Makes the whole scene feel softer.

Rim Light: This light separates the character from the background. It's not always needed, but can provide focus and make the shot more dramatic.

Light Blocker: A polygon plane placed in a way to block some of the light at the back of the character to provide more focus.

Experiment a lot with the lighting before settling on a final setup. If the lighting doesn't work, delete the lights and start over. It's easy to 'light yourself into a corner' and to over-complicate the scene. Most shots are fine with 1-3 lights.

The 3 different area lights turned on in order

Lighting Tip: Take all the lights and rotate them on the Z-axis to get a completely different look for your scene.

Adding color to your lights will make the shot more interesting. Even if you're going for something more sterile, adding a tiny amount of color will make the shot feel more interesting. For this project, I liked the neutral look for the lighting, but adding a bit of color helped to sell the shot.

Before you make the colors too subtle, experiment with really saturated colors for all the different lights: Key, Fill and Rim. Worst case, you wasted a few minutes and best case your shot looks more interesting.

Before You Start the Shading

Lighting affects the shading a lot, and I find it to be useful to have the lights set up before I start my shading.

A Professional VFX Workflow Note
While this works well for our shot, this isn't how you'd do it in a professional VFX workflow. We're currently shading our character for a specific lighting and camera angle, but in VFX your character needs to work from all angles and in all lights. The lighting rig for shading is completely different from the final shot lighting.

Assigning Materials

Start by assigning a Principled BSDF material to all the objects in your scene, based on the Texture Sets you used in Substance Painter.

We're using the following materials:

  • Head
  • Head Mushrooms
  • Teeth and Gums
  • Neck Mushrooms
  • Backdrop (for the background environment)

Setting up the Subsurface Scattering (SSS) Material

  1. Change the SSS method to Random Walk (Fixed Radius).
  2. Set the Subsurface to 1. This means that the entire surface is now SSS and 0% diffuse.
  3. Connect the BaseColor from Substance Painter to the Subsurface Color slot.
  4. Set the Color Space for the Base Color node to sRGB.

The SSS is far too high and to balance this, we're going to be reducing the Subsurface Radius.

  1. Add a MixRGB node.
  2. Set the Fac to 0.
  3. Pick a dark and saturated orange color.
  4. Connect it to the Subsurface Radius slot.

Control how strong you want the SSS to be by adjusting the value in the MixRGB node. We're using 0.030, but this depends entirely on your scene scale. A common mistake is to make the SSS far too strong, making the character feel like wax.

Connect the Roughness up and that's it for the head material!

We're not using any displacement or normal maps for the character since the geo is a decimated version of the highres ZBrush model. It contains all the details we need without the need for additional maps. This works well as long as the character doesn't deform. Understand what the shot needs and work based on that.

Repeat the same for the other materials. Since we were thorough in Painter, there's really not a lot to change in Blender. If I find myself doing a lot of changes to the maps in Blender, I always tend to add these changes directly to my texture maps. It makes it much easier to texture and shade in the long run as your shader networks in Blender are dead simple.

Depth of Field (DOF)

To make the render more realistic and comfortable to look at, I usually add a bit of DOF to my render. I always do this in-camera instead of in post since I find that the results usually look better.

Add an Empty and place it where you want the render to be sharp. Name it '_DOF_empty' and place it in the Camera Collection.

DOF Camera Setup for Cycles

  1. Select the render camera and go to the camera attributes (camera icon)
  2. Enable Depth of Field
  3. Set the Focus Object to the _DOF_empty we just made
  4. To change the amount of blur, change the F-Stop. Lower values = More Blur

The F-Stop value is entirely dependent on the scale of your scene. If you can't see any blur no matter how low your F-Stop goes, your scene is probably too large.

Cycles Render Settings

The best tip I have for speeding up your Cycles renders in Blender is to use GPU rendering. It makes rendering ridiculously fast. A single frame in 1920x1080 takes around 1.5 min to render without any noise. Since it's this fast, optimizing the render speed further isn't something I care about.

Make sure to not spend more time optimizing the render, than you gain back in faster render times. Spending 2 hours to shave off 30 seconds isn't worth it for still images.

Artist time is worth more than computer time.

Adding DOF introduces a significant amount of noise and you'll need to compensate by increasing the Max Samples. I set my Max Samples to a number where I know I won't have noise issues, in this case 2048. If I still have noise, I'll use the denoiser.

Final render in Blender using Cycles

And that's it!

FlippedNormals Blender Products

Henning Sanden

3D Artist and Co-Founder of FlippedNormals. Lover of creatures.

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