Maya Quick Tip: Achieving great lighting for Playblasts or Previs without a game engine

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Last modification: 11 Dec, 2018
  • Film & VFX
  • Games
  • Maya
  • Lighting
  • Lighting and Rendering
  • Rendering
  • Animation
  • Maya
Skill Level
  • Intermediate
15 min

We often get questions asking how to create great looking playblasts (or animation previews) with the quality you see in game engines like Unreal or Unity, so we put this quick video together to walk you through some useful techniques. In just a few minutes, you'll be creating Playblasts that not only look great, but also help you avoid surprises when it comes time to rendering. In this tutorial we'll be covering lighting, viewport settings and effects. You'll find a link at the end to this scene including textures, so you can try this yourself.



Whether you’re rendering using Arnold or another renderer, I'd recommend using Arnold's Uber Material Standard Surface for your playblasting efforts; it has a great implementation in Viewport 2.0 and supports some useful lighting features which we'll take advantage of here.

If you don't see your Arnold shelf, load up the plugin and look for MtoA (Maya to Arnold). If you’re working in a studio, be sure to check with your supervisor as you’ll need to load the Arnold plugin to load this scene.


1. Always have reference for a look you want to achieve. Be sure to pay attention to the brightness and color of the highlights, the quality of the shadows and the look of the atmosphere.

2. Hit the '6' key to see textures in the viewport.

If you get an error saying you've run out of GPU ram, go into the Viewport 2.0 settings and set your texture clamp to a value of 1024 or 512. If your textures don’t appear, ensure that your project is set or use the File Path Editor to repath your textures.

3. Turn lighting on by hitting 7. It’ll appear black, since there's no light in our scene.

4. Let's start with our all important key light: if you’re working on an indoor scene, this may be a window or lamp off camera. In our case, we have an exterior day shot so our key light is the sun.

5. For a sun light, I'm going to use a Maya directional light, as it gives the best result in the viewport and so I get nice parallel shadows like the sun. Note that Maya is color managed - so you can crank your lights past 1 and get nice results.

6. To get some warmth in our sunlight - turn shadows on so you can see what you're doing. If you have a really big scene, you can get tighter shadows with a spot light. You can also get nicer shadows by enabling depth map shadows, setting the resolution to the max of 4096, and a filter size of 3. If you want soft shadows, lower the resolution, but note that this can cause flicker.

7. If you’ve ever noticed that your renders and viewport look washed out and need to be contrasted in post, remember that the standard "linear workflow" SRGB gamma setup is only an approximation of how light and surface color reacts. If you are working in a studio pipeline, there is likely already be a policy about this, so be sure to ask your lighting department to preview the color setup. If you're on your own, the sky's limit; open up your prefs, and choose acesCG as your working space and aces RRT 1.0 as your display transform.

This doesn't mean you can take an existing scene and make this switch and see an improvement; this will change the way your lighting reacts, so it's best to do before you begin. You’ll notice that everything looks a lot more natural and colors saturate in more realistic way which is great especially for cartoons. You may find that fully saturated colors really pop, so pull them back a bit if needed.

8. With just a keylight, we will have these solid black shadows that don't look very real; in the photo reference what we see here is that the shadows from the sun are filled by the light from the sky - so let's add an Arnold skydome - and let's include an HDR texture to give us more realism. There are many great sources online, or you can find a few handy ones in your Maya install folder (see video).

If you are concerned about performance, you can load your HDR image into your favorite compositing package and save out a lower resolution .HDR file, which would load faster in Maya's viewport.

9. Hide your keylight for a second to assess your skydome light. Crank it up a bit and orient it so that the sun in the HDR matches the light direction. Notice that the reflections are now visible in the viewport.

10. You’ll need the shadows from the Skydome light to get a realistic look; so enable SSAO in the viewport to emultae this. Show your key light and adjust the final.

Next you can get some back-lighting to separate our characters. Add another directional and angle it opposit the keylight to get some rimlight. Improve your sense of depth and atmosphere with some hardware fog in the viewport. This is handy because often you may not have the background so you can fog it out. On closer shots, you can dial this in to desaturate and de-contrast to create depth and focus your viewers’ attention.

11. Don't forget to check resoution gate in the viewport to confirm what is in the final frame. Disable this before playblasting if not desired in the playblast.

12. If you see some aliasing or stair stepping on the edges that don’t look good, enable MSAA (multi-sample anti-aliasing) in the viewport settings, and you can crank samples based on the capabilities of your graphics card. Set this to the highest amount. If you run out of GPU ram at this point, there are a few things you can do:

- Disable floating point render target - note that this will clamp high-lights and affect color picking results
- Lower your texture ram
- Get a better graphics card - 4gb is the minimum these days, but the more you have, the better
- Don't use MSAA, but render 4x and down-res in compositing
- Disable depth peeling transparency - it’s faster, but the quality is lower

13. Finally, you should make a playblast:

On Mac, you can use AV Foundation (H264); on Windows, it's not available so you can use a frame sequence which will give you the best quality, or another option is make an uncompressed avi and then run it through something like Handbrake to generate an mp4.

Make sure before Playblasting that you disable View Ornaments in the Playblasting settings, and turn off resolution gate in the viewport. If you're working on a laptop with a lower resolution screen, you can always use the offscreen option.

Note that you can animate with all these lighting and on; in our video, notice how Sven animates into a shadow, or the sun doesn't hit his face quite right, so we can always adjust the animation or lighting a bit to save us a re-do once this hits rendering.


All Maya 2018 scene files and textures are available to practice and follow along with. Download them here.

Be sure to set your project to the root \hsm folder before opening.

Open \hsm\sequence\BECH\BECH_0130\_publish\anim\maya\ to see the completed shot.

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  • Maya
  • Maya
  • Lighting
  • Lighting and Rendering
  • Rendering
  • Animation
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