3D Artist

Gleb Alexandrov Blender Interview

News & Features
Steve Holmes

We sit down with the Blender master to discuss his favourite software, his essential techniques and his upcoming lighting book

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This interview with Gleb Alexandrov first appeared in issue 92 of 3D Artist magazine. Our thanks to Gleb for taking the time to chat to us and send over some awesome imagery. Check out Gleb’s blog at www.creativeshrimp.com

3DA: When did you first start using Blender in your work?
GA: I quit my day job as a 3D modeller, and decided to make a living doing what I really wanted: weird graphics, that’s it. After some lazy weeks of doing absolutely nothing related to CG, I spotted a contest on the Render.ru website. It was called Her Majesty’s Air Fleet. Bam! I was hooked. As I love steampunk and Victorian England, I just couldn’t miss it. I used Blender, and I won that contest. Immediately I started the Creative Shrimp blog (it was called Blender Game back then). I was hyped to share my joy.

3DA: What is your lighting workflow like?
GA: I see many aspiring artists struggling with understanding what makes awesome images. I’m getting emails that say “Hi Gleb, I created this render but I feel that something’s off with it”. Honestly, I know how frustrating it feels. But here’s the good news: nine times out of ten the reason behind this frustration is lighting. As photographers say, ’without light there is no vision’. And we just tend to use lighting as a tool to make our 3D scenes pretty. That sucks because lighting is so much more than that. That’s what I’m tackling in my book The Lighting Project.

We all know and love the three-point lighting workflow. You start off by having a subject or a scene and you set up three lights to make it look appealing. First you set up the key light to reveal the shape, then you set up the fill light to illuminate the shadow areas. Lastly you set up the edge light, which is meant to separate the subject from the background and give it a cinematic touch. Cool. But you know what? Three-point lighting is not the only way to think about lighting.

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3DA: Lomography has really influenced your style, hasn’t it?
GA: The lomography movement (lomography.com) was a huge discovery for me. It gave me hot techniques and totally outlandish perspectives on lighting. And you know I try to incorporate all the weird stuff that I can find, in The Lighting Project. Weird stuff is my bread and butter.Try simulating optical defects. Start by creating a lens and placing it in front of the camera, like in the real world. Any refractive elements will work, as long as your software has ray tracing. Make it matte and see how the light is smeared across the lens. Seeing the effect in real-time (perhaps in Cycles’ real-time viewport) is the best way to do it.

Or you can imagine that every film responds to light in a different way, some films clip the whites, some wash out the blacks and some apply a tint to a mid-range. Manipulate the RGB curves to create your unique brand of film. To simulate light leaks in 3D, once again stack a few refractive planes in front of the camera. Then you can throw all kind of textures in to control the distortion, the roughness and the colour tint of the lens. You can even mix renders from different cameras, using the Overlay blending mode. Usually I do it in the Blender Compositor or I have a think about chromatic aberration, dust, scratches and grain. The film grain effect may seem unnoticeable, but believe me every small detail contributes to the final look.

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3DA: Do you think that Blender has any lighting weaknesses?
GA: No doubt, Cycles (Blender’s ray-tracing engine) is the best thing since Ton Roosendaal invented Blender itself. It covers pretty much every need of my workflow. Global illumination? Check. Interactive viewport? Check. Powerful shading system? Check. Of course, some things are lacking such as directional light support. Come on! Of course, Cycles has a sun lamp, but it would be cool if we could constrain its area of influence. With directional Light, it would be good to include or exclude an object from the illumination per light source. And the biggest problem for many Cycles users is its speed versus noise ratio. Of course when you know the tricks such as Light Clamp, Light Path and Multiple Importance Sampling it gets easier, but for newcomers the noise is a nerve-racking monster.

3DA: What are the hardest types of scenes for you to light?
GA: The deeper you go down the rabbit hole, the curiouser and curiouser it becomes as Lewis Carroll said. Digital lighting is no different. If you go beyond the three-point lighting scheme, it becomes tricky. For example, if you play with extremely high-dynamic-range lighting it is not obvious how to display it properly… The creative process of tone mapping an extremely high-dynamic range to the display colour space is where all the magic happens. The hardest part is to stop thinking in terms of light position and softness. What matters the most in such scenarios is how you set up your viewing device, be it a camera, a human eye or whatever else.