The Look of Storytelling

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Jon Meier is the Look Development and Lighting Supervisor at Tau Films where he oversees the work of a global team of artists for feature films and themed entertainment. Jon has supervised lighting and environments on award-winning feature films, such as, Life of Pi (2012) and Happy Feet (2006) at Rhythm & Hues (R&H) Studios. Most recently, he was a Senior Technical Director at Sony Pictures Imageworks (SPI) on Hotel Transylvania 2 (2015) and Set Visualization and Lighting Technical Director at MPC for the feature film, Jungle Book (2016). Jon is also Lighting and Look Development Faculty at John Hughes Institute (JHI).

Could you talk about your work as the Set Visualization and Lighting TD on the recent release of Jungle Book?

Jungle Book was unique as visual effects (VFX) movie, especially for Disney. Rob Legato was the VFX supervisor and we shot Jungle Book in a very similar way that Avatar (2009) was shot. It was almost entirely shot in green screen sets. So we pre-visualized all of the sets and then pre-visualized all of the lighting before we went to shoot.

Digital Domain did a video game version of the entire movie complete with motion capture and stand-in actors. MPC took that data and we prettied it up. For example, we took card trees and created trees with geometry and we lit them with comments and feedback from the Director of Photography (DP). We would render out what we called “bubbles” which were 360-degree views from all the locations of the set. That would enable the Director, Jon Favreau, to be anywhere on set and just rotate around his iPad and see what the rest of the set looked like. This method gave the Director and the DP lighting cues for say, a giant rock face, and that it should have bounce light on it.


Jungle Book (2016). © Walt Disney Pictures

Concurrently, they had a really wonderful concept design department that was doing stills of every sequence. So, every sequence had these beautiful paintings to give you the mood, the shapes, and the curves of what it should look like.

What are some of the advancements that you are seeing in the visualization process?

I think the productions that are trying to create the best possible outcome are integrating visual effects into pre-production rather than post. Additionally motion capture is being widely used now and that it’s taking the place of the camera.

In terms of lighting, the renderers are now physically based renderers. Most houses use Arnold, Renderman, or V-Ray or some variant of that. Ten years ago, each renderer would look different. But now, we are modelling the surfaces so well that it might not matter what renderer you use for the look. It matters what we can do with the renderer as in, with its architecture. Now you can set up a light that physically models the set lighting that the DP brought to the stage. It has come to the stage where you can light — almost in real time —  a version of what a DP would be doing with a gaffer on set.

I think that painting and drawing skills, while not directly related to CGI,  help in all forms of composing a frame.

Are the lines between all CGI-animation and live action/VFX projects getting blurred?

Completely. I think a movie like Gravity (2013) is a good example of that. I look at Gravity as an animated film whereas we have almost pasted in photographs of actors in spacesuits. Essentially, it was produced as if it were an animated film. It was animated before it was shot. The production knew what every shot would look like before they went to the shooting stage.

What role does Look dev and Lighting have to play in the virtual set?

I think that Lighting is connected between pre-viz and post-viz. But, generally, the assets for Look Dev, they are scrapped and redone. The reason for that is the assets used in pre-viz are quick and dirty and you just need to get a fast iteration without spending too much time and money. The slow down in post and Look Dev is that you need to get it right — you need to get it scientifically accurate. So that is a different workflow.

Over the years you have supported a variety of roles in the VFX pipeline. What made you settle for Lighting and Look Dev?

I always wanted to do lighting and environments. I guess the original Tron (1982) got me into the idea of CGI. You could build this environment that doesn’t actually exist and make it believable in the imagination of the audience. That set free my ambitions to get into CGI. I started doing CGI environments in high school, like terrain, etc., as a way to appease the need to create a place that doesn’t exist. I think that, for me, Tron was a new art form — a new tool set to express your ideas with.

Tron(1982). © Walt Disney Pictures

So, I always wanted to created CG lighting and environments, not only to create a place, but a mood for that place. In VFX studios, Lighting and Environments, was always a difficult department to get into and so, I started with Matchmove. It really helped me with sets because with Matchmove, you have to build the set, the geometry, or capture and then you become intimately knowledgeable with where all the lights are because you have tracked the shot – you are familiar with the 3-D landscape.

You are currently working with global teams of artists. What kinds of traits do you look for when you get to pick a member of your team from a global pool?

Now, I don’t usually get much of a pick but the number one traits that I think are useful are people who make decisions. If I can see that you made a decision then I know that you are going to eventually make good ones even though they are not bad decision. If you chose to make a decision, this or that, instead of waiting for somebody to tell you, then I know that you are going to be a good leader. Growing your team as a whole depends on having leaders along the entire hierarchy. Everybody has to have a leadership skill — it’s the only way that you can grow upward. You have to fail a lot of times before you can succeed. People who make decisions constantly — even if they are bad ones — are the easiest to work with because they are faster to make something look good.

If they are still in school, what kind of skill-sets should they develop?

I think that painting and drawing skills, while not directly related to CGI,  help in all forms of composing a frame. Knowing how things work — when you are drawing a chrome wheel with a graphite pencil, you are learning the physics as you are doing that. You are watching how light bounces and you are seeing how the universe actually works. That comes really strongly into play when you are trying to figure out what’s weird with your shot.

- Interview by Shish Aikat

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