Lighting Club #11 – BlueSky // TDU

Hullo everybody !

New article, and once more, incredible talent ! This time, Michael Tanzillo shared with us his experience. He is senior lighting td at BlueSky studio and in the meantime co-founder of TDU – Lighting Online School. ( TDU is an lighting online school with a lot of different courses available as for example :

  • Character Lighting For Animated Films
  • Environment Lighting For Animated Films
  • Compositing for Lighting Artist
  • Materials and Shaders for Lighting Artist 

And much more ! You can as well subscribe for TDU Challenges : TDU provides you some asset/maya scenes all set to be lookdev and/or light. Which is a good point for lighting td to focus only  on lighting or lookdev instead of modelling a huge environment before to be able to start a lighting. The courses done by Michael himself or by Jasmine Katatikarn are accessible from anywhere in the world and can be accessed at any time so you can learn on your schedule.

Michael worked on worldwide known animation project such as Peanuts, Ice Age, Rio and more… He is currently working on the latest BluSky project : Spies in Disguise. The trailer – if you missed it, have a look – seems to show awesome lighting moods for a funny and original story, but let’s talk about it with him !

Hullo Michael ! Thanks for answering our questions, first, tell us more about you.

My name is Michael Tanzillo. Currently, I am a Senior Lighting Artist at Blue Sky Studios. I’ve worked here for the last 11 years and am currently lighting on my 10th feature film, Spies in Disguise.  In 2012, Jasmine Katatikarn and I launched TDU. TDU is an online school focused on training upcoming artists in the world of VFX and Animation. Our courses currently focus on lighting but we plan on extending our courses into other fields soon.

How Bluesky approach the lighting in your opinion ? Do you work with a physically accurate vision or more artistic one ?

Our render is a physically-accurate renderrer but our vision and focus are purely artistic. Each of our films has a unique style and the lighting plays a huge part in determining that artistic vision.

At what point colorscript are present for lighting TD at Blue Sky ? Is there a Director of the Photography that have a global view of lighting on the whole project ?

The Lighting Lead is presented the color script when first starting a sequence. These are paintings and sketches created by our Art Department and Art Director to establish the overall look of the sequence. And although the final look will grow and develop during the lighting process, this concept work will provide a foundation or to begin to form the final look of the film.

What softwares are you using at BlueSky ?

We currently use a proprietary renderer called CGI Studio. This is the renderer we have used for all of our films. We will be transitioning to a new renderer in the future, but that is what we are currently using for Spies in Disguise.  For compositing, we use Nuke.

You are currently working on Spies In Disguise, which will be released in december, could you talk a bit about it ? What kind of lighting challenges represent the show ?

I can’t speak too much about a film that is currently in production, but I can tell you it’s a lot of fun! The main character is a super spy so there are lots of action sequences with explosions, and police lights and cool gadgets with lots of glowing elements. It makes lighting fun!

You also worked on Peanuts, which was a project with a strong artist direction, and that influence obviously the lighting, could you talk about it ? How do the lighting team proceed to manage this 2D/3D aspect ?

Peanuts may have looked simple but it was one of the most difficult productions I’ve ever worked on. There was such a specific look that needed to be met for every character and set piece. If you go back and watch it, I want you to pay attention to a few things.

  1. Notice the visual shaping on all the characters. Not just their faces. Pay attention to the shirt, their pants, their shoes…every element of every character in every shot needed to be meticulously lit and shaped. 
  2. Take a look at the winter sequences with Snoopy. Such a difficult balance to get a white dog to pop off from a snow-covered background. Neither the snow nor Snoopy could get too dark because they would look dirty but we needed to constantly balance very subtle hues and values to get him to separate from the snow. 
  3. Watch the character’s eye dings. We were so particular to have them in the exact right position in every frame. In many many cases those were hand-animated by the lighting and/or compositing artists.

You created TDU for now almost 7 years, which is a lighting on-line school. Could you explain to us a bit why and how you decided to create it ?

Jasmine and I went on some recruiting trips with our company and we discovered something about the students at all the colleges and universities. They were not learning the proper skills and did not have good enough demo reels to compete for jobs in the industry.  They were all so focused on learning the software and they all completely ignored the artistic craft…which is the thing that matters! Plus, we knew they were dropping tens of thousands of dollars on an education that was not properly preparing them for the job. So we decided to create a school that was focused on teaching the artistic craft of lighting. That was affordable and accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world. That not only provided you with knowledge, but will assets and models you could use to light and showcase your skills. A place where we could provide feedback and critique to artists so that their work and their demo reels would be good enough to compete for the best jobs in the industry.

What is the main goal of TDU ? Is it only for people starting in the industry or could it be as well for professional already in a lighting department for example ?

We are working to be the place where everyone can go for all their lighting needs. We have courses designed to get new artists trained up to compete for lighting jobs. We also have technical workshops in software like Arnold, Redshift, and others that are crucial for anyone looking to stay current in this rapidly changing industry.

Working at BlueSky is a dream for a lot of lighting artists and CGI students, do you have advices for both lighting artist and for students ?

Focus on artistic craft. We do not care what software you use to render/comp something. We only care if you have the artistic eye and expertise over the craft to make a beautiful, polished final image.

At TDU, we always tell our students to focus on these three things.

  1. Sculpt visual shaping in every object and surface
  2. Direct the viewer’s eye to the most important elements of the image
  3. Use your lighting to enhance the mood or emotion in the scene

If you nail all 3 of those, you are all set.

In your opinion, is it possible for someone working in VFX industry to go directly in Animation industry, and thus in some studio such at BlueSky ? Or working in more familial studio is a obligatory passage before to pretend for big structure as BlueSky ?

Absolutely. We have definitely had artists make the leap from VFX directly into Animation. You just need to have a strong reel with core artistic fundamentals to build from.

Thanks for answering our questions Michael, and welcome in the Lighting Club ! A last word ? 

If anyone would like to reach out to me directly, feel feel to contact me through my website


Okay so now you have no more excuses to be a good lighting td, your can try TDU course ! why not ? 

We hope that you enjoyed the interview, once again feel free to share it with your friend and to talk about the Lighting Club with your colleagues 🙂




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