In Depth: Atmosphere and Depth

What makes that image look good? Is it the background? The details? The characters? Sure, those do make an image look nice and pleasing to look at. And it does depend on what you’re dealing with as well. If you’re presenting a 3D model, you may have nice textures, interesting shapes, nice flow… whatever it may be the image looks good based on attributes. But let’s say you’re dealing characters in a scene. So what do you do? You try to fit that character within the scenery and you follow common attributes such as lighting, perspective, color… so on. But what really adds to everything is the atmosphere. It’s the extra touch that really really kicks that image from “boring” to “amazing.”

Now, when I say atmosphere, I don’t mean just things like fog, clouds, sky, or just stuff like that. Yes, they’re atmosphere but the atmosphere I’m talking about deals with creating and giving the scene weight, meaning, and spacial context. It’s “color grading” or “color correction” as some people call it, but there’s a bit more when adding atmosphere and I want to discuss that.

So this blog post isn’t really a tutorial, but it shows what I’ve been doing for my thesis film “The Door to Tomorrow.”

Let me give you an example of what “atmosphere” is about. First, here’s a frame from my up-coming film “The Door to Tomorrow.” I received a file from my animator, Robyn Stanford, who animated the characters you see here. The background is by me.

No filtering, just straight compositing

Now some people consider this done. Not in my world. Given the background, the characters here aren’t shaded properly which makes them just float right on top of the background. Ok, the easy way to fix this is to add some form of shading. Fortunately this task is slightly easier for me given that the characters are just flat, 2D shapes in 3D space. All I have to do is add a gradient. Of course, I can go very fancy, but time doesn’t permit me. Now if you have human characters or anything else, you’ll have to work on shadows and that’s a different story. For now, we’ll just keep it simple.

Some moody shading here

So now it’s somewhat obeying the mood of the shot. The light here passes from right to left so I gave the characters a simple gradient (ramp in After Effects.) Not too bad but it needs more. Let’s add some shadows.

Very simple shadows

Now the two characters are interacting with the background a bit more. The shadows here aren’t fancy shadows, and while I would appreciate a realistic shadow, I don’t have time for that. So I came up with a quick way to produce rough shadows. I first duplicated the character layer, then using “Colorama” filter (otherwise I could have used an inverted alpha channel) and turned everything black. I then offset the layer to the left just a tad bit and added directional blu which makes it look like it’s fading by the distance. Very simple but it works in this case.

Next, I created an adjustment layer with more gradients to add further sense of lighting. The overall image looks dimmer now, but we’ll get to fixing that later.

Mood, it's very important.

This part of the film isn’t the happiest moment. Apex (the blue square) tells his friend Arc (the green circle) that he is terminally ill, given that Arc attempts to provide him some comfort. Given the weight of the moment, I felt adding the gradient helps extenuate not only the lighting, but the mood of the shot.

Ok, let’s fix the ultra dimness. Some people would stop here saying it’s “good enough” but of course it’s not! It just looks dimmer and while it does feel appropriate, it doesn’t appeal. To fix that, I added a glow.


Glow really helps. I mean it. It kicks up highlights, blends background colors with foreground colors, and it really adds that “atmosphere” to the scene.

This scene was meant to also be during a sunny, warm evening. So to give it further feeling of time, we’ll do some color grading.

Yup. I'm done here.

Now, you have a sense of time for the shot. The super yellow highlight on the right hand side of Apex does bug me a little, but it’s not such a huge issue.

So we went from just flat… to moody. I generally apply several layers of filters to accomplish the look I want. Given the full scope of the film, it’s important to note the flow and continuity of color and style. This is where color charts and schemes become very very useful. Of course, if you’re doing this independently, you may have already picked up on the style you’re going for so maybe you don’t need schemes and color charts, but you should save presets of color grading chains to help yourself save some time.

I always see people who just apply curves to give the image more contrast (or less.) That’s a good start, and depending on what you’re thinking of you may not need more. But of course, it’s also a good thing to push further and punch the look and feel for the work you’re doing.

Adding that extra touch of color is what makes the image or film powerful. We’re not just talking about “making stuff look good” we’re talking about telling the story through color, lighting, atmosphere… framing… everything.


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