Hi there, my name is Ian Vicknair and I am a Matte Painter at ScanlineVFX. In this article you will learn how to create stunning God Rays in your work.
God Rays are created when small patches of light pierce through gaps in the clouds and create strands of light in the sky. We we refer to them as "God Rays" due to the heavenly image that they present.
It's kind of like if you're in a dark room with a piece of paper and you poke holes in that paper and shine light on it. We won't see the full beam from the light source but rather broken up pieces. God Rays are more often seen in Photography than in reality and this is because God Rays are absolutely everywhere and so we can miss them in real life. Sometimes we were standing in between them or passing through them and missed them as a result.
God rays are one of the unique aspects of reality that many artists overlook, especially in landscape and aerial artworks. It's not something that shouldn’t be overused, but rather created and added in the right way. To understand this we first need to know how God Rays affect the perceived world with their lighting.
“To understand how to make something; we must first study an example”
In the reference GIF below, we can study everything we need to know about these light rays. Foremost, we can see how the light rays differ with depth. Rays that are closer to the foreground are harsher and more contrasting than those in the background. Also, as light passes between the mountain ranges it helps to increase the separation of the mountains giving us a sense of depth and dimension.
Notice the intensity of the light is based on how big the hole in the cloud is and the density of the clouds that the light passes through. Smaller clouds with more holes between them creates smaller and thinner beams of light compacted together. Whereas a larger hole with denser clouds would form a larger more singular and wider light path.
Another key aspect of God Rays is the way the light illuminates the ground it is hitting. In the GIF reference above we can see on the ground, a small moment where there is intense light in the mid ground valley and it moves forward as the clouds move and then disappears because the clouds have changed.
If you look to the mountains on the far right, there are clouds directly above them with a second layer of clouds on top. Notice how there are individual sections of this cloud bank which are lit up as the God Rays pass over them. This is similar to what is happening in the valley on the ground.
Composition & Dramatic Lighting
God Rays can be a unique tool to add in your artwork to help dictate compositional lighting and dramatic mood and tonality in your work. Here are a few examples:
In the above photo, we have one large hole in the middle of the sky lighting up what's right beneath it and everything outside of that is dark; almost like a vignette. We now have a focal point on where our eyes will be guided!
Similarly, in the artwork below, I added God Rays to push the overall mood and composition. Here we have the “vignette” feel because the light is only shining on half of the overall piece and we can see the direction of the light itself to form our composition.
Pro Tip: This is not something you want to go crazy with and start adding it everywhere. God Rays are meant to be subtle and directional. Make sure you have a reason for it. If there is none, don't add it. Just like many tools, it's there to enhance the story and visual aesthetics.
Let's take a look at another example. Below is a reference photo I used for the castle artwork lower down. We can see how the God Rays work in reference to the color of the light, the ambient light, the reflection in the water and depth of the photo.
I added God Rays to this piece to help push the atmosphere and dramatic mood. Notice there are no God Rays on the soldiers, leaving them in the foreground and more contrasted as a result. This helps push depth and also gives them a story point that they might be evil. The soldiers are leading our eyes to the right, while the God Rays are leading to the left. This combined with the contrast and the depth of field produces our focal point.
Now that we know this… how do we make God Rays in Photoshop?
Method 1 - Painting Godrays
This is probably the best ways to create your God Rays as you have complete control.
Select a soft brush and, using brush flow and Brush Pressure for Opacity, play with the 'flow' setting. Somewhere between 5-50% will produce interesting dynamics. Make sure that the color you use is similar to the color in the highlight or the most intense light of the clouds. Change this color as needed based on depth of field.
Pro Tip: Let each God Ray be on its own layer and keep all the layer modes on “Normal”. This will allow you to play with the God Rays within different depth of fields to have different opacities and strengths. Like in our first study image above; the God Rays in the far distance are going to be a lot softer than the God Rays in the foreground.
Method 2 - Keying & Masking
Just like any photo cutout, we can extract God Rays from images. It does take a bit of work as we would have to manually paint out elements like houses, trees, etc, but it can add even more realism to a piece if used correctly.
You can even use the alpha of the cut out and paint in where you want the God Rays. In some productions I've worked on we have decided to work this way as it can be a great way to get results quickly to pass to the compositors.
Hopefully you have learnt something in this little article and have enjoyed reading it! God Rays can definitely be a little challenging to start but once you're used to the process of creating them and integrating them into your work you'll be able to add them in no time. Just remember, keep them subtle!
~ Ian Vicknair