A note just to clarify: this article is about high-end 2d/3d compositing for long form media such as films, where the goal is to make the work seamless, integrated and invisible. Not to be confused with compositing for motion graphics, where the objective is to make the object or design stand out and be visible to the viewer.
Most people, when I tell them what I do, don't even realize compositing is an actual job and it can be a very rewarding and a decent paying job, at that. So, if you're one of those people that thought being a 3D animator would be the coolest job on the planet, read on and hopefully what I say will inspire you to consider compositing as your career.
What is compositing?
Compositing can be best described as the manipulated combination of at least two source images to produce an integrated result. (For an online dictionary of commonly used 2d/3d terms, and for an explanation of terms I will use in this article, please click here.
Another way to think of compositing would be as the process of combining multiple footage layers or elements to make them appear as if they were shot with the same camera, at the same time. All elements married together and belonging in the environment. The environment, in compositing terms, is considered the background or BG Plate and is typically live action footage. Examples of image elements that can go into a composite are: BG plate (live action photography), blue/green screens, CGI (computer generated imagery) characters and objects, practicals, miniature models, matte paintings, text, etc.
Compositing 3D elements. Stuart Little 2 was an exceptional body of work by dozens of artists working together to make Stuart's adventure a believable one. This shot consists of compositing computer generated characters and a CG airplane into a live action photography background. A dull sky was also re-placed with a more scenic blue sky with clouds during the compositing stage.
A compositor's role
Every facility is different, but they are all similar in that the compositing is at the end of the digital pipeline, meaning you are one of the last members of the team to touch the shot before it gets recorded to film. Also, compositors are generally the last to get hired and the last to get released from a project as well.
The compositor's job is an important one. I always like to use the analogy that the compositor is the equivalent to a sound mixer or recording engineer of a recording studio. As a recording engineer is technically responsible for weaving all of the different pieces of music together, so that they make sense to the ear, the compositor is responsible for weaving all of the pieces of visuals together so that they make sense to the eye.
What skills are needed to become a compositor?
1) Become a problem solver.
Probably the most important skill you can possess, and I can't emphasize this enough, is the ability to problem solve and be resourceful. Often times on a project, image elements are assigned to you that don't fit together at all and it's the compositor's responsibility to make them seamless and believable when they are composited. Elements might come to you in a different color space, resolution, or format than what you are presently working in, and you have to make adjustments as needed. Objects may need to be rotoscoped or painted out of a shot, which in a smaller facility, where you are more of a generalist, you would be responsible for doing this. In a larger facility, the roles are more specialized and you would most likely be compositing only.
Over the years, I've had a lot of nightmare shots to work on. But, I always looked at a difficult composite as a healthy challenge and was very gratified when I was able to pull it off. I remember one green screen sequence we worked on from Michael Mann's film, Heat, where Robert Deniro was shot in the chest (I hope everyone has seen it so I'm not giving anything away) by Al Pacino's character. There was a problem because the green screen was too small and didn't extend to the edge of the frame. Deniro's squib (the packet of liquid and matter that resembles blood and tissue) under his shirt had a mind of its own and blew the blood material clear across frame into the area that was not backed by the green screen.
Green and blue screen compositing has been a staple of the visual effects industry for many years. Here, Robert Deniro's character meets his maker in 1995's Heat, where the airport background was composited behind him. (An example of 'hidden' compositing to support the story and also to save costs and avoid expensive location shooting)
With no green screen, we were forced to use other keying methods, including difference matting and luma keying, to provide enough separation to give us the matte we were looking for. Even though a minor problem, that is one example of the types of issues a compositor faces on a daily basis. Where a supervisor or director just tells you to fix it and it's up to you to figure out how.
2) Train your eye
If you are the type of person that has a knack and a passion for painting, photography and other 2D fine arts, then you will probably make a good compositor. Like a painter painting a landscape, a compositor typically works from the back and then forward. He/she also has to be familiar with things like camera movement (matching it or stabilizing it), depth-of-field shifts, lighting, shadows, keying, color (grading and matching), contrast, atmospheric perspective, (objects closer to camera have more contrast than objects in the distance, where blacks appear more gray), composition, key-framing and animation, motion blur, grain, etc.
Compositors are experts at mimicking the world around us. Casually take a moment to observe your environment, ie: how transparent a reflection is on a car windshield, or how a sun casts a warm orangey hue on everything as it sets, or how the trees that whiz by you while driving in your car are motion blurred, but the car beside you, going the same rate of speed as you, is not motion blurred.
Pros and cons of being a compositor
High-end compositing, on the caliber I am talking about, is more abundant in bigger markets like LA, NYC, London, the San Francisco area, etc. There are exceptions of course, but if you don't mind city life, than this career pursuit may be for you.
This is a project driven business and you always have to be networking and looking for the next opportunity in case the company you're at hits a slow period and has to lay you off. Earlier in my career, I personally liked having a couple of months off during the year because it allowed me time to pursue my creative hobbies and travel. As I get older and want to settle down and raise a family though, freelancing doesn't appeal to me that much any more.
The work, pay and hours
It's very easy to get hooked into this line of work and not want to get out. In fact, the work was the only reason that's kept me in it for so long. It is very rewarding to know that you've contributed to the telling of a story. To me, the digital effects I like working on the most are for dramas, where the compositing is used to support the story (The English Patient) versus an effects driven film (The Phantom Menace).
Sure, the pay can be good, but only after you've paid your dues and earned a demo reel and reputation to merit it. If you are curious about pay rates, click here.
Most digital effects companies are non-union, however, and their rates tend to vary. There are many factors that determine pay, including:
- Specific type of job (ie, compositor, modeler, animator, TD)
- Physical location of job
- Industry of job (games, film, industrial design, internet)
- Job requirements
When in full production, a ten hour day is typical for a compositor. More overtime is necessary as deadlines approach and be sure to expect a lot of them. So, you see it can really take a big chunk of time out of your life. Because this career can be so demanding of you, it's ever so important to go into it for the right reasons. Do it because you're passionate about it.
Training and software
Find a school that offers well rounded, practical based training in high-end digital effects compositing. There are plenty of schools that teach After Effects, but that program won't cut it if your goal is to work in features. Software like Apple Shake or Eyeon Digital Fusion both have interfaces, workflows and toolsets that are better suited for this type of work.
The node based compositing found in these two programs really is a time saver once you get used to it and that means a quicker turn-around time for completion of your work. Discreet products like Combustion, upon hearing feedback from its users, implemented a schematic view that closely resembles the procedural node based work flow that is so popular with these other applications.
Apple's Shake interface. Node based compositing is very intuitive, time saving and is a favorite among compositors. Shake is the software of choice for feature film compositing and is taught at many film, video and computer graphics animation schools worldwide
A school should have:
- A good reputation and be passionate about training you.
- A faculty of instructors who have a history of working in the field and the practical experience and knowledge to share with you.
- A computer lab and lab time to collaborate with your classmates, to solve problems and to work and render your projects.
- The tools you need to create a demo reel. A demo reel is absolutely essential to getting work.
- Course offerings in fine arts, computer graphics principles and the softwares used currently in the industry.
- Click here to see a list of schools in this country and worldwide that offer compositing training.
People have asked me, Why can't I just take a Shake class? My response is always, Unless you are experienced, you need more of a foundation built before you add a software to your arsenal. It's one thing to know where the buttons are, but it's another thing to be a good compositor. It is this blending of art and technology that should be an important factor in deciding on which school to go to.
If you are serious about a career in visual and digital effects, I would recommend attending a school like the Gnomon School of Visual Effects in Hollywood. They offer analog (traditional) art classes and digital classes using the tools in demand by the industry today. Students from all over the world and the country go there, because it has such a strong curriculum. Most importantly, they expose you to what it's like working as part of a team on a real-world production. You work with fellow students who are studying to be lighters, modelers, animators, texture artists. The ability to collaborate and iron out problems as a unit are very important attributes companies look for.
The demo reel is your calling card
The contributions you make on your class projects can be used to create your first demo reel. Don't think it is a waste of time if you only have a few shots at the student level. In fact, to ease any unnecessary fears, in the compositing class I used to teach, I would show students my first demo reel (which only had a couple of unremarkable composite shots on it) and then show them my most recent, which has about fifty shots on it from several motion pictures I've worked on. You have to start somewhere and recruiters know this, so don't be afraid to put a reel together. I've seen enough outstanding work from students to know that if you are a gifted student, you will become a gifted compositor. And always remember to submit a demo reel breakdown with your reel that explains the work you did on each shot, preferably with thumbnail stills to make it easy for people to understand.
By the way, these compositing techniques and tools that I've mentioned are not only limited to use in films, but they can also be applied to video and games production as well.