What is compositing?

Compositing is the final step of the VFX pipeline. A compositor layers together with the previously created elements of the film or game in order to make them appear to naturally belong in the same space. Here’s an example. The production company shot a background (referred to as a plate) that contained a building up close and a cityscape behind. The animator has animated a missile, and the effects artist has added smoke effects and an explosion with building destruction. Once this is all rendered out, the compositor will layer the missile, smoke, explosion and building destruction into the shot, using things like color correction and z-depth to bring it all together. Z-depth is basically a black and white representation of the depth of an object in a scene, and is very important in compositing 3D elements.

The compositor may be in charge of creating entire worlds. They may be in charge of merging worlds. In movies like 2012 and Independence Day: Resurgence, the job of the compositor was to destroy our world by mixing a bevy of destruction assets with 3D modeled cities and live-action plates. As a compositor, you have to be prepared to receive many unique tasks, and with experience, that preparation will come.

A day in the life of a compositor

The daily routine of a compositor will vary depending on what type of project they are working on and what budget that project has. Compositing research will be slightly different than that in the earlier parts of the pipeline. The compositor will have to think about things like finding reference examples of the expected color correction needs, how their specific shot or shots will look in reference to the entire film, if a matte painting is needed and what elements will make it up, and if any stock footage will be needed. As a compositor, you’ll also have to know the depth of field requirements and what camera/lenses were used to shoot plates before beginning a job.

Another common task involved in compositing is rotoscoping. This is essentially the drawing of outlines using the pen tool or other methods to separate an object from other elements of the scene. For example, if the scene shot has a person in it, but you need a 3D destruction element to fall behind them, you will have to rotoscope the person out of the shot to do so. In some cases, the actor will be shot on a green screen so it is easier to remove the green and add in elements around and behind them. At smaller companies, a compositor may have to do all of these tasks, where at larger companies, junior artists will generally work on rotoscoping and green screen keying duties. Keep in mind that as a compositor, you have to be flexible with tasks because every new project will result in new and unique challenges.

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How to become a compositor

Experiment with a versatile palette of projects. For example, you could gather footage and images and build out a large landscape. You could create and gather elements to build an out-of-this-world sci-fi scene. Practice digital painting in photoshop to really learn how light and shadow are portrayed in the digital space. These are just a few examples, but with some unique ideas and formal training in a compositing software like The Foundry’s Nuke, you can build up a variety of shots for your personal portfolio.

Nowadays, a small, inexpensive green screen is easy to come by. This won’t be the quality of screen used on blockbuster films, but it’s good enough to practice keying with. Pick one up and shoot a simple scene with a friend. Work on keying and replacement. Get a similar shot without the screen and use that opportunity to practice rotoscoping. As mentioned before, these are essential skills for a junior artist to have.

One other thing you may want to experiment with to stay ahead of the pack is stitching together and working with 360 video. You may end up a junior artist at a studio that gets an ask from a client for this service. Knowing how to do it will be impressive to your seniors and show that you are keeping up with current trends in technology.

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Tips to break into the industry

When working on your compositing portfolio, try to think of the types of films you want to work on. Gather assets to create similar shots from sites like Turbosquid and Textures.com, but be realistic about what you can accomplish at this stage. Many artists at this level want to composite together a blockbuster level shot, but instead, you should think about how you can show an understanding of the fundamentals of light and color and how they can be used to make the elements of a scene blend together seamlessly.

As with other VFX disciplines, there are many networking opportunities available for compositors. Whether online or in-person, meetups are always happening. Some of these events are led by guest speakers or software engineers that can give you essential tips and tricks the artists you are competing with for work may not know. There are also multiple conferences per year that these software companies go to and are willing to answer questions at.

What should my salary expectations be?

Glassdoor reports that the average compositor salary is about $60,960/yr. Other sources say compositors can make anywhere from $29,000/yr. to $110,000/yr. depending on experience, location, and industry. Senior Compositors and Compositing Leads may be able to exceed the top of that range with their years of experience and knowledge.

As more and more fantasy worlds and epic destruction and effects are needed for film, games, and even VR, the need for talented compositors will continue to grow. At CG Spectrum, you can learn all the necessary skills a compositor needs along with industry tips and tricks from seasoned mentors in our Nuke Compositing for Film and TV Course.

For more info on working as a professional compositor check out our interview with Genevieve Camilleri.

VFX Compositing Artist InterviewVFX Compositing Artist Interview


Ryan Fitzgerald

Author Ryan Fitzgerald

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