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A Digital Compositor, Compositing Artist or ‘Comper’ (for short), works at the end of the VFX process to combine CGI and Digital Matte Paintings with live action plate photography. The art of VFX compositing is to make all the disparate elements, that have been created digitally or photographed practically, come together in a shot that completely fool the audience into believing that everything it sees was photographed in the scene at the same time, under the same lighting conditions, through the same lens and with the same camera.
Compositors are employed by VFX companies, animation production companies and post production facility houses, to work on feature film, television and commercials projects. As well as in VFX, Compositors also work in Motion Graphics, CGI animation or as part of a wider on-line editing and finishing role that is usually associated with short form (usually meaning commercials and music promo) work.
What is it like?
The hours can be long, especially towards ‘crunch time’, as projects get close to delivery deadlines. In feature film work, there is a pressure to consistently produce comp renders that respond to notes or client change requests made during ‘dailies’ or client review sessions.
Most VFX companies offer employment on a PAYE contract basis (this can be a rolling contract that is reviewed at the end of a ‘show’ or project). Contracts usually last between six months to a year. Bookings to work on short form projects will usually be made on a freelance, short term basis. There are also specialist recruitment agencies for short form compositing work.
In order to provide an environment where the Compositor can perceive and adjust colour variations between elements, much of the working day is spent viewing a computer/television monitor at fairly close quarters in subdued light. Seeing your finished shots on television or at the cinema can be a very rewarding experience. You work as part of a ‘crew’ and go to wrap parties to celebrate the completion of work on shows/projects like other sectors of the film and television industry.
The focus of the skills and career structure in VFX compositing is about developing an affinity and awareness of photography and a forensic attention to detail – down to balancing colour and tone, light interaction, edges, depth of field, motion blur, lens distortion, chromatic aberration and matching the noise/grain characteristics of the live action ‘filmed’ image. Compositors also need to understand how to re-build the shader or ‘beauty pass’ in CGI compositing. Compositors also need to understand CGI deep image compositing and are increasingly involved in coming up with 2.5D solutions for plate re-builds and environment based work using 3D geometry, projection and camera tracking.
Working in Motion Graphics, Animation or in more of an On-Line/Finishing role is likely to involve less granularity and demand for photo realistic image properties and greater concentration on animation, design, stylised imagery (sometimes you might also end up working with a blend of graphic and photorealistic elements) and faster turnaround times.
In VFX, Compositors will ‘progress’ shots over time, iterating and responding to the direction of VFX Supervisors/Comp Leads and/or on smaller projects – the filmmakers themselves. Different software use often delineates different types of compositing (Motion Graphics, Animation, VFX in commercials and/or feature film), but this isn’t always the case. It’s probably wise to delineate compositing work according to whether the work requires a photo realistic treatment or a stylised one (or something in between) and the level of polish and attention to detail required to complete the VFX, graphics, short-form or animation work as opposed to, or as well as, being interested in the software used to complete the job.
Motion Graphics or Animation compositing usually involves animating and layering elements following a storyboard, Photoshop style guide or design brief. The elements can be images that the Compositor has sourced themselves and, although there are occasions when a VFX Compositor may choose effects elements such as rain, snow, dust and smoke from an effects library and art direct their placement in their comp themselves, VFX compositing work tends to be more ‘directed’ and iterated than Animation and Motion Graphics compositing where artists may have more say in the look of the final image.
The level of detail and skill required to work in VFX compositing is sometimes misunderstood in education and it is a popular misconception in animation and design courses that compositing takes proportionately much less time than other 3D/CGI/animation tasks and that it is limited to the technical task of re-combining CGI passes and placing them unadjusted into a live action scene. There is actually a far bigger skillset in the VFX compositing job, which can be taught.
In terms of artist roles, the structure of the VFX process (pipeline) has always been split into 2D (compositing) and 3D (creating CGI elements). The 2D/compositing career path is established as leading from roto, prep and into junior level, mid level and senior level roles. There are a lot of technique and craft skills to learn for the job. More people go into motion graphics and animation compositing, unaware of how the VFX industry is organised and not understanding that there is a skills shortage in VFX compositing for people with the right skills, whereas jobs in Animation and Motion Graphics jobs can often be over subscribed.
• Blue/green screen extractions
• Seamless integration of live action, miniature and CGI sources
• Follow production methodologies and develop creative approaches and problem solving
• A knowledge and interest in photography and practical lighting is helpful
• Knowledge of the relevant software (see below)
• A strong eye for detail and precision
• High level of personal quality assurance
• Able to work well under pressure
• Ability to communicate with colleagues and work well as part of a team
• Able to take direction and feedback well from Comp Leads and VFX Supervisors
• Enthusiasm to learn and develop professionally
Nuke is the industry standard for VFX compositing. After Effects is used in Motion Graphics and some Animation compositing. Flame, Smoke and Nuke Studio are used to combine compositing with on-lining, grading and finishing for short form and commercials work.
You can still get into 2D VFX by starting at some VFX companies as a Runner. You will need to complete roto training shots in between your runner shifts. Candidates who may have studied media, media production, media technology, graphic design, photography or similar university or college courses who come across as personable, keen and eager to learn can work their way into roto via the runner route. New entrants coming from VFX courses with a good junior VFX showreel, and demonstrating skill in matchmoving, modelling, texturing, lighting, prep, roto and basic comp, can choose to go into either roto or matchmoving departments, depending on whether they want a career in 2D or 3D VFX.
Currently, in the UK, there are still few higher education courses that teach VFX compositing properly and to the right level. The prerequisite skills in VFX comp involve rotoscoping, keying, match grading, tracking, edge matching, adding light interaction effects between layers or elements, and adding lens and camera attributes such as exposure, distortion, depth of field, motion blur, and grain particularly onto CGI elements. The VFX Compositor needs also to think about how the process of art direction and a clients/VFX Supervisors revisions can be implemented quickly and efficiently into a comp set-up – keeping aware of the ‘bid days’ allocated to a shot (these act a guide as to how long work is expected to take). Communication between the Compositor and Producer and/or Production Coordinator on how long things are taking is crucially important, especially as the Compositor is responsible for rendering the finished shots that are then sent to the client or passed onto an Editor or onto the Digital Intermediate (DI) process.
Do your research into the best VFX and compositing/2D courses available. Look for a school/course with a decent reputation in the industry, where you’ll be surrounded by like minded people with a common goal. Look for guidance and mentoring in producing an industry standard entry level 2D showreel with – as a bare minimum – shots that show articulate roto, clean–up, some good basic keying and match grading, tracking and simple but well produced and polished photo realistic composited shots. Ask the university or training provider if their instructors/tutors have ever worked in the industry rather than just in academia. What are course graduate employment rates like? Is showreel/demo shot mentoring in place from instructors/tutors who understand the industry reference standards for VFX compositing?
Traditionally, to get into compositing, you would spend some time as a Roto/Prep Artist. You should expect to spend a year or so in roto then move gradually into increasingly more complex prep work until after around three years working you will naturally blur the gap between roto/prep and junior comp.
A good solid Roto/Prep Artist with a number of shows under his or her belt, and shots on a showreel, is essentially a Junior Compositor in VFX. Being time served is important – compositing is a craft based discipline.
After an appraisal and pay review, three to seven years usually makes you a mid level compositor and upwards of seven years, and the prerequisite demo shots on your reel, you will become a Senior Compositor. Senior Compositors usually have responsibility for sequence leading, which involves mentoring more junior artists, setting up template scripts and ensuring there is consistency in all the shots in a sequence. Some Senior Compositors will eventually go on to become VFX Supervisors. In larger companies some seniors with a particular interest in, and an aptitude for, Python coding use it to streamline the output of deliverables and build tools for others to use, can become Compositing Technical Directors (CTDs).
Understanding the end of the 3D/CGI process (pipeline), in terms of the lighting and rendering of CGI passes, will also help your skills be a bit more future proof.