How to become a feature film compositor

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Mar 31, 2005

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Have you ever wanted to contribute to building a twenty thousand man army in �Troy�, make a mouse fly a plane in �Stuart Little 2�, or launch a doomed luxury liner in �Titanic?�  You can achieve visual feats you never dreamed possible and accomplish them all through the magic of compositing.
 
Introduction
 
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 see:  www.highend2d.com/rosetta/)
 
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 expensivelocation 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.

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