How to become a feature film compositor
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
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
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
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
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,
Compositing 3D elements. �Stuart Little 2� was an exceptional body of
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.