What is compositing?
VFX Compositing seamlessly integrates digital assets with live-action footage to bring together the final shot of a film or game. Compositing is the final step of the VFX pipeline. A skilled Compositor layers together various elements in a way that makes them appear to naturally belong in the same space. To give you an example: a production company shoots a background (referred to as a plate) that contains 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 layers 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 or merging worlds. In movies like 2012 and Independence Day: Resurgence, the Compositor's job was to destroy our world by mixing a bevvy of destruction assets with 3D modeled cities and live-action plates. As a Compositor, you have to be prepared to receive many unique tasks.
A day in the life of a Compositor
The daily routine of a Compositor varies depending on the type and budget of the project they are working on. Compositing research will be slightly different than that in the earlier parts of the pipeline. Compositors 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 compositing task 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, whereas 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.
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 Adobe 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. These are essential skills for a junior compositing artist to have.
Another thing you may want to experiment with to stay ahead of the pack is stitching together 360 video. You may get a job as a junior artist at a studio that does this kind of work for clients. Impress your seniors and show that you are keeping up with current trends in technology by practising this technique.
Tips to break into the VFX industry
- Build a strong portfolio
Great examples of your compositing work will help you impress prospective employers. When working on your compositing portfolio, 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. Instead, 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.
- Start networking today
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, and you can pick up essential tips and tricks the artists you are competing with for work may not know. There are also multiple conferences per year that software companies go to and are willing to answer questions at. Be proactive!
- Practise, practise, practise
It's not enough to build your portfolio pieces and forgot about it! Compositing software and tools are constantly evolving, so stay up to date with
Read more on becoming a Compositor from our mentor Brittany Piacente, who has worked at Method Studios and Deluxe as a Compositor / VFX Artist on 50+ shows including Blade Runner 2049, Vikings and three Star Wars films.
How much does a VFX Compositor make?
The average Compositor salary is about $60,960/yr (source: Glassdoor). 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, epic destruction and effects are needed for film, games, and even VR, the need for talented Compositors will continue to grow.
Learn more about working as a professional Compositor in our interview with Mill Film VFX Supervisor Genevieve Camilleri, or read about her former student, Alumni Alan Robinson's experience as a Compositor on The Irishman.
Want to learn Compositing from an industry professional?
Skilled VFX Compositors are in demand! Start your journey towards an exciting career in TV and film! Our VFX school offers beginners and advanced Compositing course taught by industry experts who have worked on films such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Amazing Spider-Man and Assassin's Creed. Enroll today!Learn VFX Compositing