20 Steps to Becoming a Master Compositor (Part One): The First Ten Steps

This is a simple list of things that I believe makes a ‘Master’ Compositor. A Master Compositor is a person who can:

  • Create great art, both photo-realistic or otherwise.
  • Do it under the constraints of the project.
  • Lead a team of talented visual effects artists and earn their respect.
  • Command a premium for this service.

If you’re new to compositing, please read What is Compositing first.

It might be wise to assume that the road to compositing mastery is a long one – it’s a journey that takes years, not months. Here are the 20 steps to becoming a master compositor, in no particular order (you need all of them!):

Good Eyes

Get your eyes checked by a doctor. Find out what your visual acuity is, understand any deficiencies, disabilities or diseases that you might have that will not allow you to see light, motion, stereo 3D and color well.

There are a few tests online but these don’t substitute for a thorough professional opinion. Invest in this, because the first step to correcting a disability is knowing about it. Don’t let these stop you, but you can’t ignore them either.

Exercise

Your eyes, back, hands and body will be in front of a computer all day, for many hours. If you don’t exercise, you’re seriously risking your life and ability to perform. Lack of exercise will make you sluggish, and also affect your emotional well-being. Learn proper posture and eat well.

Sounds boring, but let me assure you, it doesn’t have to be as boring as roto-ing day after day. You’re not going to remain young forever. Think about this: If it takes years to become a master compositor, you’ll become a master only when you’re older. If you don’t look after your health today, you won’t be able to perform years from now.

The Basics

Do you know the difference between a TIFF file, a DNG file, an OpenEXR file and uncompressed 10-bit 4:2:2 data? How about color spaces, models and sampling? What about resolutions, data rates, frame rates, interlacing, interleaving, multiplexing, standards and so on?

Luckily for you, all the answers are in the Beginners Section of wolfcrow. You’re going to be working on files all your life. Knowing your data will give you the insights necessary to get that extra bit of performance, or find a faster workflow, while others stare at you in awe.

The Potato Eaters

Art

Learn art, study it. What makes great art and why? Why are people so crazy about Jackson Pollack, how does the fact that Vincent Van Gogh cut his ear off tie in with his painting style, and why did an artist have to kill someone to invent chiaroscuro?

Better yet, practice art. Sketch, paint, do some perspective and orthogonal engineering drawing, use some 3D applications like Blender, Maya or 3Ds Max to learn the world around you. Learn about shapes, texture and light. Create these things from scratch.

Mathematics

Thought you could get away from this one? Nope. You don’t have to learn advanced math, though it won’t hurt. Take inspiration from Leonardo DaVinci. Compositing is half-engineering.

Focus on geometry, trigonometry, vectors and graphs, matrices, Boolean or logic, etc.

Rotoscoping

This is probably going to be your first job, and when you become a master compositor, you’ll have to convince hordes of newbies to take it up and enjoy it. You can’t do that unless you enjoy it yourself, can you?

Computers

What about computers should you learn? Everything, really. Focus on:

  • UNIX, Linux, Windows and Mac OS – you need to know your operating systems
  • Learn to type with a keyboard, use a mouse, and draw with a trackpad.
  • Understand how computers work – GPU, CPU, RAM, Hard drives, Media cards, peripherals, data transfer technologies, etc. It’d be great if you could assemble a computer yourself.
  • Networks – how to connect computers, LAN, Ethernet, Fibre, Infinitiband, protocols, wireless, and the Internet. Can you string up a few devices to talk to each other on your own?
  • Monitor Calibration.
  • Selecting a good computer desk and chair.

Cinematography

Learn how to take photographs or video. Understand lighting, composition, perspective, lenses, f-stops, shutter speeds, RAW settings, movement, and many more. If you don’t know what the shots mean in the grand scheme of things, you’ve already lost as a master. How can you put together reality in an application if you can’t even photograph it correctly using one camera?

Discipline and Organization

Sitting on a computer and making a showreel is simple. You can take one hour to do it or one year. Who will knock on your door and ask?

But sitting with a bunch of artists all waiting for you to finish is a different ball game. If you can’t deliver, you’re out. If you want to run your own post facility, but can’t be disciplined, punctual, organized and responsible, you’ve already lost. Be disciplined in all areas of your life, from stacking your underwear neatly to not sending an email or text message that is not properly formatted.

What’s the one thing that all kung fu masters have in common? They all look and behave like kung fu masters.

Style

If someone asked Picasso to draw a beautiful girl, but insisted it had to look like a Monet, what would Picasso say? Who cares, you don’t have that luxury. Each project is different. You’ll need to master and adapt to many styles and techniques, and serve the needs of the project in front of you.

Only know one style of fighting? You’ve already lost. A very important message about art and collaboration:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OAl9P4T12Rs

In Part Two we’ll look at the next ten steps to becoming a master compositor.

4 replies on “20 Steps to Becoming a Master Compositor (Part One): The First Ten Steps”

  1. Hi i am from india and i am a fresher in vfx and my goal is to become a compositor and as i am a fresher there is very less opportunity given for a fresher here.Any suggestions. am a good matt painter from our class.I have no idea how to enter the industry.

  2. I agree with all of these points. I’m just about to hit the job market as I’m graduating this semester, and thankfully, I’ve studied all of these areas. Unless you’ve got a strong grasp on most of these areas, it’ll be tough to even get an internship. It takes real work, but it can be done. I was formerly a factory worker who decided to go back to school to study vfx, signed up at the local JC, worked my way to the university level, and now I’m graduating with a compositing internship lined up in LA. Going from knowing nothing to where I am now is doable. So go out there and work your butts off, young padawans!

    1. Hi Ryan,

      I am interested in what JC you went to, do they have compositing classes or other classes that are needed to become a compositor? Also, what college did you go to? I’ve already graduated with a BA in Multimedia, but the major is very interdisciplinary and I want to get more focused on compositing. Are you currently working as a compositor?

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