20 Steps to Becoming a Master Compositor (Part Two): The Last Ten Steps

In Part One we looked at ten steps to becoming a master compositor in the visual effects industry. In this part we’ll cover the next ten.

Programming

You can’t escape from this one. Knowing programming ties in with knowing math and computers, and helps you get from A to B faster than a speeding bullet. You don’t have to be a developer, but even some solid understanding and experience goes a long way.

Start with C, C++ and Python. It wouldn’t hurt to know HTML, CSS, PHP and Javascript either. Here’s some motivation:

Keying

This is a compositor’s bread-and-butter workflow. You’ll be taking things out and patching things up all day long. Everything else on this list only helps to make you better at this.

Question: How do you know a master compositor from an average one? Simple. A master compositor can pull off great keys and mattes with just the basic tools. Rob him or her off that expensive plug-in, and it wouldn’t matter. Take away Bruce Lee’s nunchucks, but he’ll still kick your ass.

Color Grading

If you don’t know how colors are and interact, there is no way you can comp. Period. You must be able to not only tell when something’s ‘off’, but also make it right.

Similar to a master compositor, I know a good colorist from an average one simply by looking at how much he or she can do with just the basic tools.

Master Two Software Applications

Eventually, you’ll need to master at least one software application. I say master two. We know that compositing applications are divided into layer-based vs node-based, so why not learn both?

I highly recommend Adobe After Effects and The Foundry Nuke as your starting points. In all likelihood, they’ll also be your lifelong friends and ending points.

Digital Painting

This is not matte painting, which is a different genre. A paint artist usually paints out mistakes – rigs, wires, artifacts, idiots, mistakes. Some fools think of this as mundane. But you can’t paint out unless you know how to paint – the result must appear photorealistic. Only a master criminal can erase every clue that was the product of compromise.

Painting out something is also painting in something else. A paint artist can also restore old movies and create textures or brushes for specific tasks. It will also help to learn Photoshop and Illustrator, along with mastery over the tablet.
Wacom Tablet

Matchmoving and Tracking

All said and done, video and film is moving pictures. If you’re going to add stuff to a moving scene, you have to make them move as well. And, not only make them move, but make them move in such a way that they look like they belong there in that time and place.

Animation and Keyframing

Creating mattes and moving them is okay, but things never work out perfectly. Sometimes, old-fashioned ‘hand-drawn’ keyframing works best. This attention to detail is what separates the master from the average compositors. You must be able to move elements within the scene like a composer moves his baton. To others it looks like magic and comedy, but the result is pure synchronized music.

Focus on motion blur, retiming and interpolation.

Networking and Learning

What are you, if not a student? Talk to people, read a lot, write a blog or a book.

  • What you know – teach others.
  • What you don’t know – learn from others.
  • What you both don’t know – find answers and solutions together.

Editing

It is easy to misunderstand compositing as just piecing together shots individually. A master compositor will always study the emotional impact and message of a scene – the way the director and filmmakers intended it – and try to bring that to life. To this end, you must understand editing – how shots are put together, and why they are the way they are.

Experience

Finally, you can’t read about all this and be a master. You have to do it. And then do it again, and again, for many years. You must do it until someone else calls you a master.

Only if you fail and succeed, only if you rise and fall, and only if you have undergone the emotional journey from noob to master will you be able to successfully guide and lead a team of visual effects artists aspiring to be you one day.

Then, you’re a master compositor. How will you know it? You’ll be earning in the top percentile in your industry, that’s how.

3 replies on “20 Steps to Becoming a Master Compositor (Part Two): The Last Ten Steps”

  1. This information is gold. PURE GOLD. I loved this information. This has motivated me and also given me a sense of direction. It has enlightened me. Thanks for sharing !
    Much love. Respect.

  2. SDub I’m an electrical engineer. Close enough?

    More than technical knowledge, you need artistic knowledge – either photography or painting. Look at the job opening requirements for compositors. You’ll see.

    As a fall back, your skills in IT will be useful in a VFX company as well. Lots of programming, data management and network wizardry goes on inside, most of it proprietary. Get in as early as you can, but there’s no job security in the VFX business. Worldwide.

  3. This list is daunting. Have you ever met any Computer Engineering majors in the video business? I feel that my CE background at school accomplishes 1/5-1/4 of this list in regards to knowledge of software, hardware, programming, etc. A career as a compositor sounds like an awesome one.

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