Layer-based vs Node-based Compositing

In the article What is Compositing? we explored the idea of marrying pixels to produce magic. Compositing applications are divided into two ways of working:

  • Layer-based
  • Node-based

Ultimately, both of these do the exact same thing. The difference is somewhat akin to the difference between taking a car to your destination and taking a plane to your destination, where both car and plane travel at the same speed!

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The Foundry Nuke

Layer-based Compositing

Ever made lasagna? You basically place layers of different ingredients before it goes into an oven. Let’s say you’ve done twenty layers, and you realize your recipe calls for one more ingredient – which you’ve inconveniently forgotten.

To make matters worse, you have to put this ingredient exactly between the 9th and 10th pasta layer. It’s not a situation even superheroes want to be in.

On the other hand, the ability to put ingredients into layers and throw them into an oven is as easy as cooking gets.

Believe it or not, this is the fundamental difference between layer-based and node-based compositing.

Layer-based compositing places layers of video on top of each other (the composite, or comp). The key advantage of doing things this way is that your software begins to look like your NLE (Editing software). There’s a timeline, with each video on its own track, and so on.

Node-based Compositing

If you haven’t already, please read the article on What is a Digital Image Channel and the Alpha Channel? first. In it, we learnt that we can reach and isolate specific properties of an image, and put that data in its own channel.

You can’t understand node-based compositing without understanding channels.

What is a node? Look at this:

Single Node

A Node is anything that changes a signal. If a video enters a node, and you tweak a value (color, resolution, whatever), the video signal that leaves it will be a whole new person.

The cool thing about nodes is that you can bring in or take out as many signals as you want. The only limitation to this is the algorithm of the specific node itself. E.g., if I write a small program to split a 1080p video into two 960×1080 parts, the node will look like the diagram shown above.

Whereas layer-based compositing can be like playing Jenga (naughtiness and fun not included), node-based compositing allows you to see all the effects (nodes) added to a video as a graph, called the node graph:

Don’t get scared of the node-graph. It’s actually fun, and quite easy. If you have hundreds of ‘layers’ (actually nodes), it’s easy to find the one you want and make changes to it.

This is the power of a node-based workflow. You forego the NLE-type workflow (timeline and layer-based) for greater control over your nodes and signals.

This is where the power of channels come in. Imagine each arrow carrying as many channels as you want from one node to the next. The second node can choose which channel it wants to manipulate and only perform that operation. Then, it chooses which channels will proceed to the next node, and so on.

I can’t begin to tell you how much power that puts into your hands.

Which is better?

Adobe After EffectsAdobe After Effects

is the ultimate layer-based compositing application. If it didn’t exit, nobody would be talking about layer-based compositing!

Most of the other industry heavyweights, like Nuke, Fusion, Flame, etc., are node-based. When you are working on a shot-by-shot basis, with each shot taking hundreds of nodes to get that perfect finish, nothing beats a node-based workflow.

On the other hand, when you need only a few effects, and you need to see your effects, cuts and all, across many clips, playing back exactly like an NLE, nothing beats a layer-based application like After Effects.

The decision is not whether to use layer-based of node-based applications. The decision is: when to use what.

You have to have both! They are both equally that good.

Exclusive Bonus: Download my free guide (with examples) on how to find the best camera angles for dialogue scenes when your mind goes blank.

5 replies on “Layer-based vs Node-based Compositing”

  1. First of all, a good article that gives a better comparison on methods rather than tools, You are absolutely correct in the last sentence regarding the use. Artists tend to use these softwares without foreseeing the end result. But the headline on “which is best?” and very next sentence made me confused as it gave a mis consumption that you are favoring one type. But later words cleared the confusion.

    Greetings

  2. Nice Post, but I’m still unsure of nodes. I really want to learn them and I keep hearing how much more manageable they are as opposed to layers. But I still can’t grasp the concept of them. Even when trying to learn a program like Fusion, it just doesn’t stick with me and I’m always resorting back to looking up tutorial after tutorial just trying to get the basics down. Do you know of any useful videos, articles, sites that could point me in that direction? It’s embarrassing to say but I really feel like I need a Node 101 course on this. I’d really like to get away from After Effects permanently as I absolutely hate that program with a fiery passion. Actually pretty much anything Adobe puts out there for that matter, except Photoshop.

    1. I put together a course on learning nodes. I designed it for people looking to move from AE. Check it out at indierebel.co
      I uploaded a lesson from the course that goes over how nodes work. Hope it helps.

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