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July 2014
Issue: May 1, 2012

The Art of Compositing

By: Marc Loftus
It could be said that the compositing process is where things all come together, be it in a feature film, commercial or television program. Compositors have a keen eye, and it’s their job to not only combine elements in a scene, but to actually help sell the effect to the audience. Roto, keying and tracking skills serve as the foundation of their craft, and success comes in creating a believability that goes without questioning.

These pros have based their careers on the art of compositing. Their toolsets vary, but their goals are similar: to convince audiences that what they are seeing is actually taking place. Here’s a look at what they are doing and how they are going about achieving the end results.

ABSOLUTE

Dave Smith is the owner/operator of Absolute (www.absolutepost.com), a seven-year-old visual effects facility with locations in London and New York. The company has 65 core staffers on its teams and scales up when necessary. Absolute provides compositing, CG, design, modeling, lighting and visual effects services to commercial clients, but their work goes beyond traditional broadcast spots. Smith says clients are constantly looking for innovative ways to market their products, and this can include viral and interactive videos, and even creating stylized presentations for projection onto buildings.

As an owner, Smith still keeps his hand in the creative process. He says he’s been shrewd in surrounding himself with the right people to manage his business, allowing him to continue to contribute to client projects. “My skill is on the machine,” he notes. “I have a great eye for that.”

Smith has been involved in the post field for 35 years. He began his career as a runner, and steadily moved his way up. “Media colleges didn’t really exist back then,” he explains. “I got my training from the ground up.”



He got a job working in an editorial house that cut film and found he had a natural talent for it. He then moved to a small edit house that was working in video post, where he segued into grading as a colorist, working on music videos for the likes of Michael Jackson and David Bowie. As his music video work progressed, so did the demand for stylized visuals.

“That’s how I got into compositing,” he says. Smith feels he was always at the right company at the right time. He was able to explore the latest technology, be it Quantel’s Harry, Henry and Paintbox early on, and later Discreet Logic’s (now Autodesk’s) Flame. Today, he still uses Flame, calling is a “massive toolbox of different effects,” but also draws on The Foundry’s Nuke and Adobe After Effects at Absolute.

“I vowed never to buy a Flame, but it’s still the best tool out there,” he says. Nuke, he adds, has a place, particularly on jobs involving lots of computer graphics. After Effects is also useful when breaking down a job. Smith says the studio will analyze how much work is going to be done on a job, and what type of work it requires. This often influences which tools are called on. Absolute even uses Combustion when a job calls for heavy roto work.

“Technology is more complex, but I can do so much more,” he says, looking back at his early days in VFX. “It’s a lot simpler now, then even two to three years ago.”

But with powerful tools come high expectations. Smith says there are no excuses when it comes to achieving photorealism these days. Absolute won’t let anything out the door unless it looks “absolutely fantastic,” he says.

And those high expectations are also the things that impress him when looking at outsiders’ work, be it a feature film or a CG project. “I’m always impressed with what I am not aware of,” he notes. “The 100 percent CG work is what blows me away. I look at blockbuster films. They are impressive but time consuming. A lot of our work is to look as realistic as possible. The trick is to make it look seamless. I’m always blown away by the flawlessness.”

HUMBLE

New York-based director/Flame artist John J. Budion got his start in the industry at the age of 17. He was introduced to post tools such as Quantel’s Henry and Autodesk’s Flame by an uncle who was working at a studio in Atlanta. While a student at NYU, he got an internship at commercial post house Charlex in New York City, where he was able to develop his Flame skills while backing up projects for the studio. The internship also allowed him to earn credits toward his degree, as well as learn different tasks that form the foundation of a compositor’s skill set.

“I would work the afternoon to night shift,” Budion recalls. Eager to expand his skill set, he ventured beyond archiving, learning how to cut mattes, as well as perform roto, keying and tracking. His big break came about six months into his internship, when an Alan Iverson/Reebok project came into the studio needing a quick turnaround for airing during the NBA Finals. He stepped up and volunteered to lend his skills in order to make the overnight deadline.

Budion has since gone on to work as a Flame artist, VFX supervisor and director, and currently works at Manhattan’s Humble (www.humble.tv)   where he’s contributed to commercials for E-Trade, Lenovo, Greenpeace, Motorola and the Android-based Samsung Galaxy Tab.



While he’s had access to different post tools, he’s incredibly loyal to Flame, which still serves as his go-to system.

“I was born and raised on an Autodesk Flame system and I am very hesitant to go away from it, because it is such an all-inclusive software,” he explains. Budion references the three-spot Greenpeace project he recently worked on, which required work on 45 shots in a deadline of around 10 days.

“I basically built a 3D environment within the Flame,” he explains. “Once I built the environment I reset my camera for the close-ups and medium shots, and keyed out my greenscreen and layered back in a little more smoke and hit render; it rendered in a couple of minutes. I was able to fly through and really manage the project because of the power of the software. It’s so interactive and blends 2D and 3D worlds. I am hesitant to use other software. I know there are others  out there that do the same thing, I just haven’t seen anything that makes things look that good that fast with a deadline like that.”

The demands of commercial projects and their ability to tell a story in such a short timeframe also serve as an inspiration to Budion. “In the :30 and :60 format, so much needs to happen,” he notes. “If something stays with me, and I remember it, and am thinking about it, in that short timeframe… I think that resonates with me a lot more. It leaves me wondering who directed it, or who did the compositing on that? It stays with me and inspires me.”

Studying real life also inspires Budion, who says he tries to be meticulous when recreating environments in order to pass them off as believable.
A recent E-Trade commercial is a good example. In the Lotto spot, the familiar E-Trade baby watches his caregiver Frank unsuccessfully scratch off contest tickets, then taunts his idea of a retirement plan. The baby and the adult were shot separately, though stand-ins were used to help set the lighting and feel. Budion composited the mouth from a seven-year old actor onto the baby’s face, and even added some imagery into the store’s convex mirror to add further realism. “Little details help sell the effect and make people enjoy and it and not question [whether it’s real].”

IDENTITY FX

Identity FX in North Hollywood (www.identityfx.com) was founded in 2004, initially providing visual effects services for television programming. It has since evolved, and now focuses on VFX, native stereo optimization and stereo 3D conversion, having worked on numerous feature films, including Green Lantern, Conan the Barbarian and The Chronicles of Narnia — The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

In addition to the 30 seats it has in its Los Angeles location, Identity FX also has 80 more in Jinan, China, and a co-operative of more than 250 seats in Budapest, Hungary. 

Late last year, the LA location added an SGO Mistika system to support its 3D native stereo optimization work, as well as for finishing. The system is the center of a workflow that also relies heavily on The Foundry’s Nuke for compositing — there are eight seats in LA. At press time, Identity FX was working on two major summer releases for Fox and Sony.



Lead compositor Kevin Yuille and digital artist Alicia Suggs represent some of the newer talent that has joined the facility. Suggs started her career using Eyeon Fusion, and while at Prime Focus worked on both Narnia and Star Wars — titles that she sees as “two different beasts.” 

“I feel Nuke is a great system to work on,” she says of her transition. “It really services the artist rather than us servicing it. It’s very complementary to anything we need to be done.” Suggs began her career trying to work as a matte painter, but ended up working for a visual effects company, performing dust busting and roto. As she learned the foundations of compositing she also saw an increased demand for stereo 3D services. The skills she picked up then help the work she does today.

“At Identity, we do a lot of that work,” she notes. Learning Nuke and broadening her skills is something she feels most compositors need to do to stay competitive.

Kevin Yuille’s career took a more roundabout approach. He began studying to be an architect, and later fell into Web development. He later returned to school, hoping to become an editor or director, but it was a student project that opened his eyes to visual effects and compositing.

“I saw a project that students were doing with visual effects and checked it out,” he recalls. “I immediately made the switch. It was amazing how much control they had over their final footage.” 

He took a class on Nuke compositing, which was instructed by lead artists from The Orphanage in San Francisco. “I got to see the work they did on Iron Man and it blew my mind,” he notes. “I knew immediately that I wanted to use Nuke, and I have since then. I graduated in 2010, and this is literally my first gig in the industry. I can’t describe how much I love compositing!”

Both Suggs and Yuille find inspiration in film work. “Every time new movie comes out, you want to see it and how they’ve improved the pipeline that they use on some of their shots,” Suggs explains. “Sometimes it’s the young up-and-coming artists,” that inspire her. “I think that helps people in the business not lose sight of what is really out there. Not only movies and television, but also fellow artists, and looking at what they are doing as well.”

“I would take the position as more of a filmmaker,” says Yuille. “If I see something that I’ve never seen before for, I remember, it leaves an impression. In movies, if it’s something fantastical or something that’s other worldly,” he continues. “I like science fiction and that lends to my interest in visual effect, but I think it’s anything that’s creative.”

Yuille also finds inspiration in motion graphic and design. “There are artists out there who are really pushing motion graphics and motion design. It blows my mind.”

Identity FX recently completed an effects heavy interactive Web project for Nike. The CP3 Jump Man (www.nike.com/jumpman23/cp3v/) Website features basketball player Chris Paul in a three-on-three game. Viewers can zoom in and change angles as the game plays out. The outdoor court includes unexpected interruptions, such as fans, a DJ, a mounted police unit and even a guy on fire.

The studio built the lights, trees and city scene from scratch. Video footage was shot at 5K using a 17-camera array in a 170 degree arc. Each shot contains up to a dozen layers, which were composited in Nuke. SGO’s Mistika was used for color correction, finishing and output. 

SCOTT METZGER

Scott Metzger (http://vimeo.com/loganmannstrane) is an LA-based compositor and visual effects supervisor who got his start as a hobbyist back in the mid ‘90s. The Internet wasn’t what it is today in terms as serving as an educational resource, so Metzger enrolled in a Florida film school to learn the craft.

Things didn’t go as planned, and soon he was out of school, out of money and looking for work. “I hopped into tech support and I had a friend in Los Angeles who had a studio called Pixel Envy,” he recalls. It was partners Colin and Greg Strause, who also owned Hydraulx, that gave him his big start working for a studio.

With a plane ticket, Metzger travelled to LA, where he learned rotoscoping and compositing skills while working on music videos. “That’s pretty much what started my career,” he recalls. “I was doing a lot of 3D modeling and rendering, but by no means professional-level material. I was desperate to do anything to get into the industry.”

Without a degree, he was grateful that someone took a chance on him. “I learned everything working for those guys. And that’s how anyone in their first job gets forward in the industry.”



After his stint at  Pixel Envy, Metzger worked with a number of high-profile studios, including on and off at Method for about 10 years. He contributed to two films while at Digital Domain. He also spent time with Psyop, Moving Pixels, Zoic and Radium.

His experience exposed him to many different people and an array of pipelines.Recently, he started working with Alex Frisch, who co-founded the collective COPA. “It’s all about building a studio for the future, where all the work gets handled remotely through multiple artists around the world,” Metzger explains. His first project with COPA was the Turn Me On music video with Nicki Minaj and David Guetta.

And at press time, Metzger was in Louisiana, working as a digital effects supervisor for Alcon Entertainment on an upcoming film titled Beautiful Creatures. “[I’m working] as their digital effects supervisor on the studio side, which is a big change from working at a facility.”

The supernatural drama centers around a local teenager and a mysterious new girl in town who uncover dark secrets about their respective families. The film uses live action along with some “pretty intense” visual effects, says Metzger, who’s put together his own toolbox over the years. 

“You always go to the software and hardware that you’ve worked with, especially with camera equipment and such. Nuke, Mari, V-Ray and Maya are pretty much my top applications of choice. Nuke is more than just a compositing package. It’s like going into your garage [where] you have your tool table. There’s no way you can work without it.”

The work studios can now do with V-Ray is what inspires him, particularly Digital Domain and Blur, which he describes as “mind blowing.”

“What’s also amazing is what artists can now do without a large team of TDs,” he adds. “It’s really amazing, the fact that software has come to this point. Before you’d need this huge RenderMan pipeline, with all of these guys writing shaders for you, and I think those times are going away. What’s happening is you have an extremely efficient renderer that it very artist friendly and allows for things to be done in a lot quicker time, which means a lot cheaper as well. The fact that you can actually do this is exciting stuff. Rates go down. Bids go down on jobs. It’s a lot cheaper to get the job done.”

This requires artists to find efficiencies in their workflow in order to remain competitive. “Pipeline becomes a big deal,” he notes. “But then you can push through a lot more work. Rendering wise, you can do so much more of it, so I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.”