Backdrop - Oct 06
Issue: Volume: 29 Issue: 10 (Oct 2006)

Backdrop - Oct 06

Interview by
Chief Editor Karen Moltenbrey

Compositing 101
An industry veteran looks at the tools and techniques required
for this digital process, and highlights lessons learned

How long have you been in the business?
I’ve been in effects work for 15 years, 13 years in digital effects—mostly for feature films.

Have the compositing requirements for your company changed over time?
They haven’t changed, really. You still have to do it well. The greenscreens are still green, people still need to be roto’d. What have changed are the speed of the machines, some specific bits of automation for specific tasks, and the nature of color in its final delivery stage, as in DI. 

How have the compositing technologies evolved?
For many years, any really serious compositing was done on a Discreet system, like a Flame or an Inferno. Several studios began making their own “in-house” software, not as a cheaper duplication of the Discreet systems, but as alternatives, often with better final results.

Was there room for other players?
Soon thereafter, outside software, such as Shake, was developed. While there were other compositing systems out there, Shake was one of the first to be truly a professional tool. It included a concatenation of both spatial and color operations, as well as a floating-point option. 

What about D2’s Nuke?
Recently, D2’s Nuke, originally developed in-house [at Digital Domain] has emerged, in addition to others. These have enabled a node-based system of compositing, supporting rapid alteration to composites, while also allowing plug-ins from both professional companies and talented users. They also have the ability to work in a floating-point space and can handle log data in a smooth fashion.

Are the Discreet systems from Autodesk still a good choice?
The Discreet systems to this day still provide the finest in rapid interaction for both creative design and client feedback. I find that having a combination of both systems is a great benefit. 
In your opinion, what are some of the better compositing programs out there, and why?
I still like Shake, although its future is in question. I also think that D2’s Nuke is a very well-thought-out compositing program. The Sapphire plug-ins and the Furnace plug-ins from The Foundry have great general application and fill in many gaps in the basic programs.

Are the jobs today more difficult?
Jobs, in general, have become more difficult because clients now believe that we can do anything. As a result, fully 50 percent (or more) of any given project will come from the ‘unplanned for’ shot category. Some of the fix-its will be easy, but some will require the utmost of skill and artistry to achieve. On the other hand, the ‘planned’ shots have gotten a little more challenging, but this is often in response to the abilities provided by the new software.

Is there any such thing nowadays as a basic  composite?
Sure. Monitor burn-ins (putting video into greenscreen monitors), basic car/plane/train interiors shot on greenscreen...these sorts of things are fairly basic. Make-up fixes are getting routine, though few people talk about them, for obvious reasons. 

How has DI affected the role of compositing?
Many simple editorial transitions, such as cross-fades, wipes, fade-ins/outs, and so forth have become part of the DI process, and have thus been removed from the compositing realm.

Are there more composites in projects today than ever before?
Every project has its own needs. In general, projects, large and small, have more effects shots in them. Almost all effects shots have some element of compositing in them. Very few are ‘stand-alone, right out of the computer 3D CGI shots.’  Even those often have some compositing in them. With the expansive experience out there in regard to effects work, clients are seeing that a composite is often a better solution to the production equation than doing something practically.

For the film Lords of Dogtown, Gray Matter
composited a circa 1970 Santa Monica pier
into the scene. On the left is the original
shot, and at right is the final shot.

From a technological standpoint, what have been your biggest challenges to date?
Adaptation had very high demands for its seamlessness of approach. The twin work and the bee had to be done to a very high degree of finish. Lords of Dogtown had immense tracking issues that were worked out by handing the work back and forth between the tracking department and the 3D animation group. 

What is your basic approach to compositing work?
That’s tough to say. Probably years of experience. No two composites are ever the same. I look at the shot first and try to determine if it is better done in Flame or in Shake, and who has the skill set among my artists to accomplish the work. Is it more technical, or is it more of an artistic composite? Does it require painting? 

And then what?
After that it becomes a matter of remaining objective enough to see. That is the key. Too many people look without seeing. If they are working on a shot, they also ‘know’ what they did. For instance, in a previous revise of a shot, they might be told to remove a matte edge they missed. Then, when it is reviewed again and the edge is still evident, they will protest that they ‘know’ they took care of it, rather than trusting what their eyes are telling them. 

What are the final steps?
Once past that, it would be matching color, edge, grain, and as many of the hundreds of cues that we take for granted when an actor is standing in front of a background, as opposed to the actor and then the background being shot totally separately and at different times and in different places. All of these cues must be considered during the shooting, then the compositing of the shot, in order for it to become truly ‘seamless.’

What are some of the challenges you foresee in the future?
That would be less and less use of screens, as well as a reluctance to shoot motion control or clean plates.

What kind of effect will HD have on compositing, if any?
If you are working at the lower resolution of HD, then it will be slightly easier and faster to work at that resolution. However, you will not have film grain and camera weave to help obscure your work.