Compositing Visual Effects: Essentials for the Aspiring Artist

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Compositing is a fundamental visual effects technique. It is the process of combining 2 or more separate elements into one final shot. This lavishly illustrated (4-color) book introduces aspiring VFX artists and film/VFX students to the essential concepts and techniques of digital compositing in a simplified manner. It starts with an inspirational tour of the scope and magnitude of digital compositing, then progresses to show how CGI is composited with live action, how set extensions are done, and what a match-move shot is. Also included are lessons on the key applications of digital compositing, which include bluescreen compositing, bullet-time shots, motion tracking, and rotoscoping. New to this edition are 4 new chapters on:
• 3D compositing, with lessons on what camera tracking is, how it is used to put CGI into a live-action plate, as well as live action into a 3D scene.
• Stereo compositing, with descriptions of key stereoscopic terms and concepts, lessons on compositing shots that were filmed in stereo (both bluescreen and CGI), as well as the stereo conversion process when a flat 2D movie is converted to a stereo 3D movie
• RED and Digital Capture with Log Images, including log image formats. This is a very hot topic these days.
• Tracking an entire project from start to finish

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
".Wright leads the reader through the entire process and techniques used to create blockbuster effects, but makes the journey easy for the layperson. This is a MUST-HAVE book for anyone who wants to know the magic that digital compositing is."

- Jeffery Jasper, VFX Compositor, New Deal Studio (The Good Shepherd, X-Men 3, Pirates of the Caribbean 3)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780240809632
  • Publisher: Taylor & Francis
  • Publication date: 1/4/2008
  • Pages: 264
  • Product dimensions: 7.40 (w) x 9.60 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Steve Wright is a visual effects compositing veteran with 70 broadcast television commercials and over 60 feature films credits. He's developed video games at Atari, done 3D animations for Robert Abel and Associates, and was senior compositor and 2D technical director at Kodak's Cinesite. Steve is now a freelance, digital-compositing guru, who teaches, trains, writes, and develops on-line training programs.

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Read an Excerpt

Compositing Visual Effects

Essentials for the Aspiring Artist
By Steve Wright

Focal Press

Copyright © 2011 Elsevier Inc.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-240-81782-8

Chapter One

Visual Effects Today

Digital compositing is an essential part of visual effects, which are everywhere in the entertainment industry today—in feature films, television commercials, and even many TV shows. And it's growing. Even a noneffects film will have visual effects. It might be a love story or a comedy, but there will always be something that needs to be added or removed from the picture to tell the story. And that is the short description of what visual effects are all about— adding elements to a picture that are not there, or removing something that you don't want to be there. And digital compositing plays a key role in all visual effects.

The things that are added to the picture can come from practically any source today. We might be adding an actor or a model from a piece of film or video tape. Or perhaps the mission is to add a spaceship or dinosaur that was created entirely in a computer, so it is referred to as a computer generated image (CGI). Maybe the element to be added is a matte painting done in Adobe Photoshop®. Some elements might even be created by the compositor himself.

It is the digital compositor that takes these disparate elements, no matter how they were created, and blends them together artistically into a seamless, photorealistic whole. The digital compositor's mission is to make them appear as if they were all shot together at the same time under the same lights with the same camera, and then give the shot its final artistic polish with superb color correction. This is a non-trivial accomplishment artistically, and there are a variety of technical challenges that have to be met along the way. Digital compositing is both a technical and an artistic challenge.

The compositor is first and foremost an artist, and works with other artists such as matte painters, colorists, CGI artists, and art directors as a member of a visual effects team. This team must coordinate their efforts to produce technically sophisticated and artistically pleasing effects shots. The great irony here is that if we all do our jobs right, nobody can tell what we did because the visual effects blend seamlessly with the rest of the movie. If we don't, the viewer is pulled out of the movie experience and starts thinking, "Hey, look at those cheesy effects!"

So what is the difference between visual effects and special effects? Visual effects are the creation or modification of images, whereas special effects are things done on the set which are then photographed, such as pyrotechnics or miniatures. In other words, visual effects specifically manipulate images. And since manipulating images is best done with a computer, they are the tool of choice, and this is why the job is known as digital compositing.

I mentioned earlier that digital compositing is growing. There are two primary reasons for this. First is the steady increase in the use of CGI for visual effects, and every CGI element needs to be composited. The reason CGI is on the upswing is because of the steady improvement in technology which means that CGI can solve more visual problems every year, thus increasing the demand by movie makers for ever-more spectacular effects for their movies (or TV shows or television commercials). Furthermore, as the hardware gets cheaper and faster, and the software becomes more capable, it tends to lower the cost of creating CGI. However, any theoretical cost savings here are quickly overwhelmed by the insatiable appetite for more spectacular, complex, and expensive visual effects. In other words, the creative demands continuously expand to fill the capabilities of the technology.

The second reason for the increase in digital compositing is that the compositing software and hardware technologies are also advancing on their own track, separately from CGI. This means that visual effects shots can be done faster, more cost-effectively, and with higher quality. There has also been a general rise in the awareness of the film makers to what can be done with digital compositing, which makes them more sophisticated users. As a result, they demand ever-more effects be done for their movies.

In this chapter we take a wide-ranging tour of the incredible scope and scale of digital compositing in visual effects today. The first section describes digital compositing with CGI. A lot of our work is to composite CGI, so it warrants its own section. The second section reveals the many types of amazing visual effects that are done strictly with modern compositing software—no CGI required. The third section takes a brief look at the two types of compositing programs, node based and timeline based. From this point on I will refer to film in these examples, but I am also including video. It is just a bit too cumbersome to continuously refer to film (and videotape) or filming (and videotaping) or cinematographers (and videographers).


Whenever someone makes a CGI element, someone else has to composite it. In this section we will look at three general areas where CGI elements are composited. First up is straightforward CGI compositing where a CGI object has been created and needs to be composited into the scene. Next we will take a look at set extension, a rapidly expanding technique in film making. Last we will look at the match move, where separate programs are used to analyze the live action and provide terrain and camera move data for the CGI programs.

1.1.1 CGI Compositing

By far the most common application of digital compositing is to composite CGI. Whether it is for a $100,000 dollar commercial or a $100 million dollar movie, the CGI is created in a computer and composited over some kind of a background image. The background image is very often live action, meaning it was shot on film or video, but it too could be CGI that was also created in a computer, or it might be a digital matte painting. Regardless of where the background comes from, the digital compositor puts it all together and gives it the final touch of photorealism. Figure 1-1 illustrates a basic CGI composite where the jet fighter was created in the computer, the background is live action footage, and the final composite puts the jet fighter into the background.

Today, CGI goes far beyond jet fighters and dinosaurs. Recent advances in the technology have made it possible to create a very wide range of incredibly realistic synthetic objects for compositing. Beyond the obvious things such as cars, airplanes, and rampaging beasts, CGI has mastered the ability to create photorealistic hair, skin, cloth, clouds, fog, fire, and even water. It has even become common practice to use a "digital double" when you want the movie star to execute a daring stunt that is beyond even the expert stunt double. It will not be long before the first "cyber thespian" (an all-CGI character) stars in what would otherwise be a live action movie. However, after all the spaceships, beasts, water, and fire have been rendered, somebody has to composite them all together. And that somebody is the dauntless digital compositor.

1.1.2 Set Extension

If you wanted your actors to be seen standing in front of the Imperial Palace on the planet Mungo you may not want to spend the money to build the entire exterior of the Imperial Palace. Better to build a small piece of it on a movie set, place the talent in it, and then extend the set later using CGI when you need a wide shot. For this little piece of digital magic the film is digitized into the computer and the CGI folks build a 3D model of the Imperial Palace and line it up with the original film footage and its camera angle. There might even be a camera move in the live action which the CGI artists will carefully track and match. But eventually the live action and the CGI set extension must be composited and color corrected to match perfectly.

Figure 1-2 is a classic example of set extension that demonstrates how it can even be applied to an exterior location shot. The original photography captures the future soldier walking along an otherwise small and uninteresting rubble pit. The middle picture shows the set extension element that was an all-CGI city in the distance with smoke generated by a particle system and a matte painting for the sky. The resulting composite shows all of the elements composited together and color corrected to blend properly.

You can immediately see the enormous difficulty in trying to create this shot without using set extension and digital compositing. You would need to find a location that had the rubble pit the correct distance from a real city that had the right look and was (unhappily) on fire at the time. You would then have to wait for the right time of day to get the sunset sky, and in location shooting waiting is very expensive. If such a location could even be found you would then have to fly the entire crew out there. This amounts to a very expensive if not nearly impossible production plan.

Instead, the producer wisely chose to do a set extension. The rubble pit was easy to find and close at hand. The crew drove to the location in only half an hour. Once the film was digitized the CGI department took over and created the background city and smoke animation while the digital matte painter made the sky painting. When all was ready the digital compositor took all four elements—original photography, CGI set extension, smoke animation, and matte painting—and then composited them together and color corrected them to blend naturally. Not only was this far less expensive, but (and this is the punchline) the director got exactly the shot he wanted. What CGI and digital compositing bring to the table is creative control—the ability to make exactly the shot you want. Not just what is practical or affordable.

1.1.3 Match Move

Directors and cinematographers hate to lock off the camera. They love to swoop the camera through the scene, boom it up over a crowd, or swing it around the heroic character. This is fine if the shot is all live action, but it wreaks havoc if the shot requires CGI to be mixed with the live action. If the live action camera is moving then the CGI camera must also move so that the CGI will match the changing perspective of the live action. Not only must the CGI camera move, but it must move in perfect sync with the live action camera or the CGI element will drift and squirm in the frame and not appear to be locked to the rest of the shot. Special match move programs are needed to pull off this bit of cinematic magic. An example of a match move shot is shown in Figure 1-3 where the camera orbits around the live action soldier. The soldier is in an all-CGI environment.

Match move is a two-step process. First, the live action plate is analyzed by the match move program. A plate is simply a shot that is intended to be composited with another shot. The match move program correlates as many features as it can between frames and tracks them over the length of the shot. This produces a low-detail 3D model of the terrain in the scene along with camera move data. The terrain model is low detail and incomplete, but it does provide enough information for the next step.

The second step is to give the 3D terrain information and the camera move data to the 3D animators. They use the terrain information as a guide to where to place their 3D objects. The camera move data is used by the computer camera to match the move of the live action camera in order to render the 3D objects with a matching perspective that changes over the length of the shot. If the terrain information or camera move data is off in any significant way the 3D objects will scoot and squirm rather than appear to be firmly planted on the ground.

After all the 3D elements are rendered the live action plate and the CGI come to the digital compositor for final color correction and compositing. Of course, the compositor is expected to fix any small (or large) lineup problems in the CGI or live action. There are two fundamental ways the match move game can be played. Live action can be placed in a CGI environment (like the example in Figure 1-3) or CGI can be placed in a live action environment, like King Kong in New York City. Either way you work it, match move is truly one of the great wonders of visual effects.


Excerpted from Compositing Visual Effects by Steve Wright Copyright © 2011 by Elsevier Inc. . Excerpted by permission of Focal Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Digital Compositing; Digital Images; Compositing; Compositing CGI; Bluescreen Compositing; Pulling a Key; Rotoscoping; Image Blending; Animation; The Art of Compositing; Scene Salvage; Color Science; Working with Video; Working with Film; The Future

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