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How to Become a Better VFX Compositor Through Photography

How to Become a Better VFX Compositor Through Photography

A technical understanding and mastery of software is always at the forefront, but allowing yourself to obtain the artistic eye is paramount.

Honing a craft oftentimes feels like a linear endeavor. You put the blinders on, and smash the same shortcut each and every day with twenty tabs open on your second or third monitor. The Foundry’s documentation, School of Motion, ActionVFX — this constant pursuit of growth, knowledge, and resources is paramount to strengthening your skill set as a compositor.
Within this expertise, one can also find many ways to diverge and expand their knowledge base. Whether it’s brushing up on your python and scripting, or branching out into Maya or Houdini to learn more about the renders you receive, there are many ways within VFX to diversify so that you learn. Your technical understanding and mastery of software is always at the forefront, but there should also be the artistic eye.

For a compositor, truly understanding the fundamentals of art and image can be more difficult than learning Nuke inside and out. Value, light, color, and of course, composition — these crucial components are just a few pieces of the artistic lifeblood of a shot. One of the best ways to strengthen this foundation is to explore other art forms entirely.
With its accessibility, artistic parallels, and nearly universal application, photography is a gold standard for every budding compositor. To become a proficient photographer, one must be able to translate what they see and experience in the real world into a compelling digital (or analog, if you’re kicking it old school) image.
 
Photography is also similar to compositing in that it’s a marriage of technology and craft. A photographer utilizes their camera to extract their vision as a compositor utilizes their computer. Both begin with basic ingredients, a set of variables to consider, and a known toolset to achieve a desired outcome.
 
At a deeper level, the art and practice of photography challenges the artist to watchthe world around them with greater scrutiny. For a compositor, this habit can’t be understated. The next time you’re sitting at a window, challenge yourself to study the sunlight that pours in. How does it interact with the various materials of the room? Does it pass through the broad leaves of a house plant, or bounce harshly off the glossy cover of a textbook?
Photography demands that one’s eyes and mind are grounded in this fine level of observation and the revelations it offers directly translate to the way elements come together in a digital composite. Once you capture a scene in a photograph, you examine it again. How does it read on the screen? What emotion does it bring to people who view it? These questions inform the way a compositor tunes a final shot, and in turn, it determines how well that shot serves the story or tone of the piece.
 
Along with these specific aspects, this practice of challenging and stretching yourself beyond your normal profession is valuable simply for the fresh perspectives it offers. When you enter a new art form, you will find yourself carrying fewer expectations both of the craft itself but more importantly of your own work as well. In a way, this is a return to the mindset that many of us had for visual effects from the very beginning: that of a hobbyist with a passion to learn.
This exercise has greater implications than just personal improvement as well. A quick visit to VFX giant Industrial Light and Magic’s careers page offers two revelations under a listing for “Senior Compositor”. First is a requirement, “demo reel required demonstrating strong artistic skills including knowledge of color, lighting, perspective, scale, and composition” and second — listed directly below — is a bonus, “traditional art portfolio demonstrating traditional art skills is a plus.”
 
If photography isn’t your cup of tea, the lesson remains the same. Whether you’re taking a weekend to draw, brush up on your graphic design, or even practicing a non-visual art such as music, it’s necessary to push yourself beyond the boundaries of your profession alone. These explorations will offer new insights, spark and inspire new ideas, and in the end, bolster your growth as an artist.
 
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