Blur it

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What should I learn to get started as a compositing artist

This time, I start my career advice category as I get asked this quite often. A career in VFX can be like the Node-tree below. A bit confusing, with a lot of Time Offsets, Distortions along the way, you might even switch from one to another side and ultimately you will come to a certain point when you realise, this is where I am right now. 

When I was asking myself the career questions almost 15 years ago the time was a lot different compared to today. We had a bad internet connection, no online training material and the software was barley available to normal students.  

So back in the days, buying good books was a starting point. I bought the sort of bible of compositing books, and it has not lost its relevance today, so I'd suggest you start with this for beginners. "The art and science of digital compositing" by Ron Brinkman was the title and it contains the base knowledge with a lot of in depth information on the technical aspect of compositing. 

Nowadays it is even available as Kindle book, so I honestly have it with me all the time. 

So tip number one: UNDERSTAND THE MATH

Learn the science behind digital compositing by getting good literature. Study the books and hop onto your favourite software and try what you read. Understand the math. 

Software is available quite easily today. Pretty much every company offers a free training version, so it is up to you which tool you want to learn.

Tip numer two: IT'S NOT ABOUT TOOLS

It is important to mention that the software you work with, does not matter at all. That is why I recommend to understand the math behind compositing, because once you get that, you will realise that all software packages do the same thing. The way you interact with the tool is the only difference and this comes down to personal preference. Some love a node based system , some love layers while others like the combination of both. 

Be it Autodesk Flame, The Foundry Nuke, Adobe After Effects or Blackmagic Fusion, they are all top notch tools and if you know how to use them, you will easily learn the others. So don't focus on the software too much. I, though want to mention that Nuke is somehow a standard in the film industry. In commercials it used to be Flame but slowly changes to Nuke or Fusion as well. AE is more used in motion graphics, but can produce outstanding compositing work as well. If you know one you are for sure pretty fast in learning the others. I have started with Shake, moved to Fusion and learned After Effects, then Nuke and Flame all on my way. Now I am most of the times using Nuke or Flame, but I could easily jump back on the others with a short period of getting used to the interface and hotkeys. Be flexible and willed to learn what is used by the company you work with, and challenge yourself by learning something new every now and then. 

Knowing the tools and the math is a good starting point. Learn how to see is a very general advice, and I know so many artists that have never taken time to focus on this part of the job. Compositing is the art of blending elements seamlessly, so you need to understand how a camera sees objects, how light works in a camera, how colours work and what black and white levels are.

Tip number three: OBSERVE and SHOOT IMAGES

To learn the above you need to watch a lot of movies, and images. Observe what you see with a critical eye. How does the light interact, how is the shadow looking, are there some dark outlines. Sometimes our mind thinks we know how things look , but believe me, you will be surprised how much your imagination can differ from the look of the real world. And remember one thing: don't be shy to open hundreds of reference images to get an idea of what you need to achieve to get your shot look real. If you have the option go out and shoot your references on your own. And don't stop to shoot images, take your camera everywhere and snap a pic. It is important to learn how things look, and you won't know it one day, you have to continuously train your eyes.  

Everything I mentioned above will help you to become a good artist. One thing that is rarely talked about is one final important thing. The art of selling yourself. 

Tip number four: LEARN FROM A SALES GUY

To be a great artist is not only the result of your work. You need to be able to convince others, you need to be able to sell your work so to speak. You also need to negotiate your expectations with your clients, since you compete in a project based industry and will hop from one job to the next. A good artist is measured firstly by his work, but he will starve if he misses to promote himself, so that others know about him and his achievements. Be aware that you need to be honest and humble, do not exaggerate or brag with your work. You are part of a team and your results usually are the result of a team effort. Sell yourself good in the HR department, and sell the team and  your mutual successful results. 

These four tips are just a starting point. I will get into details later, but one thing that I need to mention finally on this post:

Nobody can do the job for you. Everything I mentioned above needs to be worked on by yourself. No film school, no education, no online training course will get you a job, you will need to sit down and learn on your own. So switch off the TV and sit down and do your work


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