Visual Math

“Joe, compositing is like visual math.”
I think my colleague meant that to sound comforting. Instead, his words sent a chill down my spine because I really wasn’t very good at math. It was at this moment that I realized that I sucked as a compositor.  The year was 2003.  I was in Quebec, working on Spy Kids 3D at Hybride Technologies.

Let me back up a bit.  I had graduated from a media arts program from Sheridan College a few years earlier.  In that program, which was mostly all about broadcasting and film production, I took an intro to visual effects course that consisted of basic After Effects compositing.  From there I had managed to get an internship at a local post house in Toronto, and then at a small visual effects shop.  After working on some low budget TV movies, work had dried up (at least for me) in Toronto, so I went off to Quebec, where I was  hired as a compositor for Spy Kids 3D.

At the time, I thought I really knew my stuff.  I was at that point in my learning curve where I was so ignorant, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

Hybride at the time was a major Discreet house.  They had a close relationship with Discreet, and had several Infernos and Flames.  For those of you unfamiliar with Inferno and Flame, they were (and still are) dedicated compositing systems, that were extremely expensive.  Although desktop programs like Shake were becoming more and more prevalent in FX studios, the name “Inferno” still carried a lot of mystique and weight.

At the Toronto effects shop where I had worked, they had one Inferno with two Flames and two Flints.  At Hybride they had something like six Infernos and six more Flames.  It blew my mind that they had so much stuff.

They also had several compers who had worked at Discreet, so they knew those systems inside and out.  They were compositing ninjas.  They would talk about compositing at a much higher level than what I knew.  Things like ‘you should divide your RGB by your alpha before you color correct’ sounded like an alien language.  I was a caveman, rubbing two sticks together while they had flamethrowers.

My supervisors quickly realized how little I knew, so I was put on prep duty for most of the show.  But from time to time, some of the senior compers would show me what they were doing.  That was when I was told ‘Digital compositing is like visual math’,  which just freaked me out more than I already was.  They would show me stuff and most of it flew over my head, but it greatly opened my mind. 

I left Quebec when Spy Kids was over.  When I arrived, I thought I knew a lot about compositing, but I really knew very little.  Before Quebec, when a technical issue would pop up in one of my shots, I would flail around trying every button, redoing things from scratch, anything I could do to solve the problem. 

At Hybride, I learned that things happen inside a comp for a reason.  Compositing isn’t magic, it’s a system based on math (sometimes surprisingly basic math).  I saw compositors who understood why things happen - they weren’t just button pushers.  They were able to elegantly solve problems that would have had me hack together clumsy solutions.  More importantly, I saw them approach things logically, avoiding many of the problems that I often ran into.

Before I left for Quebec, I had ordered the Steve Wright book, Digital Compositing for Film and Video.  I had read the book before I left for my trip to Hybride, and I only understood about a third of it.  When I came back, I re-read it.  I don’t want to overstate this, but the second reading was a personal turning point.  It was like a bubble had popped, or a gear had turned in my brain.  The exposure to what I saw at Hybride, combined with Wright’s book, gave me a new understanding of compositing.  Not only did I now totally understand Wright’s book, but thinking back, I now understood what those senior compositors were trying to explain to me.
This newfound understanding was a big deal.  It fundamentally changed how I approached shots, especially when it came to keying and color correction.  It also gave me a boost in self-esteem.  The entire experience in Quebec left me doubting myself for months.  I now felt that maybe I could really wrap my head around compositing, and who knows, maybe one day be as good as those Hybride ninjas.