Visual effects (VFX)

Compositor

Also known as: Compositing artist, Finishing artist, Visual effects (VFX) artist

Compositor

What does a compositor do?

Compositors create the final image of a frame, shot or VFX sequence. They take all the different digital materials used (assets), such as computer-generated (CG) images, live action footage and matte paintings, and combine them to appear as one cohesive image and shot.

Compositors consider visual aspects of a scene. Realistic lighting is a key one of these. Anything caused by light hitting a lens is a compositor’s responsibility. They relight in order to improve the look of the image.

Compositors do ‘chroma keying’ (also just called keying). This is where they select a specific part of an image that has a distinct colour or lighting and extract it to be used elsewhere. This method is commonly used with ‘green screen’ or ‘blue screen’ footage, where a subject has been shot in front of a singularly green or blue background, in order to be able to place the subject in a different setting or environment later, in post-production.

Compositors work as the last part of a VFX 'pipeline’ (the name given to the VFX production process). They can be employed by VFX studios or work as freelancers.

Watch and read

What’s a compositor good at?

  • A good eye: recognise what makes an image appear realistic in terms of light, colour, composition and perspective
  • Knowledge of photography: understand cameras, cinematography and how films are made
  • Knowledge of compositing programs: be adept at using relevant programs such as After Effects, Blackmagic Fusion, Houdini, Maya, Nuke and Photoshop
  • Collaboration: be able to work with other VFX artists, use each other’s resources effectively and efficiently
  • Working to deadlines: work within given time frames, be able to complete work under pressure

Tools of the trade

These are some of the tools used by professionals.

  • Image editing software: Adobe Photoshop
  • Compositing and digital painting software: 3ds Max, After Effects, Arnold, V-Ray, Blackmagic Fusion, Houdini, Maya, Mental Ray, Nuke and RenderMan

You can learn how to model using free software. Go to build your VFX portfolio for a list of what’s available.

Who does a compositor work with?

Lighting technical director (TD)

There is some overlap between, and blurring of responsibilities of, the work of compositors and lighting technical directors (TDs). Lighting TDs need to understand how compositors use different passes in order to supply them with ‘background plates’. (Background plates, or clean plates, are shots of a scene, either moving or still, without any of the foreground action or players included, shot in addition to the action footage, but otherwise identical). See separate profile: Lighting TD

Roto artist

Roto artists work closely with compositors, as the mattes which roto artists produce serve as important layers for compositors to work with. Often, roto artists work towards being promoted to a compositor position. Compositors are expected to know how to rotoscope. See separate profile: Roto artist

Prep artist

Prep artists create clean plates for compositors. (‘Plates’, ‘background plates’, or ‘clean plates’: are shots of a scene, either moving or still, without any of the foreground action or players included, shot in addition to the action footage, but otherwise identical.) See separate profile: Prep artist

How do I become a compositor?

The most important thing that you can do to become a compositor is to create a showreel to illustrate your abilities to potential employers. A degree in VFX is useful too, especially as it gives you time to build up a portfolio. Most compositors start as a runner or junior VFX artist for a VFX studio and work their way up. However, some studios take on junior compositors too.

At school or college:
You can take A-levels or Highers in art, art and design, graphic design, computing or computer science, maths, physics, and graphic communication. Or you might want to take any of the following Level 3 vocational qualifications:

  • BTEC National Diploma/Extended Diploma in Art and Design
  • NCFE Applied General Certificate in Art and Design
  • UAL Applied General Diploma/Extended Diploma in Art and Design
  • BTEC National Diploma/Extended Diploma in Computing

If you want to go straight into a job or apprenticeship, the following Level 3 vocational qualifications will equip you:

  • Aim Awards Diploma/Extended Diploma in Games Animation and VFX
  • OCR Cambridge Technical Diploma in Art and Design (3D Design)
  • OCR Cambridge Technical Diploma in Art and Design (Graphic Design)
  • OCR Cambridge Technical Diploma in Art and Design (Photography)
  • BTEC National Diploma in Graphics
  • BTEC National Diploma in Photography
  • UAL Diploma/Extended Diploma in Art and Design
  • BTEC National Diploma in Film and Television Visual Effects
  • AQA Technical Level IT: Programming
  • OCR Technical Diploma in IT (Digital Software Practitioner)
  • BTEC National Diploma in Computing for Creative Industries

Get an apprenticeship:
Apprenticeships are jobs with training. They’re a great opportunity to earn while you learn. NextGen Skills Academy offers VFX apprenticeships for school leavers. These involve a lot of learning on the job working in a VFX company.

If you can’t find an apprenticeship with a VFX company, it might be worth getting an apprenticeship in a related industry, which could give you some experience to help you find your way into VFX at a later point.

These are some apprenticeships that might be available throughout the UK:

Before taking any apprenticeship, check what you’ll be learning with your prospective employer and college, so you can be sure it will be giving you the skills you want. Go to how to become an apprentice to learn how to find apprenticeships in your region or approach companies directly.

Build a portfolio:
Learn how to use, and then experiment with, VFX programs and create an animation showreel that you can show to admissions tutors or employers. This is essential. Go to build your VFX portfolio to learn how. Watch ScreenSkills’ advice on VFX showreels. It’s really important to develop your appreciation for VFX. Make sure you’re familiar with what’s out there.

Get a degree:
Provided you have strong showreel and know VFX software, it’s not essential to get a degree to become a compositor – but it might help. Have a look at ScreenSkills’ list of recommended courses and select one in VFX. We recognise courses with our ScreenSkills Select award where they offer training in the relevant software, dedicated time to building a portfolio and have strong links with the VFX industry.

Take a short course:
Hone your skills in compositing by taking a specialist course. Go to the list of training courses recommended by ScreenSkills and see if there is one in compositing or VFX.

Network:
Get to know people in VFX by attending events. Meet professionals and ask them questions about their work, while demonstrating interest and knowledge in the sector. Offer to provide them with your professional contact details and try to stay in touch with them. Go to how to network well to learn how to do this.

Search for jobs:
Research VFX companies you’d like to work for. Go to their websites and check if they are advertising for junior compositor roles. Even if they aren’t, send in your CV and showreel and ask them to bear you in mind for future positions. Keep looking on job websites too. ArtStation is a good example of a site that includes job listings in animation, games and VFX (remember to filter its job listings by country). ScreenSkills offers some advice from professionals on how to approach animation and VFX employers.

You might also be interested in…

Learning to code and being a graphics programmer in the games industry.

Further resources