Job title: Senior VFX supervisor
Keith Devlin started out as a digital compositor and is now a senior VFX supervisor. His credits include Quantum of Solace, Stardust, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and most recently Tubelight.
Describe your job in your own words
Broadly speaking, a compositor takes disparate elements of film shot at different locations and in different ways and combines them to make a coherent shot so that hopefully you can't see the join. For example, you might be asked to help create a shot of a spaceship landing on a planet. The spaceship could be rendered as CGI on a computer and you would composite that onto a live action shot of a desert.
Just combining two images is about as easy as the job gets. But more often you can be combining tens or even hundreds to make one shot.
When I worked on Alfie, there were many scenes in the film with Jude Law conversing with other characters whilst driving a limo around Manhattan. In real life it's very difficult to control what is going on in a location like Manhattan. So many of the driving scenes were shot in a greenscreen studio with a car that was actually cut in half to allow better access for the camera. These greenscreen foregrounds were matched up with background footage shot in Manhattan from a moving camera car to match the angles used on the initial greenscreen foregrounds.
The difficult part is matching the greenscreen with the real elements. You've got to get the motion right, tweak the angle if there is any mismatch and make sure the background is not bouncing around too much. In the past, a big problem with this type of shot was the obvious mismatch between the motion on the background plate relative to the foreground. Today it's possible to correct this issue to a far higher degree, making the shot more believable for the audience.
How did you get into the industry?
After secondary school I did a one-year foundation audio visual technology course after which I was accepted by the Surrey Institute of Art and Design to the BA (Hons) animation course. During my time there I realised I missed the live action part of the filmmaking process and compositing seemed a good way of combining the main areas I was interested in - animation and cinematography.
After graduating, I had some OK running jobs, mainly in post-production facilities. After two years, I decided enough was enough. I wasn't progressing, so I quit. I worked as a temp and during my free time worked on my own projects. A few months later I bumped into a couple of guys I'd been at college with who were already working at Cinesite and they told me of a vacancy in the data management department. I worked there for two years, becoming familiar with the workings of a large visual effects facility and the packages used. Eventually I moved into the 2D department as a compositor.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out?
An initial role running can actually work out for some people especially in an on-set role . My advice if you take this route in post-production would be to ensure at the very least you secure some down time access to equipment or software that will give you the chance to train yourself. There are openings out there at junior level - you should do all you can to improve your chances of gaining one of these positions by improving your skill set whilst running.
The best way to improve your abilities as a digital compositor is really to learn on the job - even though it can be nerve-racking at first. You tend to carry your experience from one job over to the next. No two compositing jobs are ever the same, which is what makes it so interesting.
If I were to recruit for an entry level position, I'd be after someone who already had a passion for visual effects and could offer up a showreel of work they've accomplished. They'd need creativity coupled with the initiative to go out and try things off their own back without always waiting for external encouragement.
Most of the large visual effects houses in the UK are happy to offer work experience for students studying a related discipline. It can only improve your future chances of an entry level role if you've actually made the effort to spend some time at a professional facility.