What does a 2D Visual Effects (VFX) artist do?

Escape Studios Students

by Allar Kaasik (Compositing Tutor, Escape Studios)

When I meet people and tell them that I work as a Compositor I usually receive a blank look (at better times accompanied by the raised eyebrow of curiosity), so I usually follow this is with a quick explanation: “You know... when a 3D artist makes something like a robot, a dinosaur, a dragon or a spaceship... I put it together with the rest of the footage and make it look real!” 

Apply to be a Student Volunteer at Siggraph 2016. 
Apply to be a Student Volunteer at Siggraph 2016. 
Apply to be a Student Volunteer at Siggraph 2016. 
The SIGGRAPH 2016 Student Volunteer Program is a unique opportunity for students to engage in all areas of the conference while contributing behind-the-scenes to the overall success of this prestigious event. The benefits of being a Student Volunteer extend beyond the free full conference registration and include:
The SIGGRAPH 2016 Student Volunteer Program is a unique opportunity for students to engage in all areas of the conference while contributing behind-the-scenes to the overall success of this prestigious event. The benefits of being a Student Volunteer extend beyond the free full conference registration and include:
The SIGGRAPH 2016 Student Volunteer Program is a unique opportunity for students to engage in all areas of the conference while contributing behind-the-scenes to the overall success of this prestigious event. The benefits of being a Student Volunteer extend beyond the free full conference registration and include:
The SIGGRAPH 2016 Student Volunteer Program is a unique opportunity for students to engage in all areas of the conference while contributing behind-the-scenes to the overall success of this prestigious event. The benefits of being a Student Volunteer extend beyond the free full conference registration and include:
The SIGGRAPH 2016 Student Volunteer Program is a unique opportunity for students to engage in all areas of the conference while contributing behind-the-scenes to the overall success of this prestigious event. The benefits of being a Student Volunteer extend beyond the free full conference registration and include:
The SIGGRAPH 2016 Student Volunteer Program is a unique opportunity for students to engage in all areas of the conference while contributing behind-the-scenes to the overall success of this prestigious event. The benefits of being a Student Volunteer extend beyond the free full conference registration and include:
The SIGGRAPH 2016 Student Volunteer Program is a unique opportunity for students to engage in all areas of the conference while contributing behind-the-scenes to the overall success of this prestigious event. The benefits of being a Student Volunteer extend beyond the free full conference registration and include:
The SIGGRAPH 2016 Student Volunteer Program is a unique opportunity for students to engage in all areas of the conference while contributing behind-the-scenes to the overall success of this prestigious event. The benefits of being a Student Volunteer extend beyond the free full conference registration and include:
The SIGGRAPH 2016 Student Volunteer Program is a unique opportunity for students to engage in all areas of the conference while contributing behind-the-scenes to the overall success of this prestigious event. The benefits of being a Student Volunteer extend beyond the free full conference registration and include:

A 2D department in a VFX company does not actually have too many specialties. There are people who work doing “prep”, people doing “comp” (people like me) and people doing matte painting.

The “roto/prep” is often considered to be the entry level job, where the art of rotoscoping involves manually tracing people to separate them from the background. Why would anyone need this? Well… imagine a knight on a horse… riding really fast… fighting a flying dragon in the woods... We can film the knight in the woods and make a dragon in 3D, but to composite the two together we need to tell the computer where the knight ends and the background begins. The compositor can then take this traced roto information (often called a “mask”) and make sure that he puts the dragon only over the background and not over the knight. I hear you saying in your mind “but I’ve heard that you can just use a green screen and shoot your knight in front of that and then you can just replace the green with a new background and then it doesn’t even matter if you have dragons or no dragons!” Your mind is totally correct! Using a green screen to separate your elements is a great technique that is very-very helpful when used appropriately, but in some scenarios it’s might also be infeasible. In our case, we would need a green-screen for the whole length of the riding shot (and potentially big enough for the horse as well). Sometimes, it’s just easier to get a dedicated roto-artist (and rotoscoping is an art!

It’s a skill that deserves books written about it!) to manually trace the elements before handing them over to the compositor.

While all this is going on a matte-painter creates realistic images of places that have never existed. Let’s say... that after the woods our knight ends up near a cliff with a castle high on a mountain in the background. “Doesn’t the 3D department create those as well?” I hear new questions in your mind... Good question! Thanks for asking! There actually are dedicated 3D environment departments and some VFX companies also include their matte painters there, while others keep them in the 2D department, since if the castle is far enough in the distance we only ever see it from one angle so a single painting will do (a single painting that is so well drawn that you can’t tell that it’s not a photo).

In the end, the wounded knight falls off his trusty horse (...and when the knight faaalls… loneliness calls... Oooh... I wanna dance with somebody…). Our actor, a precious gem, will be padded with protection and given a soft mattress to gently land onto - items that are too incongruent to the rest of the art direction in that scene, so the shot will be handed over to a “prep” artist for a “clean-up”. A very challenging task, since the art of removing objects from a shot mainly consists of recreating what was originally meant to be behind them in a way that ends up (you guessed it) looking real! Often compositors will have a worked in “prep” before becoming compositors, but some very big places like ILM consider “prep” as its own specialism and experts in that field are on the same (pay, honour and glory) level as compositors.

So standing on the shoulders of giants (the big and friendly ones) the compositor can take all these elements from 3D and from 2D and combine them to a final piece. The more real the elements look, the easier his task will be, but also as a final piece in the chain he won’t have anyone else to pass on any half-finished work. What the compositor creates has to look real! It has to look like we were really there, in this real magic forest filming a real dragon fighting a real knight.

That’s what 2D artists do!

Will Jones' student work
Will Jones' student work
Will Jones' student work
William Jones' student work
William Jones' student work

Will Jones studied on our Advanced Compositing for VFX course and collaborated with a 3D student Ariel Flores to create this homage to the old-school Transformers. It is a great example, how a compositor can take great work from 3D and from cinematography and add his own creative touch to it, to first make us believe that the big robot was actually there, but also to convey the appropriate mood and atmosphere through the choices of colour and fog-effects.

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