Practicals: The Magic of Digital Compositing

Julia Cowell sitting in front of a colored background in a raw shot prior to compositing.

With video effects software like Adobe’s After Effects and Final Cut’s Motion, digital compositing has opened up a whole new field of locations and set pieces for low-budget filmmakers to explore. That is, if you know how to make it look convincing.

The elements of your digital composite shot are just as important as the composite itself. If any are out of line with the others, then your entire shot will feel unnatural. This goes especially for the elements you are shooting, such as the actors who may be inserted into a background. Things like perspective, staging, scale, and above all lighting must be analyzed and executed correctly. If not, your shot will draw attention to itself and simply become “unbelievable”. This will hurt your story.


In creating this episode, it was the lighting of elements that constantly stuck out as the major factor that contributed to a good composite. Because lighting defines all the depth and shape we see, we immediately can tell when it’s not correct. So to make this first go around easier, and because the weather was such, we decided to light all our elements as if it was a cloudy, snowy day (which it was at points).

Selecting Elements

After filming, we worked backwards and picked elements that would fit our lighting as best it could, including coloring certain elements to make their palette flatter and more in keeping with the Sony F5 Cine S-Log 3 footage we filmed on, knowing we would do a final color grade at the end of the pipeline.

Bringing all these into After Effects, it took a little more than a day to figure out where all the different elements needed to be in the timeline. After adding a digital camera move that was a last minute idea, we exported a flat Quicktime file to FCPX for a color grade and some grain.

Digital compositing, especially in After Effects, gives you a lot of room to play around and invent. But again, you have to know the tools to make it look natural. Certain things, no matter how much you alter them in post, will never look natural when put together. So plan accordingly. It’s always better to know what you want then not.