The number 1 skill you can learn to become a great compositor: color matching
The first essential of VFX compositing, whether in After Effects or not, isn’t pulling a key, knowing how to handle channels, or understanding plug-ins. If you can’t match, you can’t composite.
Now if you can match, in visual effects lingo, we say you have a “good eye.”
But there is not some part of your body that is good or bad. In this case, it’s a learnable skill to recognize what makes a seamless match.
This is the first in a series of lessons for anyone who wants to be more effective with visual effects in Adobe After Effects. They’re particularly helpful if you’re a video professional but barely familiar with where to even start with visual effects post-production.
Maybe you’re an editor who sees a lot of the best jobs asking for After Effects skills. They want you to alter not just the cut but the contents of the shot itself. Or you’re a designer who uses After Effects daily but you find yourself guessing when it comes to visual effects. You could be a shooter who knows how to compose a shot, but has only a vague idea how to fix it in post.
Compositors match things. That’s the very definition of what VFX compositing is: taking elements shot at different times, even in different places with different cameras—or even elements that only exist on a computer—and matching and massaging them to appear as if one camera captured them in real time.
Those three words, “compositors match things” easily add up to weeks of work on one shot for a Hollywood feature. Or you can turn around a quick fix in minutes. Once you master this technique, you can match almost any two elements together, as long as their source lighting doesn’t go in different directions.
In the lesson I present a technique you can use to match color even if you have symptoms of color-blindness. You don’t need a color-calibrated monitor because the accuracy you’re going for is all within the shot itself. No matter how good your color sensitivity is, your eye is much more sensitive to subtleties of contrast than of color. This approach exploits that fact.
This video lesson can also be found at Lynda.com. It links to hours more exploration of the topic of matching. However, this one lesson describes the theme on which you could say that those examples are variations. There’s most often more to matching than just color, but after motion, color is generally the starting point.
Note that you don’t need the elements used for this lesson to practice this technique on your own. Try it with any foreground and background element you might have on hand. Even a black to white gradient over a still image allows you to perform this skill.
The bigger picture
My own approach to color matching was more haphazard until I was able to work with some of the best VFX artists in the world. I began to learn that even shots that initially seem indistinguishable from magic are made up of learnable building blocks. If there is any “secret sauce” needed for the shot—something extraordinary, even proprietary invented technique—that is accompanied by 90% (or more) bread-and-butter visual effects fundamentals.
I really enjoy working this way. I’m still using my eye. Although the approach is as scientific as possible, in most cases good artistic judgment is required as well. I’m not even sure I would want this process to be automated. I’ve learned a lot about how the color channels work with one another by examining each, individually. Over time, I’ve gained a sense how to adjust them without always going to individual channels. But even I happily return to this approach all the time.