Layering & Variety – 2 Essential Compositing Techniques

com·pos·ite – to combine (two or more images) to make a single picture, especially electronically

While I was creating the Warzone template I was using the Battlefield 1 trailer end title as reference. If you are replicating VFX from another source it’s important to have that source handy. Continually cross-checking the original with your version is essential in perfecting the look. But what is it that separates the professional work from the amateur? How can you get to that level of detail on your own?

Layering

There are not many instances where you’ll be able to get away with using one or two layers in your composite and have a good-looking final result. Real life is complex; events that occur contain many things happening at once.

Here’s an example: you want to composite an explosion onto a street. So you search YouTube for stock footage and find that one explosion that everyone uses, you download it, put it on top of your video footage and set the Blending Mode to Screen. Done, right? Not quite. Here are a few things I would add to make it more realistic:

  • Dirt and Debris Charge
  • Lens Flares, Lens Dirt, and Glow
  • Environment Lighting
  • Smoke
  • Shockwave
  • Camera Shake

I’m sure I could go on and eventually have a full tutorial in a single blog post, but the point is if you feel your VFX are missing something, they probably are lacking key elements that would be there in real life. I find it easiest to imagine what would happen if I did the effect practically, and then add in what’s missing.

Going back to the Warzone template: there are several elements happening at once and I knew this going in because I had an original to reference. If I had just put one particle simulation behind white text, it would be boring. Every addition you make should add character to the final product. The small scan lines and orange anamorphic flare adds detail and color to the words. The background smoke adds texture and the multiple flares add variation in the base color. Adding fine details and extra layers creates variety, which is the next important step to more realistic effects.

Variety

If an element in your VFX is a solid color, like a fractal noise layer or a Plane, you should probably change it. Almost nothing in real life is one color. An anamorphic lens flare isn’t just royal blue; it’s usually bright white in the very center, a small amount of light blue fringe around the edge of the hotspot, varying colors of cyan and purple stripes, and has a strong blue glow around the whole thing. If you’re not sure which colors to add into your element, try learning some color theory. Knowing about complementary and analogous colors has helped me make more visually appealing work.

In the Warzone preset I made sure to not have exactly the same types of particles throughout. The Movement and Appearance Variation controls help make the simulation less uniform by varying attributes like size, life, speed, rotation, and color. With sparks or embers this is essential so that they don’t all look like the exact same texture.

If you’re going to copy and paste an effect in your composite you should check its settings and see if it has a Seed value. Procedurally generated effects like particles, lightning, and fractal noise all have this option which defaults to 1. Changing it results in a new randomly generated scenario, and creates variety if you have more than one of the same thing.

The combination of layering multiple varied elements creates intricate, randomized, and ultimately more realistic effects.

These tips don’t apply just to live action- try using these methods in your motion graphics to make them more organic. Let me know if you have any other suggestions below. Thanks for reading!

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