The Art and Science of
Digital Compositing

book review by Paul Younghusband

Very rarely does one get a book on visual effects that focuses on 2D techniques, and most that do tend to cover a specific software package, such as Photoshop or After Effects. Books that steer away from software-specific material tend to be very basic and give the reader a fundamental grounding in how visual effects work (take for example the Industrial Light & Magic book, Into the Digital Realm). The Art and Science of Digital Compositing, however, is different; it takes an area of visual effects which is rarely recognised and analyses it piece by piece, going deep into the artistic and scientific techniques used to blend together multiple 2D elements seamlessly to create a believable -- yet fictional -- image.

The first thing to note is that this is not a book of tools, nor is it a book of tutorials -- it is a comprehensive 'manual' on the techniques used in digital compositing today; techniques that can be applied in most compositing packages and systems on the market. The depth in which these techniques are explored is unrivalled by any book released in recent years.

As the title of the book suggests, digital compositing is a science as well as an art. The book tends to cover a lot more science than art (although art is covered sufficiently, the science 'chunk' of the book is more substantial), and does get quite technical at times. However, the layout of the book is such that the reader is eased in, starting off with simple things such as file formats, channels, resolution and input devices, and then moved on to explore more complex areas such as matte creation and manipulation, tracking issues, and integration techniques.

Art is covered in what at first appears to be a strange approach -- one chapter is titled "Learning to See." The book gives one a new way of looking at images; colour, contrast, perspective, depth, focus and blur are all areas of image and image manipulation that may seem familiar. However Brinkmann looks at these components that make up an image and discusses how to apply them to digital compositing; how to use them to make composites believable.

The book also contains an extensive glossary, useful if one finds oneself lost in tech-talk. But what is especially useful, is a section of the book that looks at real world examples of digital compositing in film. This is one thing that sets it aside from all other software specific books -- one can actually learn how the techniques explored in the book are being used in the industry today. Also extremely useful, is the guide to file formats, and film formats at the back of the book -- a guide anyone new to digital compositing or visual effects should study meticulously.

An accompanying CD-ROM contains all of the images in the book, and more (for closer examination), however, the 45 or so colour pages in the book are more than adequate to gain understanding of the techniques discussed. Some sample movies would have been a welcome addition to the CD.

Generally speaking, this book is a godsend. Written by Ron Brinkmann, a gentleman with an admirable career history whose film credits include Speed, Die Hard with a Vengeance, Last Action Hero and many more, this book will turn out to be an invaluable insight into the compositing process for aspiring compositors and experienced artists. The Art and Science of Digital Compositing is one of those incredible books that you come away from buzzing with new ideas, and most importantly ways to improve your work. A must-read for anyone serious about getting involved with visual effects and post-production.

The Art and Science of Digital Compositing by Ron Brinkmann. Book & CD-ROM Edition. San Diego, California: Academic Press/Morgan Kaufmann, 1999. 320 pages. ISBN: 0-12-133960-2. (US$54.95)

Paul Younghusband is editor-in-chief of Visual Magic Magazine, a publication focusing on the 3-D graphics and digital effects industries.

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