Knowing and a few fundamental, yet essential, compositing tricks will go a long way — both on set and in post-production.


What Is a Composite?

A composite is a combination of multiple visual elements in a single image. Some can be incredibly complex, requiring motion tracking, chroma keying, and rotoscoping. Others can be as simple as adding a mask. For this tutorial, I’ll be focusing on the simple method. So if you’re a beginner, you’re in the right place. 

Creating these composites will require nothing more than a tripod and any editing application that allows you to stack layers and add masks. For these particular examples, I’ll be using Adobe After Effects. Now, let’s have a look at the five techniques.


1. Cloning

First up is cloning. This is a very specific, very fun little trick. You won’t necessarily use this on most productions, but I actually had to use this trick in some examples for this tutorial because I couldn’t get anyone else to be in the video. So for this reason, I feel like I had to throw it in. 

Cloned Men Standing in Front of a Building
Cloning a person in different positions in front of a building.
Trimming and Masking Cloned Men
After capturing each shot in different positions, trim and mask.

Here, I have my shot locked down on a tripod, and I’m standing in different locations for ten seconds at a time. Once I bring the clip into After Effects, I’ll simply duplicate it multiple times and stack them together. Next, I’ll trim each clip to the individual clone locations, lining them all up at the beginning of their ten-second increments. Now I can mask around each clone, feathering the mask out to cover up any light changes.


2. Transition with Foreground Objects

In a previous tutorial, I demonstrated how to perform a foreground transition. This is when you use an object moving through the foreground of your shot to reveal the next shot. This wipe transition is actually a basic composite. For the duration of the wipe, we have two images onscreen at the same time, creating a seamless transition. 

Transitioning the Foreground Object
Transitioning the foreground.
Transitioning the Foreground
Overlapping two clips.

To perform this, simply overlap two clips, with the top layer containing the foreground object where you’ll attach the wipe. In this example, the object is a person walking through the frame. To achieve the composite, I’ll simply add a mask on the back side of the person, animating the path as it moves through the frame, revealing the underlying clip.


3. Fake Depth

Let’s say you have two actors in a shot, and you want both of them to be in sharp focus, but the depth of field is too shallow. Getting a good shot will require a combination of manipulating the aperture, focal length, lighting, and blocking. If you still can’t get the depth of field you desire by adjusting these elements, you can always use a rack focus or even a split focus diopter. 

Fake Depth of Field
Using a rack focus or split focus diopter to attain depth of field.
Fake Depth of Field
Adding fake depth of field to a clone shot.

With basic compositing, you can easily fake depth in a shot. Simply shoot your actors separately with the exact same camera setup/shot composition, but with each subject in sharp focus. Once in post, composite the two shots with a simple mask. Feather the mask to help hide the edges or any changes in light. In the example above, I’m adding fake depth to a clone shot, because I have no friends to help me shoot videos . . .


4. Retime Dialogue Scenes

In addition to faking depth in a shot, you can also use basic compositing to creatively edit dialogue scenes. This is also known as the Fincher method, as filmmaker David Fincher uses this technique in production. 

Dialogue Scene
Using basic composition to edit a dialogue scene.
Dialogue Scene
Make sure the clips don’t overlap.

You execute this in much the same manner as faking depth — only you can place both actors in the scene at the same time while shooting. Just make sure that they’re not overlapping, otherwise you’ll have to get into some advanced compositing methods, instead of using a simple mask. With the actors split in post, you can retime reaction shots or even use shots from entirely different takes. 


5. Remove Objects

While you can use compositing to add elements to your scene, you can also use it to take things out. For example, in this shot I’m going to remove a small microphone and a backpack. This technique will allow me to keep the microphone close to me while recording, while still removing it from the frame. To accomplish this, I’ll need to capture a clean plate. 

Man on a Bench
Removing objects from a shot.
An Empty Bench
Start with a clean plate.
Man on a Bench
Masking out the microphone and backpack.

For the clean plate, I’ll simply grab footage of the same scene with an empty bench. This shot is “clean” because none of the subjects are in frame — it’s just the background of the scene. This is where the importance of the tripod comes into play. If I change the shot composition between scenes at all, I’ll lose the effect and have to reposition in post. Once in post, I’ll simply stack the two layers, and mask out the microphone and backpack.


Final Thoughts

To recap, remember to follow these best practices to get quick and easy composites:

  • Use a tripod.
  • Watch for changes in the lighting.
  • Pay attention to subjects moving through the background and foreground.
  • Feather the mask.
  • Bonus Tip: Add camera shake to really sell the realism of your composite shots.

Interested in the tracks we used to make this video?

Looking for more video production tips? Check these out.