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VFX Basics: Compositing, Rotoscoping, and Mattes

VFX Basics: Compositing, Rotoscoping, and Mattes

In this look at some of Hollywood’s favorite movie magic tricks, learn from filmmaking masters and VFX artists to put your characters anywhere you can imagine through film compositing, rotoscoping, and matte paintings.


Compositing is the process of combining multiple visual elements from various sources into a single image or sequence. It can be as simple as overlaying two photos or as complex as combining elements, images, and footage.

You might be most familiar with compositing in terms of green screen. With green screen footage, you will take the subject in front of the green screen, key out the green, and then composite with a background or matte painting.

You can see a perfect example of the many things you can create with composting in this Art of Compositing video by Roy Peker.

For more on compositing, check out these interesting articles:


Rotoscoping began as an animation technique, in which animators traced over film footage to create realistic character movement. Later Walt Disney would adapt the technique to use film footage of real actors as reference material for his animated films. Here is a glimpse at rotoscoping from the Disney film Pinnocchio.

Later, artists used rotoscoping to remove wire rigs — once again an innovation by the artists at Disney. See how they used rotoscoping to bring the world of Mary Poppins to life.

Today VFX artists use it to remove wires, safety rigs, and other objects and elements. Roto artists are in charge of a variety of VFX tasks, including green screen compositing, motion tracking, cloning, and much more.

For more, check out these tutorials:

Matte Paintings and Digital Mattes

Matte paintings are one of the oldest VFX techniques, used first by photographers and then filmmakers. Back in the late 1800s, filmmaking legend Georges Méliès used painted glass panes to create physical mattes to create VFX all in-camera. In the 1898 film Un Homme de Têtes – Four Heads Are Better Than One — Méliès would shoot himself in one position on camera with mattes placed around him. Then he would roll back the film reel and reshoot — this time standing where there was once a black matte. This would create the look of multiple heads on screen at once.

For a more modern look at the use of matte paintings, here is a classic YouTube video from the early days of Sam and Niko video tutorials.

For more on matte paintings, check out these tutorials and articles:

Want to see the result of all of these techniques? Check out this interview with VFX studio Atomic Fiction. I’d also recommend reading up on the VFX workflow and how the VFX pipeline actually works.

Top image by Ovocim.

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