Creative Composites Breakthrough: It Takes a Village

Today, I'm going to depart from my usual format. Rather than writing a step-by-step tutorial, I'd like to share a personal story about giving yourself permission to listen deeply to your creative soul.

For as long as I can remember, I've had a passion for compositing. In recent years, thanks in part to Matt Kloskowski's Photoshop Compositing Secrets book, Corey Barker's Down & Dirty Tricks for Designers book, and the remarkable video tutorials of Joel Grimes, I've gone deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole of compositing. More than anything, I've enjoyed crafting composites that look like they belong on movie posters or book covers. Here are a few recent examples.

When I dream of all the creative possibilities associated with compositing, I experience an actual glow in my heart that sometimes keeps me up at night. But despite my best efforts to do what I love on a consistent basis, until recently, I kept bumping into a self-created barrier. That barrier was a desire to be in charge of every aspect of the compositing process. This meant photographing the model, the background, and the design elements (such as fire, smoke, dirt, or sparks). After the shoots, I would spend hours blending the images with Photoshop to produce something that made my heart sing. The process was definitely fun, but required more time than I had available. So despite loving to composite, I just wasn't finding time to do it. Then I had a breakthrough.

During a recent visit to Los Angeles, I had the good fortune of visiting my friend Chris Wood who was one of the lead compositors on the Oscar-winning film, Life of Pi. He took me on a tour of the Rhythm & Hues studio and gave me a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the composites from the movie. While I was looking over his shoulder and listening to his commentary, it suddenly dawned on me that these mind-blowing composites were not the creation of a single artist. They represented a collaborative effort between dozens of people, including 3D artists, matte painters, color and lighting specialists, and compositors like Chris. It literally took a village of talented and dedicated artists to create the masterpieces that we all enjoy when we go to the movies. Wow! That's when it hit me that it is okay to stop trying to be in charge of every aspect of the compositing process. Suddenly I was giving myself permission to use stock photos, 3D elements, and illustrations in order to get back to what I love mostâ¦compositing. These images, captured or created by others, would become my creative community. But then I had a thought that made my heart sink.

How was I going to afford all of the images that I need? Fortunately, the answer to this question arrived quickly. During my online search for stock images, I realized that some sites, such as Shutterstock, have reasonably priced plans that allow you to download a surprising number of high-quality, high-res images over a designated period of time, such as a month or year.

The day after discovering that I could actually afford lots of stock images, I began assembling images into a Shutterstock lightbox. As I searched for images and added them to the lightbox, several things happened. I started dreaming. The landscape of creative possibilities unfolded before me. I also stumbled across volumes of images that inspired me. By patiently adding images to the lightbox before buying, I gave myself time to scour the inventory for images that excited me most. At last, when I was satisfied with the quality and depth of images in the lightbox, I ordered a subscription and started downloading. The process of downloading each day felt a lot like opening birthday gifts. During the first week of my subscription alone, I generated more composites than I had in the previous six months. And although the original photos are not my own, I'm enjoying the creative process beyond measure. It's true that if you begin with great raw materials (no matter who creates them), and you take the time to develop the skills necessary to composite them, there really is no limit to what's possible! Giving myself permission to be creative again (even at the expense of sacrificing control) is a decision that I'll try to hold close to my artist's heart for years to come.

If you'd like to go deeper with compositing, you may be interested in viewing my Dramatic Portrait Compositing video tutorial series.

Mark S. Johnson Photography


1 comment

  1. Clinton Lofthouswe 22 July, 2013 at 01:57 Reply

    Hi, mark, i was wondering, what are the rules of using stock photos for your composites? I thought about joining istock photo so i could get photos for my composites, but when i read the rules (which i didn’t fully understand) it sounded like you could not use them in personal work. I wanted some backgrounds of america, which i can’t get myself because i live in the uk. So is it allowed to do this?

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