How to Properly Hate Composites and Visual Effects Works

How to Properly Hate Composites and Visual Effects Works

You may hate heavily post-processed images and videos, but do you hate them the right way? Here's how to properly do it.

It's So Fake

Obvious composites and VFX are not always a subject to hatred, because in some works, we tolerate the immaturity of the technology or the industry at the time.

However, when it comes to contemporary work, being fake is intolerable. With so much information on "how to make it the right way" and the viewers being quite sophisticated, there's no excuse for bad VFX work. Let me clarify something here. This is not a negative emotion towards the story or the fact it was a post-processed work. This is a critique of the skills of the artists who worked on it. When it's bad, it's bad. You can rightfully say that without any hypocrisy.

It's Too Much Work

Have you made any composites or VFX? Have you felt you'd rather pay from your own pocket to shoot the scene for real? Instead, you are fiddling with a Curves layer here, a Hue/Saturation layer there, and a Color Wheels effect on top, wondering why you can't fool your eyes yet, because this piece still looks like glued newspaper cutouts on a canvas. Then, at 2 am, you think you've finally made it and gladly eat the rest of your cold pizza. In the morning, you look at that "finished" work and it looks like your child has played with the adjustment layers' sliders. There's no more suitable moment for spewing out words of negativity against compositing and VFX.

It's Not Meant for VFX

This is when a post-processed work that twists the real world pretends to be of documentary value and recording an event as is. Hate is welcome here when you see any intervention that distorts reality.

I'm a Simple Man: If I Know It's a Composite, I Hate It

There is a type of person who likes a movie very much until they watch a behind-the-scenes video online and they go: "Really? This is what I gave $12 for? To watch computer-generated backgrounds? Couldn't you make a whole medieval village in the middle of the lake with this budget of yours? You're ruining the whole movie!" Remember that this person initially liked the film. Now, this kind of attitude is not right. Hating the production because it fooled you when it was meant to fool the audience? Come on.


Hating fine work because of the tools that were used to produce it is not a mature attitude. A picture or a movie deserves negative feedback only if it's not serving its purpose: telling a story. Otherwise, just let it be, especially if you liked it.

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Tihomir Lazarov's picture


By the way the Oval Office would not be a problem if the photo calls for it and the security doesn't allow you to bring animals.

Leigh Smith's picture

Thats too much work for a picture of a cat

Kurt Lawson's picture

The premise of this extremely short article is absurd.

Movies are fiction and in visual effects we modify the image to serve the story. (Note: I am literally a compositing supervisor in VFX). That could be anything, from removing the crew member accidentally included in the frame to adding an alien space ship in the sky. It could be seamlessly linking takes together so the audience thinks they are one shot. It could be altering the time of day by replacing the sky or altering the timeline by removing anything modern and adding in elements from another era to complete the illusion. But at the core everyone knows they are watching a movie. This is the fundamental identity of the medium itself.

Photography on the other hand has the potential to tell a story *captured*. The camera captured a moment in time. There's a sense of authenticity and reality built into the medium itself. There's an expectation that the photographer captured the lightning striking the mountain. That there was also the rainbow in the scene at the same time. If those are added and not disclosed, then the story is a lie, just like a photo of polar bears at a zoo is a lie if it is claimed to be a photo of wildlife. That doesn't mean these images can't be art, but people need to be honest. The expectation is that not every landscape photo is a VFX shot. Captured images and composites are fundamentally different types of images. One is the story of what happened in front of the camera and the other is what the photographer decided to create in post. Taking authorship of the image by modifying skies or mountains or adding or removing things takes things into another realm. Presenting a composite as a captured image deserves all the hate that such deception will earn. If you make great composites, then be a great compositor. Own your art. Don't lie about it.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Photography is not "on the other hand."

I'm doing a commercial work (both in photography and video) where compositing can be also used for removing something something from the frame, making something in 3D, because the budget didn't allow building a new set, replacing the sky, because the skies were clear or the sky was gray (and you had 20 people on set this day... you usually don't re-shoot that).

Many landscape photographers are using compositing to ehnance their photographs.

The only difference between photography and video is that video has multiple pictures and sound. The purpose is the same: it has to either be a documentary showing an unaltered reality, or it should tell story using the means of compositing. There can be a documentary that reenacts scenes from the 19th century which may require compositing. There can be a documentary that shows the life of a carpenter as is. The same with stills. They can require compositing or not.

I'm attaching 4 images I did over the years. One of them is a composite. They all serve their purpose and none of them is meant to show a real place, although 3 of them do. It would be equally fine if all of them were real or composites. I know that for sure, because I know the projects. If I documented a reality situation, I would not use compositing.

It all depends. But again, photography is not different from that standpoint. VFX and compositing is the same thing. It serves the same purpose.

Kurt Lawson's picture

"VFX and compositing is the same thing. It serves the same purpose"

Yes, compositing is visual effects of a single frame. You skip over entirely my point about the difference between a captured image and a composite. Those are different things. Should we stop calling photography photography and just call it visual effects? Even in the dozens of movies I have worked on, there is a difference between a VFX shot and a normal shot in the movie.

Commercial work (especially advertising) is full of composites, yes. Do people expect ads to be real? Every pixel of every commercial you see on TV or print ad you see in a magazine or online is going to be modified to serve the purpose of trying to get you to buy something. It's deception from the start and by design.

I do landscape photography in my free time, because after all my long days of creating fake images for movies I want to capture images that are real. I want to show off what I saw. I want to showcase the scenes that mother nature created. You seem to be arguing that there is no difference whatsoever in a composited image vs one that is captured. That is crazy to me. You seem to think that a real image of lightning striking a peak should be judged exactly the same as a boring image of the same peak that someone composited a lighting strike into. I'm saying that those are both art but in different categories. Both tell the story of a lightning bolt hitting the peak, but only one of them actually happened.

Foto Toad's picture

I am so torn on this subject; preferring personally nothing but typical color correction and minor touchups. I also (obviously) don't make a living from photography. But on one hand if I can't tell if an image is manipulated then who cares? It's art and it is up to the artist to choose his medium, let the consumer decide.
But, in cases where the expectation of the consumer of content is that the image(s) are totally true to life then there should be full disclosure for those who care about that sort of thing.
Movies generally are either entertainment or educational but photographs are also a record, a recording of time and space and when presented in that context then the expectation is higher.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

When photographing the reality around you and you claim them to be real, using compositing would be a blatant lie. When you photograph a celebrity or you want to create an artistic image that is beyond the budget of the project, you go for compositing. The first image in the example above and it was shot in a similar environment, but I had to find a better "gap" that was composited over the original one. It was an editorial for that climber and we didn't have the budget to get 10 people climb a higher and more impressive mountain spot with all the stills and video gear just for this shot. Could we do that? Yes. Would you pay for that if you were the producer of that photoshoot when the final image would look the same? Would you risk the life of your team of people who are not professional climbers, the gear, and of course the model just to brag: this was shot for real? I don't think so.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

"You seem to be arguing that there is no difference whatsoever in a composited image vs one that is captured."

That sounds crazy to me too. I've never said that, nor have I ever thought about saying such thing.

I mentioned in the article that a composite or a VFX shot is fine when:
- the project is allowed to use such
- it's well made so it doesn't look fake

When you capture landscapes you usually brag about your efforts to travel to a distant location, wait for the right time, and capture an image. If you do a composite saying "this is such and such a location when a lightning struck that tree" you are lying, but if you create a composite that is used in a narrative documentary (stills or video) that wants to show that exact moment which happened in 100 years ago history, it's OK.

The section "It's Not Meant for VFX" is what matters in some cases. It's all common sense, as you know. The principle is exactly the same in video and as in stills. You've seen news reports that are faked both stills and video and this is quite bad, because it twists the truth. There are period movies that also twist the truth whether or not they've used compositing.

Other than that, I agree with the rest of your comments.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

It is a repeat of the Pictorialists vs the Modernists/Realists/f64 people. For some reason people expect a still photo to be real but most of them are enhanced, some a little some a lot.... The only photos that I expect to be free from manipulation are forensic and legal pix

No one expect a movie to be real. For this example it was pretty amazing how much was a VFX but understandable because its a period piece. I saw a BTS of "True Detective" (?) and was amazed at the mundane scenes that were BGI/VFX, a plain parking lot became a big airport parting lot. A crowded street became an empty street.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I agree.

What I also expect to be free from manipulation is the modern-day documentaries or reportage stories where someone had access to a person or a location and showed them without any alteration. But seeing so much truth-twisting content it's just an expectation than an assurance it wasn't manipulated.

The rest can be manipulated as long as it serves its purpose: to entertain, to amuse, to impress.

Lou Bragg's picture

For journalistic and historical purposes composites are unacceptable. For everything else it’s a fair game. When it’s done right, composites can be stunning ....

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Exactly. That's what I strongly agree with.

Pete Tapang's picture

I do toy photography and compositing is a huge part of trying to create an image that looks as real as possible. The sad thing is people often just dismiss my work as "fake" which i find disheartening

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I understand your concerns. You are doing a good job with these. People will always think "it's fake," because you probably don't have access to the film stages and to the actors that are actually playing. If you start making composites with objects that you may have access to, then it will be more convincing and people will have a hard time to tell if that was real or not. As long as you make that for entertainment, it's OK to have people "fooled." Once you start using compositing for twisting the truth, you've gone too far.