Better Composites in 8 Layers

Though more of an art than a science, there are a handful of tried and true techniques in compositing that can help convey your message.

In visual design for video programs, composites are virtually inescapable. Why? Efficiency.

A crowded composite similar to a grocery store ad works in the newspaper where readers can linger on the page during their morning coffee. Not so in video where time often equals money measured in seconds. So in that spirit, here are eight quick steps to help you create better video composites.

1. Set the Anchor

No great painter makes a brushstroke without preparing the canvas first. In compositing, that means thinking about your base layer. If you're sure your final composite will cover every inch of your screen, your base is less important, but if you're not, starting with a background layer that's compatible with your overall design is very smart.

2. Inventory your Elements

Look at each element of your composite carefully and assess how important it is to the overall communications goal. Then rank the relative importance of each element against the others. For instance, if your video promotes a service that you expect most of the customers to come from Web sales, the Web site address might be more important to the success of the ad, than the telephone number. Therefore, the Web site address might deserve more prominence in the composite.

3. Allot the Space

The essential art of layout is the arrangement of things in two-dimensional space. In our video example, we have half a dozen elements competing for space. A background layer, the talking head, the phone number, the map, a Web site and the business logo — all of them need their own space if we expect the audience to take in the information efficiently. We can manipulate each item in terms of size, position, opacity and even its position in front of or behind other elements.

4. Work in layers

As you build each layer of your composite, it's important to make sure each layer has the necessary transparency in parts where the lower layers need to show through. You don't want to find something on layer 1 obscuring something on layer 2 –
unless that is how you want the design to appear. Pre-visualize the project before building your assets.

5. Manage Time

Unlike 2D still image composites, the video composite incorporates a third dimension of time. Your composite may have two elements to begin with (the announcer and a name of the product). However, it's equally possible it will have five in a few seconds into the scene (at the Web site, phone number and credit card logos). The smart compositing artist will look at the elements of the composite design and determine if displaying or hiding elements of the composite over time will enhance the ability of the composite to communicate the message and motivate the viewer to perform the desired action.

6. Find Method in Movement

Movement attracts the eye. An element in motion against a static scene will usually cause the viewer to look at whatever is moving. So, motion becomes another essential element in building a composite. A classic example is the phone number explosion. Good design has a clear visual flow. Often that means a strong element to initially attract the eye and as the brain takes in the information about that element, there's a passage of the eye to the next element, and the next, so that there's a comfortable visual progression from one composite element to the next.

7. Know your Audience

In the European-American reading style, we read left to right, top to bottom. So, our eyes are trained to follow this pattern. Designers often use this natural progression in their arrangement of images. The face in the upper left is leading the viewers eye right and down. The headline continues the same path. The eye resets itself down and left, just like we do in reading, then catches the business slogan. Finally, we go back and pick up the web address, again scanning left to right.

Does this mean that all design has to run left to right, top to bottom? Heck no. Great designers break the rules all the time. Nevertheless, rule breaking typically works best when there's a reason to break the rules and when you understand when it works and when it doesn't.

8. Keep it Balanced

Good compositors often talk about a design's "balance." This is the artistic concept of providing visual symmetry (or at least planned asymmetry,) in an overall design. If you have a large visual element like a strong picture in the upper left part of your design, what is going to balance that on the right side or lower parts of the ad? Visual balance isn't always necessarily about things on the screen. Good designers understand that negative space or areas of the design that are clear of material have their own design weight.

The Final Form

While I've tried to point out some good basic design elements and common rules, the bottom line is that good design is usually more art than science. In compositing, the best path is to look at what you must display. Analyze the importance of the elements, and start by giving them the appropriate prominence. Then get them on the page and mix them up and see how things flow. If a part of the composite looks or feels wrong, think about what you can do to help it look better and redesign it.

The number one goal is clear communications, followed by visual interest. Happy compositing.

Contributing Editor Bill Davis writes, shoots, edits, and does voiceover work for a variety of corporate and industrial clients.

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