During the most dramatic soliloquy of the Oscar nominee Fences, Denzel Washington is giving the performance of a lifetime. The audience has long forgotten that this whole movie was really a 1983 play, or that a performance scaled to the stage is often overbearing when brought to the subtler world of film.
In this moment of Fences, you’re likely in tears. And then you notice the baby. It’s a baby that clearly wasn’t shot on set. A baby that looks like some sort of 2D cutout stuck into Washington’s “hands,” a pair of uncanny digits that cast impossibly algorithmic shadows across the bundle of joy and drama.
It’s a moment that filmmakers should have never tried–but it’s the perfect case in point that demonstrates Hollywood’s extreme confidence when it comes to digital compositing. In fact, 99% of the time, you never notice compositing at all. It’s often invisibly baked into the mise en scène. And here’s a superb and entertaining explainer of what it’s all about, first featured on BoingBoing.
Compositing is really just the layering of different elements within a motion picture frame, which has been around since the dawn of film. But now, post production tools have infused it with Photoshop-like powers–meaning that the disasters, such as that scene in Fences, are easy to spot. But the best special effects are always the ones you don’t see. And compositing can be very, very hard to notice.