This article was sparked by a good friend, and a junior colleague, who both approached me with similar questions of, “How do I become a better Compositor?” This is something I believe we should all ask ourselves from time to time, no matter our years of experience, and is a question that doesn’t restrict itself to VFX but instead applies to all walks of life. Whilst on the more philosophical side, I feel this article is relevant to everyone, and I hope my thoughts on the matter inspire you to reach for greater heights.
To solve the question of, “how do I be better?”, we first have to get specific and determine the root cause of the problem; The need to improve is often coupled with a sense of inadequacy, which isn’t an entirely accurate self-assessment. This is the most pertinent issue I want to address in this article.
The TL;DR solution: it’s all about your mindset.
The good news is, by recognizing your shortcomings and wanting to do something about it, you’ve already completed the most important step to improving. I guarantee at one point in time you’ve asked yourself, “why am I not as good at X as my coworker over there?” It’s a valid question, although the worst way to ask it.
First things first, you should re-frame the question, “why do I feel inadequate?”, with another one: “what is true?” It’s easy to get emotionally invested in any thought-process like this one, but it’s truly more productive to get out of your own head and think rationally in a detached, 3rd person perspective. Rather than asking yourself, “what knowledge do I lack/what do I need to learn to be better?”, instead ask, “what would my supervisor wish their team did to be more effective?” This takes our ego out of the equation and leaves us with a broader perspective. The answer to this question will determine the type of Compositor you strive to be.
I believe one of the best strategies for learning rapidly and becoming a better Compositor is by gaining knowledge from someone who has many more years of production experience. This doesn’t mean comparing yourself to them, it means respecting their experience and gaining insight from their trials and tribulations. They have likely failed more times than you’ve even tried — why not learn from their mistakes rather than making them yourself?
The best way to restrict growth and feel bad about yourself is to listen to the voice in your head that’s telling you, “that person is better than I am”. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not, but it really doesn’t matter. It’s a common flaw in humans, and one that only has a detrimental effect.
The only person you should compare yourself to is your past self.
You don’t know everything about your peers, nor should you strive to. They might be working faster because they have easier shots, or more experience within the studio’s pipeline. Their work might look more polished because they like painting at home or enjoy photography. But they also might have an awesome mentor, or have been compositing for twice as long as you have. You never know the full picture, so it’s not fair to judge.
As an example, let’s say you feel your keying skills aren’t up to scratch. It doesn’t matter that your skills aren’t as good as your lead’s, it only matters that they’re better than your own skills were yesterday. To improve, you must ask yourself what is true. Make an accurate assessment of where your skills fall short, where they were in the past (last show, last year, etc.), and where you would like them to be. With this trajectory in mind, create a plan for how you’re going to achieve gradual, measurable improvement. Remember, learning new skills or improving the ones you already posses is an iterative process; just like how you don’t final a shot on your first try, you do many versions until it’s good enough to call final!
Take note of how I phrased that last sentence with, “good enough”. It’s important to recognise that being the best, or being perfect is a poorly formed and unattainable goal – one that you can waste so much energy on for little return. The people you see as the best in their field might be naturally talented, could always be in the right place at the right time, or they might be putting in an incredible amount of effort behind the scenes and sacrificing so much to be where they are. Again, you don’t know their story, so it’s not fair to judge. Being the best is unattainable because it’s really not worth the effort or the sacrifices in life to be in the top 1% — it’s better to focus on efficient improvement and be in the top 5% to 10% with significantly less effort. This frees up so much time & mental capacity to enjoy life outside of work. Being perfect is unrealistic, because perfection implies there is an end goal — a point you can hit where you’re able to stop working. Such a thing doesn’t exist. Self-improvement is like building muscle — if you’re not learning, pursuing your goals and moving forward, you’re definitely moving backwards.
If you’re having trouble setting a goal or finding a specific area for improvement, just set a direction. Even if it turns out to be the wrong direction, it’s better to try & fail many times rather than stand still, because that’s how you grow!
Lastly, don’t be so hard on yourself. Ever felt like you just can’t get a shot past a supervisor or a client? Consider that it could be them not clearly communicating what they want to see. That’s not to say the blame is on them, it’s quite the opposite! It’s your responsibility to make sure your brief is clear – sometimes, your client or supervisor just needs to be asked the right questions to give you the right answers. After all, they’re human too!
I’ve boiled down the key points into actionable steps you can take.
- Get rid of your ego, and stop listening to the voice in your head that’s telling you that you have nothing more to learn, or that your peers are better than you are.
- Identify which areas of your work are lacking, by thinking in a third-person perspective and being truthful with yourself.
- Ask leads or supervisors to weigh in on what you could be doing better, and for tips on how to learn any specific skills you might lack.
- Create a measurable plan for improvement by setting iterative goals & sub-goals. If you can’t identify any areas to improve, set a direction to travel towards. Maybe you’ll uncover something?
- Continue to think critically about your successes and failures every time you feel you’re making progress.
- There is no end-goal, just continuous improvement.
- If you’re not moving forwards, you’re moving backwards.
- The only person you should compare yourself to is your past self.
As a finishing thought, I want to share three further resources with you. First, if you haven’t already read it, you might enjoy my article on Pareto’s Principle, about how 80% of your progress will come from 20% of the time and effort you put in. It’s one of those principles I live my life by, and has helped me define the most important steps in my own journey of continuous self-improvement.
Secondly, I’d highly recommend you pick up the book Ego is the Enemy, which is filled with examples throughout history of leaders who put their sense of self aside, and subsequently achieved great success.
Lastly, if you have trouble quieting the voice inside your head, or can’t wrap your head around the concept of looking at your decision-making process in a third-person perspective, I suggest you look into meditating. Apps like Headspace make it easy! I could write an entire article about meditation, how it’s helped many world-leaders achieve success, and why the common associations with meditation are totally unfair and unfounded. If you only take one bit of advice away from this article, make it this one.