Nuke is an industry standard in both film and commercial environments and one of the strongest freelance tools you can add to your arsenal as either a 2D generalist or a compositor.
The Foundry’s Nuke is the complete compositing package. A node-based workflow, 3D toolsets, robust channel controls, and more make this a “big boy” program in every sense of the word. Nuke is an industry standard in both film and commercial environments and one of the strongest freelance tools you can add to your arsenal as either a 2D generalist or a compositor.
A lot of artists come across Nuke after a couple years of experience on programs with less complex compositing tools such as After Effects or even Photoshop. For these artists, and those with no experience at all, the barebones Nuke UI and node graph process can be intimidating to learn. Though experience is your strongest resource as you master any program, it’s important to build a framework that enables growth as soon as possible. These five habits for Nuke beginners give a few starting points for this foundation.
1. Stay Organized
You’re an artist, and you want to have your own process. This is fine in theory, but when it comes to Nuke’s free and open node graph structure there is a language to follow. This language allows you to work with your own graphs smoothly, but is also absolutely necessary for working in a collaborative space—you may be fine with your own desk being messy, but what if someone else had to use it?
The first step to an organized node graph is upholding a B pipe structure. In Nuke, merge nodes—which are used to marry two elements or parts of your composition—perform operations with A representing one element and B representing the other. The most basic example of this is the “over” operation which will place element “A” over element “B”.
The merge node intuitively lends itself to a structure that follows a B pipeline: one stream of merge B connections from your plate to your viewer. This structure keeps your graph organized and allows you to disable and enable parts of your composition through your merge nodes alone.
The second step to Nuke’s node graph organization is the use of backdrops, sticky notes, and node labels. These are three forms of keeping track of your work and communicating information about your script to yourself for later or your fellow artists.
Backdrops allow you to compartmentalize portions of your node graph so that you can easily move, rearrange, and disable complex portions of your script. Sticky notes are similar to leaving comments for yourself when programming. They’re simple text boxes that live on your node graph for note-taking or explanation. Finally, node labels can turn a bees nest of a node graph into something that’s at least workable. These labels allow you to define the purpose of an individual node. Labels take the ambiguous “Rotopaint15” and add a precise “LeftElbow”.
2. Learn your Merge Math
Merge is one of the most important nodes in Nuke’s toolbox. After all, compositing in its most basic form is putting images on top of one another. For larger shots, especially with CG integration, there can be hundreds of merge nodes per script each with their own unique purpose. This makes merge one of the first nodes any budding Nuke artist needs to master.
This is your bible—learn it and love it. Whether you’re comping your latest CG render, or sprucing up that Harry Potter fan film with our free spell hits, it’s crucial to understand what’s happening to your pixels.
3. Optimize your Scripts
One of the most frustrating parts of using Nuke for newcomers is how sluggish scripts can become. Though this is a side effect of the programs power against limited hardware, there are several ways to combat that red single digit FPS indicator in your viewer pane.
The first remedy is very simple: use image sequences. Nuke is known to have issues with several video formats but plays very nicely with image sequences. The practice of transcoding videos to images keeps your scripts running smoothly and also allows finer control of timings and frame-based operations.
Another way to optimize your scripts is habit number 1: stay organized. When you keep your script clean and easy to understand, you avoid doubling up on nodes and performing inefficient operations. This is the process of keeping your node graph procedural and allows you to adjust and add to certain parts of your script in a non-damaging and streamlined way.
There are several more detailed methods of optimization in Nuke, which go all the way down to your drive structure, cache methods, bounding boxes, and more. In The Foundry’s latest release of Nuke, there is a new node called the profile node. This node allows you to analyze your script and create a visual diagnostic profile. From here, you can see what nodes are taking up your resources and figure out where to cut back.
4. Think Ahead
Even though post-production is the last part of the filmmaking process, planning is just as key. When you’re starting a shot in Nuke, the first thing you should do is consider how you’re going to pull it off. Visualize your script ahead of time, make a plan, maybe even take notes. This process of mental preparation allows you to reinforce your learning by calling on your memory of the program’s tools and utilizing your prior experience.
As a compositor, when you watch your plates and look over the assignment (and hopefully storyboards), you should be able to formulate your approach and also foresee the problem areas of the shot. This takes away a lot of the on-the-fly stress of compositing and removes the surprises. From here, you can sketch out your node graph rather quickly, and add as you go.
5. Troubleshoot up from Viewer
The node based workflow is intuitive for a lot of users. As visual artists, compositors are often visual learners as well, and the node graph lays everything out in a way that you can see and explore. Your work can be complex and remain organized, giving you constant control.
When you have a problem with a shot in Nuke, and you don’t know where it’s coming from, you’re in luck. Every operation you’ve done to every pixel, from your plate to your viewer, is right in front of you. Where you’d have to click through a dropdown and pre-comp maze in After Effects you can take a measured approach in Nuke. Start at your viewer (the single point where all your work comes together) and work your way up the pipeline—if you’ve kept habit 1 in mind, this should go smoothly.
Eventually, you’ll be able to understand where the error is and get it sorted out. The node graph’s power comes from this ability to examine and adjust any point along the path. Some artists go so far as to employ “rubber ducky debugging” to their compositing approach. This critical thinking trick is named from a programmer who would carry around a rubber ducky and explain his work to the duck line-by-line as a way of troubleshooting issues.
The same practice can be applied to Nuke. Go through your script node by node and you will find the issues. The beauty of Nuke is that all the nodes are laid out in front of you, so the problem is bound to be as well.
Nuke is an intimidating program to learn. It’s deeply powerful and doesn’t hold your hand with presets and buttons. Nonetheless, a deliberate approach to building strong habits and learning efficient practices can make the process smooth and most of all enjoyable. In the end, it’s another tool, the final step is how you—the artist—adds your skills and vision to the mix!
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