The Composite Effect

Though on first inspection it may be difficult to believe, every media consumable is an artifact born of composited forms. The composite is the leviathan that directly, or indirectly, manipulates the interpretation of cultural forms, and it will only get stranger. The current status of the composite in the creation of cultural forms can be explored by first examining its use in music, the manipulation of images (still and moving), and the growing field of augmented reality. The imminent status of the composite might best be understood by observing the futures suggested by an independent filmmaker and a large manufacturing company.

Contemporary Examples of the Composite

In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich defines digital compositing as having a specific and well-defined meaning. Particularly, he writes that “it refers to the process of combining a number of moving image sequences, and possibly stills, into a single sequence with the help of a special compositing software…” (Manovich , Kindle Ed. 136). Here Manovich is specifically talking about the use of this term in relation to the manipulation of video. This initial definition can be described by considering the weather report on most news programming. While providing some glib observations on city life in tandem with an abridged description of the temperature, the weather-reporter is often witnessed standing in front of some form of map. In some cases this map includes animated patterns of repeating cloud formations, often indicating where there might be rain or snow. The image of this person standing in front of a map is, in fact, a lie. The truth is that this particular reporter is standing in front of an evenly lit backdrop that is either bright green or blue. This flat color can then be removed and in its place a still image or animation is added. Here we can see a simple example of a composite: the combination of a number (in this case two) of moving image sequences into a single sequence. While Manovich initially talks about this in relation to images, he later applies the same principles in talking about the DJ.
The DJ’s art is measured by his ability to go from one track to another seamlessly. A great DJ is thus a compositor and anti-montage artist par excellence. He is able to create a perfect temporal transition from very different musical layers; and he can do this in real time, in front of a dancing crowd. (Manovich , Kindle Ed. 144)

The rise of digital authoring and distribution tools has helped to disseminate the work of the DJ beyond a single fixed set in a club. For the modern DJ, the recording studio is the computer and the distributor is the internet. The specific form born out of this type of creative act is sometimes referred to as a mash-up. While this form may be a composite of only two or three songs, many popular artists create works that are comprised of multiple samples from multiple songs. Jordan Roseman, known as DJ Earworm, describes his work by saying “what I do is take a bunch of songs apart and put them back together again in a different way. I end up with tracks called mashups.” Roseman’s work is the quintessential composite in its nature. His modular approach to disassembling music into component pieces before reassembling it into a new unified work reads as though he were quoting Manovich. In writing about the process of working with composited work Manovich notes that, “a typical new media object is put together from elements that come from difference sources, these elements need to be coordinated and adjusted to fit together” (Manovich , Kindle Ed. 138). The DJ’s appropriation and rearrangement of material in the pursuit of creating a new work is a variation of the theme of sampling and looping and has largely been met with enthusiasm. Many devoted fans of specific artists attend concerts to witness the act of live mixing and compositing. Greg Gillis, known as Girl Talk, has garnered especially high praise and support for the form.  Gillis is a composite artist. A musician whose work is entirely based in the deconstruction of established works so that he can reassemble the component pieces into something different.

While the mash-up is quickly finding home in the realm of pop-music, arguably the most well established form of composite is now largely invisible. The manipulation of photographic imagery has become so commonplace that it is nearly invisible to most consumers. In this regard, advertising, particularly, has become the champion of the composited work. Should one open any Sunday-Super-Shopper adverts for any corporate chain the only imagery involved is entirely created out of a number of independent images paired and layered together. This pairing and stacking of visual components is now so commonplace as to seem banal. High-end advertising is especially notorious for the use of composited works. The perfect photograph of a hamburger is a fine example of this magic: the composition is carefully framed and arranged by a food photographer; later the photo is manipulated to ensure for a proper distribution of sesame seeds; another artist will color correct the image for the most appetizing shade of green in the lettuce and red in the tomato; finally a designer will move the hamburger digitally to ensure that it is being presented in an appropriately branded environment. Layer upon layer, the composited image has ceased to be a record of the actual object, and has instead become an abstract representation of what it ought to be. This is the work of composite in advertising. Perhaps a more startling example can be found in the pages of the Ikea catalog. According to the Wall Street Journal, twelve percent of the images in the Swedish furniture distributor’s catalog were not actual photographs of real objects but were instead three-dimensional computer renderings (Hansegard). To accomplish this, first a scene is created in wire-frame with 3-D modeling software. The resulting wireframe is then painted with textures, and light in order to resemble an actual room. The WSJ goes on in the article to note that in 2013 one out of four images used in the print catalog and online will be made exclusively of computer renderings (Hansegard). This is both astonishing in its execution, but also a prime example of the true power of the composite. The amalgamated form of polygons and texture are layered and manipulated until the line between real object and assembled representation becomes invisible.

The spread of the composite into all cultural forms is further fueled by the efforts and exploration of the technology juggernaut Google. In April of 2012 Google released one of its first promotional videos for the development of “Project Glass” (Google). The video presents a montage of moments out of the day of the subject. The video is shot entirely from a first person perspective and demonstrates what life might be like if instead of looking at the screen of a mobile device, that same information was instead accessible through a heads-up display. This additional semi-transparent layer of information is often referred to as augmented reality. Google’s device, Project Glass, is a lightweight augmented reality (AR) system worn in place of a pair of glasses. The wearable device contains a touch surface for control, a camera, wireless antennas, onboard computer processor, and a prism display. The promise of AR is that it will change the existing relationship between user and screen forever. Simply put, there is no more screen as it’s conceptualized today because the screen is potentially everywhere and everything. When using this device, every visual experience is a composited image composed of the physical world and an additional layer of data. Google’s efforts with AR aren’t the first examples of the layered reality push. With the rise of smart phones as portable computing devices many applications (apps) have been developed across mobile platforms for access to additional layers of information. AR applications typically take advantage of GPS data (in order to determine physical location), gyroscopic inputs (in order to determine the orientation of the device), and Internet connectivity (to populate the field of view with data). While not the immersive experience of Project Glass, AR apps have proven to be an interesting investigation into the possibilities of the composite as rendered in real-time with only a mobile device.

Future Implications of compositing: Constant Composited Reality

While the promises of Project Glass might be intriguing, the future is often difficult to predict. Corning, maker of the Gorilla Glass used in many touch screen devices, has its own vision of what the future might resemble and in February of 2012 released a short promotional video, “A Day made of Glass 2”, suggesting the possibilities of touch surfaces in the near future (Corning Incorporated).  In their six-minute montage of the near future nearly every surface is fabricated out of touch-sensitive transparent glass. Each interaction with a different product reveals sheets of glass that can be transparent or opaque with a single press or swipe. In Corning’s day of glass every surface suddenly becomes a window of composited information. Tablet computers are transparent sheets that act as windows into the world where a sea of data is waiting to be revealed. For Corning it is not enough that every surface might be a display, every surface should have the potential of being a composite display. While this may initially seem like flights of technological fancy, it’s worth mentioning that in the summer of 2012 the display manufacturer Samsung began showcasing its transparent LCD screens (Sidev). Corning’s vision of the future seems limited only by the current economy of cost for these displays, and in many ways lacks any real revolutionary implications about the role of the composite in the consumption of information.


Beyond Corning’s slick vision of a world crafted of transparent touch surfaces the video short made by Sight Systems provides for a more interesting suggestion of what the future of displays might look like. While the short is built around a questionable storyline, the real magic happens here in regards to the representation of an augmented reality display worn as contact lenses. Sight Systems seems to suggest a vision of AR that is not simply additionally layered information but instead approaches composited reality. Here the proposal isn’t merely that the world could contain additional layered information about text messages and weather, but rather that the world aught to be constructed according to the desires of the subject. A world of constantly composited visual representations. A world of constructed realities filled with notifications and advertisements ad nauseum.


Closing Thoughts

The divining of specific manifestations of future technological advancements or ideological implementations is beyond reasonable conjecture. What is not unreasonable, however, is a recognition of the influence of the composite. Today’s new media artifacts are crafted realities built upon stacked films of both visual data and invisible meta-data. Digital reality, and expression is predicated upon notions and expressions of the composite, and it is not presumptions to assume that this is only the beginning. The future may well be a world of composited reality.

Works Cited

Corning Incorporated. “A Day Made of Glass 2. Same Day. Expanded Corning Vision.” Online Video Clip. YouTube. YouTube, 12 Feb. 2012. Web. 13 Dec. 2012. <>.
Eveleth, Rose. “How fake images change our memory and behavior.” BBC. Web. 13 Dec. 2012. 14 Dec. 2012. <>.
illegal A.R.T. “Girl Talk.” illegal art. Web. 15 Dec. 2012. <>.
Google. “Project Glass: One day….” Online Video Clip. YouTube. YouTube, 4 April, 2012. Web. 13 Dec. 2012. <>.
Hansegard, Jens. “IKEA’s New Catalogs: Less Pine, More Pixelsc.” Wall Street Journal. Web. 23 Aug. 2012. 13 Dec. 2012. <>
Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Ed. Roger F. Malina. Kindle Edition. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001.
Roseman, Jordan. “earworm MASHUPS.” Web. 15 Dec. 2012. <>.
SidevDisplaySystems. “L’ écran transparent Samsung NL22B bientôt chez SIDEV.” Online Video Clip. YouTube. YouTube, 16 Jul. 2012. Web. 13 Dec. 2012. <>.
Sight Systems. “Sight.” Online Video Clip. Vimeo. Vimeo, 24 July, 2012. Web. 13 Dec. 2012. <>.