Paper of the Week: Compositing Digital Images

David Albert

This is part of our “Paper of the Week” series. For more info, check out our introductory blog post.

This week’s paper is Compositing Digital Images by Thomas Porter and Tom Duff (of Duff’s device). It was published in the July 1984 issue of Computer Graphics. Porter and Duff had worked together at Lucasfilm’s Graphics Group (which later became Pixar), though Duff was working at Bell Labs at the time of the paper’s publication.

Compositing Digital Images is a very cool piece of history that describes a method of compositing—combining a number of source images into one output image—that we still use virtually unchanged 30 years later. The paper introduces two ideas: an alpha channel for storing per-pixel opacity information (the A in RGBA) and a set of operations for combining two images that Porter and Duff call a compositing algebra.

Using an alpha channel to track opacity was not a new idea when the paper was written, but this may have been the first time the idea was presented to the wider world. The compositing algebra, on the other hand, was brand new and is especially elegant.

This paper was my first rigorous introductions into the world of computer graphics, but reading it felt familiar. Its ideas seem to pop up again and again, whether I’m building websites, programming simple games, or messing around in Photoshop. If you’re looking for an introduction to computer graphics, this is a great place to start.

Here’s the abstract:

Most computer graphics pictures have been computed all at once, so that the rendering program takes care of all computations relating to the overlap of objects. There are several applications, however, where elements must be rendered separately, relying on compositing techniques for the anti-aliased accumulation of the full image. This paper presents the case for four-channel pictures, demonstrating that a matte component can be computed similarly to the color channels. The paper discusses guidelines for the generation of elements and the arithmetic for their arbitrary compositing.

Read Along

Read Along is a way for you to participate in Paper of the Week. All you have to do is read the paper, make something small in response (code or prose), and email us a link to what you made by noon Eastern Time next Monday.

There were no Read Along submissions to last week’s paper. If you’re looking for a project for this week, we think a minimal JavaScript implementation of the compositing algebra described in this paper could be a lot of fun.

Happy reading!