Film & TV

What Is a Green Screen (Film)? Learn About the Advantages and Disadvantages of Using a Green Screen in Film Production and 5 Tips For Making a Green Screen at Home

Written by MasterClass

Jun 10, 2019 • 5 min read

A green screen is a key component in a film and television production process known as “chroma keying,” in which foregrounded action is combined with separately filmed or constructed background footage. The process works by filming actors in front of large, bright green backdrops, then isolating and removing that green color range, and replacing it with a different background.

It has been utilized for many purposes in filmmaking, making characters and scenes appear to take place in far-off or perilous locations—when in fact the footage was shot on a sound stage in front of a green screen.

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What Is a Green Screen?

A green screen is a backdrop against which footage is shot to later be superimposed over a separately-filmed background in a visual effects process called “chroma keying.” It is also known as chroma key compositing, color keying, or simply keying.

The green screen is a central part of this chroma key process, allowing filmmakers to isolate the actor from their bright green background and then introduce a separate background in postproduction. Essentially, movie makers digitally key in on the green value, remove it using editing software, isolate the actor(s), and then replace it with separate background footage or still imagery.

While a blue screen is also utilized and has been since the 1930s, green screens are the current de facto standard in the film industry since green is both distant from human skin tones and relatively less common in costuming and props than the color blue. This is important because, when using chroma key, nothing in the shot can be the same color as the background—if, say, a character’s shirt is also green, the shirt will be removed in chroma keying and also replaced with the background image.

Green screens are not restricted to motion pictures and are also commonly used in TV newscasts (particularly with the weather map in a weather forecast), video games, and music video production.

Why Is Green Screen Used in Film Production?

A green screen allows film production to remain within a sound stage but depict disparate locations and sequences. There are many, many uses for this technique in Hollywood filmmaking, many of them to do with special effects. Here are some examples of what can be accomplished using a green screen:

  • Make it appear as if two actors are sharing the screen when in reality their action was filmed separately and later combined using chroma key.
  • Enlarge or shrink a character relative to their background.
  • Move characters to animated or computer-generated backdrops.
  • Make actors appear to fly in superhero film.
  • Transport characters back through time, or into difficult-to-film environments like outer space.
  • Place actors into seemingly life-threatening situations like a pit of snakes or a balanced on the lightning rod of a skyscraper.

Learn How a Green Screen Works in 3 Steps

A green screen works by providing a backdrop that can ultimately be removed during the chroma key process. This is achieved in three steps:

  1. Action is filmed in front of a green screen, typically with a digital camera.
  2. In post-production, filmmakers will use editing software to make the background color range (green in this case) transparent in the green screen footage, leaving only the actor and any props in the foreground of the green screen video.
  3. In video editing, this footage can now be combined through screen compositing with existing background footage and after effects, which can be separately filmed, entirely computer-generated, or some combination of the two. Video editing, or green screen software, is essential to this stage of the process.

What Are the Advantages of Green Screen?

The advantages of green screen are limitless. Green screen allows filmmakers to do almost anything so long as they put in the work to ensure they get it right. The biggest advantages of using a green screen are:

  • It allows for exciting and otherwise-impossible scenes to be produced, expanding filmmaking possibilities and language.
  • It can protect actors by keeping them in the studio and away from the dangerous environments depicted using green screen technology.
  • It can allow actors to appear on screen together even if they film the scene separately. This helps when scheduling is a concern.

What Are the Disadvantages of Green Screen?

Green screen use is difficult and also presents some considerable disadvantages. These include:

  • If the lighting is not perfectly balanced, the technique appears artificial and off-putting for audiences.
  • Despite being cheaper than the real world alternatives, the process is nonetheless expensive, time-consuming, and cumbersome and thus not ideally suited for a low-budget or independent film.
  • If the foreground footage contains any bit of the background color, it will be replaced during the keying process.

5 Tips For Making a Green Screen at Home

If you have the materials and the space, the actual construction of a green screen is relatively straightforward. There are several other factors you must consider to get chroma keying right:

  1. Lighting must be consistent in both the foreground and background footage. If the sun is bright in the background footage and muted in the foreground footage, it will ruin the illusion as the background and foreground will not be cohesive.
  2. Lighting must also be even and soft: if the foreground footage is filmed in uneven light with shadows, different shades of green will appear on the green screen and will thus prove tough to isolate in post-production. The green background needs to appear as a single color and a solid color for the keying process to work, so the subject must be a few feet in front of the screen when filming, and must be lit by three-point lighting.
  3. Camera distance is also important: the depth of field in both foreground and background footage should match.
  4. Cameras must also remain stable and at the same focus. A vibrating or shaky video camera in the foreground will contrast the stability in the background. Similarly, changing focus or zooming in will also contrast the background stability.
  5. Clothing can ruin a good green screen scene—always ensure actors’ costumes do not have the same color as the screen behind them, or that part of their costume will also be replaced in chroma keying.

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