Saturday, June 22, 2013

To Green Screen, Or Not To Green Screen

 Whether 'tis nobler in filmmaking to suffer
the slings and arrows of location shooting,
or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
by simply cooping up in a small room clad with green cloth, and shoot your entire film there.

I call upon your forgiveness, good Sirs and Ladies, but having the choice I now more often go for the green screen option, no matter what story I'm telling. There is a bit of critisism flying about the internet pertaining to the fact that many amateur fillmakers are now using chroma key, or green screen effects, with a fervour that would impress George Lucas himself. I am, I confess, one of them. The complaint is that the filmmakers are lazy when they coose to chroma key a scene which could be shot on a real location, especially if they can't get the effect perfected. 

 I have up til this week been using a 4m X 4m room for my green screen shoots. The main problem has not been its size, but the fact that the door into the room is slightly off set from the center, thus forcing me to always film at an angle, and thus never being able to use the full area of the screen. But now I've moved to a room almost twice this size, and the difference is remarkable. Now I can shoot more complicated stories, giving the actors more freedom of movement.

But why is everyone using green screen so much? Let's take a few examples.

 Here's my British buddy Bernie, better known as mujawooja on YouTube. He does a fair share of location shot old-style slapstick comedy with his friend Jim, but he also tells stories taking place in all sorts of exotic locations. How to get there? Get in front of the old green screen. Bernie's a green screen wizard, and when he's doing a video project all by himself he acts out all the parts on his own, sometimes taking this to extremes. The still you see here is from his film "Atomic Monster B Movie", where giant bugs threaten to destroy the world, and a super attack squad is called out to deal with them. Bernie plays all the members of the squad, and lets his imagination run riot.

 Another example: My teenage friend Anthony, more known as "kkmoviechannel" on YouTube, is obsessed with old stop-mo monster movies, especially the dinosaur-filled epics of Ray Harryhausen and Willis O'brien. Since he has no money at all to spend on his projects, and even has difficulty finding actors, he gets around his problems by using green screen effects. Instead of NOT doing the sort of stories he loves to tell, he does the best he can with what he's got, and gets on with it. I applaude him for that.

 But why am I using green screen so much? When I started out way back in 1986 all I had was real locations, and so, filming fantastic stories in exotic locations always proved disappointing. Sand pits stood in for deserts and alien planets, and Swedish woodland rich with big ferns had to symbolically double for jungles. When I finally got into chroma key effects I realized that only my imagination was the limit. I could plonk people down in any location I chose. More than that; I didn't have to care about the weather or the time of day or night.
An example from my own repartoire: My Gandalf film shows the wizard walking in a variety of surroundings, both small, intimate and familiar  forests (shot on location), and grand fantasy landscapes (shot in my green screen studio). I quickly found that the chroma key shots better conveyed what my imagination wanted to show the audience.
 Of course, having Gandalf appear on the bridge of Khazad-Dûm necessitated the use of green screen. The fact is, the more I've been using chroma key, the more my imagination wanders and invites ideas of grander stories to tell. Though the effect is far from perfect, I feel that it's effecient enough to suspend audience disbelief into accepting what they see as a particular fantasy world, not only in the story, but also in the visual style. I'll go so far as to say that this is the same supension of disbelief that allow us to enjoy a silent film, despite it being in black and white, and without sound.

 A particular example of this is my film "Save Prince Plutonium" which is completely contained in a chroma key world of photoshopped surroundings. This is a highly artificial reality, but it's consistent, and therefore (I hope) convincing in the same way a surrealist film, or an expressionist film can convince despite it's bizarre visuals. Here's the thing; The ever more available chroma key software options allow more and more amateur (or "independent") filmmakers to dream bigger and dare more. That is a good, even great, thing I think.


Ken C. Tyner said...

Green screen is good stuff, but I don't use it that often. I don't exactly have the best software. I found it useful for special effects and so forth, but I try to avoid because of some of the problems I encounter.

Richard Svensson said...

The software does make a lot of difference, but again; whatever visual style you can achieve may work if it's consistent.

McTodd said...

As ever you make some very good points. For the low (or no) budget filmmaker green-screen is a godsend and I think anyone who criticises such artists for using it is an idiot. Of course, there *may* be valid criticisms of *how* they use it in certain circumstances but the mere fact of their use of it at all is a no-brainer.

I have attempted to use it but abandoned my efforts for now as I simply don't have decent enough software (and in all likelihood my camera isn't up to it anyway). Actually, Richard, could you do us a favour and briefly mention what hardware/software you use? I'm sure it's dotted about on your blog but if you can mention it here in one place it would do many of us a great service!

Brian O'Connell said...

Very good points here.

I think that if it is possible to shoot on location, then I probably will. But I agree with you in every respect.