If you happened to take a glimpse at behind-the-scenes features on a dvd, you most likely have seen the famous greenscreen used for effects in various movies. Maybe you’ve even seen its “brother”, the bluescreen, used for the same things. It is not an unknown concept to most people – the idea of filming someone in front of a green sheet only to remove said color in post production and replace it with a pretty background.
There’s a question that’s been nagging me for a while now. You probably wondered at one point: if you’ve won the lottery what would you do with your life and the money you got? Well, what about modern movies? If the studios would literally have an unlimited budget, would they ever use greenscreen?
Why use it?
Greenscreen, or Chroma Key, or Luma Key (for those old-effects) has been used for years and years. The technique had been revolutionary, saving studios time and, more importantly, millions of dollars.
Why build a complicated mechanical rig to simulate a spaceship adventure, when you can simply put a bit of greenscreen in the background and animate anything you want? You get the picture.
I’ve worked with greenscreen and various rudimentary low-budget versions of it for years. One thing I can tell you for sure: it can really be a pain to get the shots to look good. I’ve made 90% of the Lord of the Rings parody on Chroma because most actors couldn’t synchronize their leisure time.
If we had to work with a dialogue between King Theoden and Gandalf and have them argue, we would film the actors whenever they could come over and film. One particular shot that featured a lively dialogue actually had 4 years between the actors. There are several shots within the movie that are fascinating to watch (at least for me), knowing that the jokes flow so nicely while people were talking to and reacting to walls or stand-ins.
One particular shot that I love is towards the end where the characters all gather in one room to discuss their plan. You have years and years between actors there. Even my characters, Aragorn and Grima, appear in the same shot, which amuses me terribly because it’s “me” playing beside a “younger me”.
Did it help? Yes. Was it perfect? Not by far… but if we could’ve made it perfect, it wouldn’t have improved the story in itself, the jokes. Actually, if I think about it, the rudimentary effect aided in the silliness of it all.
So why use it? You use to finish a project that otherwise would probably never get finished. At least, that’s my case. The main reason why Plustard Season 1 is taking so long is the fact that I refuse to use greenscreen for every little tiny scene. There is SOME Chroma in there, but it’s used just to get things moving along and not make everyone wait for years just because I can’t find a certain location.
You said something about budget?
Yes, the big companies that make movies have a certain budget allocated for each project. Yet, the question is, would they still use Greenscreen if they had an unlimited amount of money?
The answer is: Yeah, of course! There are certain effects that are much, much easier to create using this technique. It isn’t always about the money.
I remember seeing a demo-reel on youtube where a certain bridge was collapsing. The actors had to jump off it before it crashed down. The techniques used are not more complicated than what I have in my living room (the main difference being the lighting apparatus and the huge filming space), yet the effect is astonishing!
(sorry about the music, you can mute it if you want)
Could they have built a bridge and make it collapse, while keeping the actors safe? Yes. Could they have done this and make the emotion of the moment perfect? ….nnnno. : )
Don’t get me wrong, it IS possible, but it is unlikely. When you see a character grabbing the ledge of the bridge, which ends up breaking, throwing him in the river, you reaaaally feel that moment. You feel the chase, the adrenaline, the emotion – because it is created perfectly with pinpoint accuracy. The bridge breaks when it has to break. The actor falls when he has to fall.
These things are very, very difficult to control in a real-life situation. Thus, using CGI you end up deciding precisely when and how to pull the heartstrings of your audience.
But it’s… less real!
Yes, well, here’s a newsflash for you – movies are not real. They can be based on real stories but, in the end, that’s all you are watching: a story.
If you are too focused on how “real” it looks, then you’re doing it wrong. The message of the movie, the emotional element, the lessons learned are the things that matter most.
I’ve recently watched Star Trek: Into Darkness. The acting was awesome, the effects were incredible… everything was perfect, except for the story. When you hear people complaining about movies that are choked up with CGI, it’s NOT the CGI that’s bothering them. It’s the lack of style and personality of a film, and that translates into the message-story and the visual-story. These two elements are what make a movie great… but that’s an article for another time.
In the end, all we can say is that this technique brought wonders to the silver screen. Remember, the usage of Chroma is not always motivated by money-hungry business men. Sometimes, it’s the only way you can tell your story.