What was the last film you watched? Was it a Hollywood blockbuster or a short film on social media for marketing purposes? Either way, there’s a strong chance that green screen technology was used to produce some of the effects. Green screen technology has a long history that runs in parallel to the history of cinema itself, and the story isn’t over yet.
Film history began in the late 19th century when photographs were adapted to moving images, and the first documentary films appeared. One of the earliest was the Arrival of the Mail Train in 1895 that simply showed a train pulling into a station. Then, in 1903, The Great Train Robbery appeared, one of the earliest films to use special effects.
When it comes to the evolution of technology, some innovations stick while others don’t. There are plenty of examples of technologies that have disappeared from history, but that isn’t something you can say about green screens. In fact, the green screen has continued to evolve and innovate and today it has landed perfectly and squarely in the digital age.
How it all began
Green screen technology, known technically as ‘chroma key compositing’, is a post-production technique that’s predominantly used in film making but is increasingly used in video production for digital media. Green screen technology layers two video streams; one is live-action, the other is digital effects. The green background is then erased.
This technology has its roots in the processes of double exposure that reach back to the late 1800s. First, double exposure was used in photographs, pictures, and early films to introduce foreign elements into a scene; the technique is used in The Great Train Robbery (1903) by Edwin S. Porter then evolved into blue screen and then green screen.
It took some head-scratching to work out how to make figures from one exposure move on a substitute background. So in the early days, producers used a travelling matte to omit the correct portion of background in each individual frame. This technology was patented by Frank Williams in 1918 and was used extensively in films, such as The Invisible Man.
The travelling matte technique was later adapted and became blue screen technology. This happened in the 1930s and was used in the film Flying Down to Rio (1933) by Larry Butler. There are many similarities between blue screen and green screen technology; however, green screen is used more extensively today as it responds better to digital cameras.
The evolution of green screen technology
While chroma key compositing techniques began with blue screen technology, green screens began to be used in the 1970s and 1980s. This was partly because British and American television companies were adopting chroma key compositing. The technology was useful, especially for creating background images for weather forecasters.
Technically, there is very little difference between the wavelengths of green and blue, meaning that either colour works for the same purpose – omitting a background. However, chroma key compositing must use these wavelengths because they contrast with human skin tones offering the sharpest result. A red background would be harder to differentiate.
Despite the relative similarities between green and blue backgrounds, green screens grew in popularity from the 1970s onwards. The green screen was used extensively by Richard Edlund in The Empire Strikes Back and on television more and more for newscasting and other programs. Green screens happen to have a slight advantage over blue screens.
Nowadays, green screens are used predominantly for special effects in blockbuster movies, television shows, and various forms of digital media. Green screen backgrounds offer better results when used with digital cameras; they are cleaner and more luminescent. Additionally, clothing tends to be blue rather than green, making green a better option in most cases.
Popular green screen effects
Today, the green screen is used in various forms of media to create special effects. It’s easy to find a list of blockbuster movies that are shot entirely using green screen technology, but a green screen does not have to be used exclusively to be effective – it is often used partially for scenes and smaller segments as required. Digital media uses it as and when required.
One of the most famous films shot entirely on green screen is the 2009 film Avatar; using green screen technology, the alien world of Pandora was brought to life realistically. The fantastical forests and magical world of Pandora appeared photoreal on the big screen, creating a convincing world that never existed – such is the power of the green screen.
Sin City was released in 2005; this was an earlier version of a film made entirely with green screen. Sin City depicted a dark, seedy underworld with an edgy comic-style aesthetic. The film features live actors Bruce Willis and Elijah Wood operating in a fictional comic book world as if it were reality. Unfortunately, the effects for Sin City proved hard to replicate.
When Tim Burton was attempting to bring the world of Alice in Wonderland to life in the 2010 remake starring Johnny Depp, there was no doubt in his mind that green screen was the answer. The fantastical world of Alice in Wonderland features lush environments, crazy talking animals, bizarre buildings, and strange creatures and with the green screen, it was possible.
How is the green screen used today?
Since the 1970s green screen technology has been used for newscasting and weather forecasts, it has also been used in television shows and extensively in cinema. In the digital age, green screen technology has surpassed alternatives such as blue screen as it is marginally more responsive to digital cameras and more pragmatic for people on sets.
Green screen is now a reliable and widely used technology to create the visual effects needed for film and television. By using green screen technology, any background can be dropped into the live-action, turning a studio background into an alien, historical, or futuristic landscape. Green screens can also replace real-world locations, saving money on filming.
While green screen technology is predominantly used for filming big-budget Hollywood productions, it’s also used every day by TV studios and smaller digital studios to create effects for online audiences. For instance, if a TV studio has a limited budget, it might use green screens to replace a real-world location and save substantial amounts on filming.
More and more, green screens are used in digital media by professionals and amateurs. This is because the internet and social media platforms have revolutionised media and made it accessible to everyone. Still, the demand for high-quality digital productions is strong, increasing the demand for green screen technologies, but a setup is needed.
The future of green screen technology
Green screen compositing technology has been reserved for use in big blockbuster films until now. It emerged in the film industry and was used extensively for decades to create stunning visual effects that have become commonplace and central to the commercial success and possibilities of some movies. But the future is slightly different.
Green screen technology is now more accessible than ever. In the past, it required big budgets and infrastructure to create the stunning visual effects that everyone expected on the big screen. However, in the digital age, things have changed. Today, with the advent of apps and open-source software, the green screen is used more than ever for everyday filming.
While the costs and infrastructure for green screen technology become more realistic for ordinary filmmakers, digital platforms and new media allow more people to have a stage and a voice. These two trends interact, which is why more people are turning to green screen technology to create special effects for marketing and personal branding purposes.
Green screen technology is becoming more portable; in addition, the skills and tools needed to make green screen possible on the small screen are easier to learn than ever before. Of course, technologies are changing, and the next best thing will replace the green screen one day, but for now, this original technology is enjoying a resurgence with local studios.
It’s hard to imagine a film without special effects, even if this means the stop-motion animations of Ray Harryhausen. Although Harryhausen did not use green screen technology, many of the big-budget blockbusters would not be possible without the technology he inspired in the 20th century, and beyond.
It all began at the turn of the last century when double exposure techniques were adapted to the first green screen technologies. This technology, which uses a flat green colour as a background, over which special effects can be projected, became commonplace in the 1970s and 1980s, especially in the world of movies and television. And now digital media.
Fast forward a few decades, and the green screen hasn’t gone away. On the contrary, technology has only gone from strength to strength. The world has changed considerably in the previous three decades, and digital technology has become commonplace and vital to the workings of society. In this context, it’s clear that the green screen has a bright future.